Sylvie Aboa

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR | POLICY CENTRE FOR AFRICAN PEOPLES

What do you do as Executive Director of the Policy Centre for African People (PCAP)?

I ensure that our organisation promotes a better understanding of African topics, and advocates for enlightened policies towards Africa. I do that by organising debates and events on African topics; I also undertake, supervise and publish relevant research, and lobby policy and decision-makers here in the UK, Africa, and elsewhere.

Why did you decide to launch a new policy centre rather than join one?

None of the think tanks I knew about in the UK were led by Africans, although they were advocating for policies that would affect them. Furthermore, I felt that there was an urgent need for an independent think tank that, for once, would be funded and controlled by Africans, instead of always relying on grants from non-African funders with their own agendas that could clash with the interests of African populations.

"PCAP envisions a world where African individuals and key stakeholders are educated and engaged on topics that are of relevance to them"  – what is your role in helping achieve that?

First of all, my role is to identify issues that are of particular interest to Africans, be they in Africa or in the Diaspora. These issues can be very specific such as the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria back in April 2014, or something broader, for example, the UK policy towards Africa. Then, the next step is for me to determine what can be done concretely to tackle these issues. I can decide to commission or carry out a research into a specific topic, or get in touch with relevant experts or interested parties, and organise debates and conferences on that topic. I can also write or commission a policy paper with concrete recommendations, which PCAP will use as basis for campaigning in the short, medium or long term. An important part of my job is to engage with the media here in the UK, Africa and elsewhere, to ensure that we are able to raise awareness of our policies on African topics amongst as many people as possible.

Describe a “typical work day”.

My work day can start very early, at 5am. I feel more focused and alert in the morning, so I usually begin with creative tasks that often require more attention and concentration, such as writing a research paper, or a concept note, or a book, or a speech. I often write until about 8am, when I stop to have breakfast while listening to the radio (often BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) to catch up on the daily news.

What I do after breakfast depends on whether I am working in London, which is normally twice a week, or here in Gillingham. If it is in London, I will start getting ready to make sure that I am there by 10am, which is when my London engagements usually begin. These engagements are often appointments with people including PCAP interns and volunteers, actual or potential partners, customers of my leadership development courses, media outlets, MPs, or all sorts of policy and decision-makers. Meetings can be anything from a 2-person discussion in a dingy Hackney flat, to a conference with thousands of people in Central Hall Westminster. When I am in London, I have lunch wherever I have a lunchtime meeting, and often eat whatever they offer me. I usually end the day by attending an evening discussion on African topics organised by another think tank, or a reception hosted by an African embassy or another institution.

In Gillingham, things are more relaxed because I work from home, and I have a more predictable routine. After breakfast, I will spend several hours sending e-mails or replying to those I have received, making or answering phone calls, or supervising the work of my colleagues, including interns and volunteers. I stop at about 12.30pm to go to the gym – it sounds impressive, but it is just a shed in my garden with a bike and a rowing machine – and I exercise for about 45 minutes. After that, if I do not have appointments, I make lunch, feed the children when they come back from school (I have a 12-year old son and a 9-year old daughter), and then return to work – often to deal with more e-mails, or read reports, or prepare future meetings or debates – until about 5.30pm, when I stop.

How did you get to your current job?

When PCAP was created in 2008, I was one of the original five board members. Our assumption was that we would all dedicate a lot of time undertaking research and working as much as possible for PCAP. But after the initial enthusiasm, we soon discovered that this was unrealistic, as we were unpaid volunteers and, logically, we spent far more time focusing on our paid jobs. The board decided that PCAP needed an executive director, they unanimously designated me as the best person to fulfil that role, so I stepped down as a board member in 2009 to avoid any conflict of interest, and I have been PCAP’s executive director since.

Your role at PCAP is in addition to your position of Medzan Lifestyle Ltd. How do both jobs fit together?

These jobs are quite compatible because they both involve education. The difference is that in the case of PCAP, I educate people on African topics through policy papers, conferences, debates etc. without charging them, whereas with Medzan Lifestyle Ltd, using African philosophy as an inspiration, I have designed courses that provide leadership development training and I offer these courses to professionals, business executives, and young people at very affordable prices. It is important for me to organise my schedule carefully, and make sure that I set aside enough time for the activities of both organisations, as well as for my work as a writer, and for my family.

You have a Master of Philosophy - how has it helped with your career?

At the Complutense University of Madrid where I studied, an MPhil is obtained after two years of theoretical PhD courses and a 100-page research paper. This has helped me a lot with my career because the research skills I acquired during my studies are crucial to my work. Also, I had an outstanding research supervisor, Dr Esther Sánchez-Pardo, who taught me that an MPhil/ PhD is not a diploma you hang on your wall to impress people, but a license to be as original and as disruptive as you want. This is why I often come up with very original and some may say brave ideas. These qualities have undoubtedly boosted my career, as the media and conference organisers like to have me as a panellist, knowing that they can rely on me to be bold, fearless and original.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is that I have the opportunity to influence policy and decision-makers, so that their policies do not affect millions of people in a negative way. I will not engage in name-dropping because discretion is the golden rule of foreign policy, but over the years, I have worked with or lobbied very high profile individuals, and it always gives me immense pleasure to realise that I have managed to convince them to adopt our think tank’s recommendations. I also like the fact that I act as a sort of bridge between grassroots members of African communities and African and international leaders. Another thing I like about my job is that it gives me a lot of flexibility and control over my schedule.

Probably the least rewarding aspect of my job is that one cannot always influence policy and decision-makers when their agenda clashes with our recommendations. So whatever campaign or action plan you want to initiate, you have to understand that failure is always a possibility, and you have to learn to live with that.

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?

My main advice would be to make sure that you really like lobbying and advocating for specific causes, because you cannot escape that in any foreign policy-related job. So logically, my second advice would be that you must be passionate about specific things, otherwise, you would not have the energy, determination and willpower necessary to lobby and advocate for these things. Another piece of advice would be that, even if you have not studied a specific topic at university, you can become an expert on it and make a positive change if you research that topic thoroughly, and know exactly what kind of change you want to make.

Now, as I understand that your website is aimed at young women, my advice to them would be that they should never let anybody stop them from achieving whatever they dream to achieve just because of their gender. Equally, the world does not owe them anything just because they happen to be women, they must work as hard as anybody else to fulfil their ambitions.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

In addition to the research skills, boldness and originality I discussed earlier, I would mention the ability to prepare thoroughly before meetings and conferences, which comes with practice. There is also the desire to excel at whatever I do, which I think can be cultivated, though it is really an innate quality. Finally, I would cite the ability to communicate clearly and confidently with people; it's a skill I acquired throughout the years, but one which I mastered when I started providing sessions to the people attending my leadership development training.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

The toughest lesson I have learnt is that no matter how high profile, important or reliable someone seems, you should never let the credibility of your organisation or your project depend entirely on them – in other words, you should always have a back-up plan in case they let you down.

What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?

I am a firm believer in learning from mistakes; so I do not think there is a specific one I wish I had not done because all of them have helped me become a better person, a better professional, and a better leader of my organisation.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

My biggest challenge has been when I received many death threats after launching a campaign against the president of an African country several years ago. I knew it was dangerous, but I just felt that the PCAP and I had to stand up for the millions of voiceless and powerless people that this leader had let down. The PCAP board members and my colleagues backed my stance, we carried on with the campaign, and I am delighted to say that this president is no longer in power.

What achievements are you most proud of?

PCAP itself is one of my proudest achievements. It remains the only UK-based think tank specialising on African topics that is led and funded by Africans. I am also proud of the fact that we are as professional and influential as older and more established think tanks. Another achievement I am proud of is my leadership development programme. Medzan Lifestyle Ltd is most certainly the only company in the whole world that uses a programme inspired by African philosophy to train professionals, business leaders and young people.

Do you have a role model and if so who and why?

The late Professor Wangari Maathai is one of my role models. Although she was widely known as an environmentalist, for me, she was first and foremost an outstanding, fearless and effective political activist. She understood that a true leader draws strength and legitimacy from grassroots support and mobilisation, and she used that very effectively to become a unique agent of positive change in Kenya, Africa, and the whole world. I also admire her because she was a tireless advocate for African culture: “It would be good for us Africans to accept ourselves as we are and recapture some of the positive aspects of our culture”, she once said.

Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell - Executive Director of Policy Centre for African Peoples, collecting the 2013 African Diaspora Award from The Guardian journalist Joseph Harker

17 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied at: Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Previously worked at: African Peoples Advocacy, Centre for Democracy and Development

Find her online

Twitter@ChantalAboa

Policy Centre for African People

Medzan Lifestyle

Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell talking about her work

  Speaking at a conference in July 2012

Speaking at a conference in July 2012

  With Gordon and Sarah Brown in April 2010

With Gordon and Sarah Brown in April 2010

  With CNN journalist Errol Barnett in July 2013

With CNN journalist Errol Barnett in July 2013

  With PCAP volunteers Chris and Basile in May 2012

With PCAP volunteers Chris and Basile in May 2012

  At the 2011 Africa Day conference at the UK Parliament

At the 2011 Africa Day conference at the UK Parliament

  With Equalities Minister Lynn Featherstone MP in March 2011

With Equalities Minister Lynn Featherstone MP in March 2011

  At a PCAP roundtable in May 2011

At a PCAP roundtable in May 2011