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A feminist Value System: A Conversation With Dr. Njoki Ngumi


Over the last few years I spoke to a number of incredible feminist activists from different parts of the world. Sharing deep insights about the past and present state of feminist organizing, they reflected on the complex, multi-sourced, and often invisible ways that movements resource their work. We discussed forms of resourcing that are autonomous or outside philanthropic and governmental models, which we have been calling, “autonomous resourcing.” 

The first conversation we shared was with queer activist, Chayanika Shah, who is based in Mumbai. Second in the conversation series, I spoke to Dame Catherine Healy, a sex workers’ rights activist, and founder of the Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective (NZPC). Third in the series, I spoke with Joleen Brown Mataele from the Tonga’ Leitis Association.

In this fourth installment, I speak to Dr. Njoki Ngumi from Kenya. She works with The Nest and HEVA. Formed in 2012, the Nest is a collective of artists, makers, builders, thinkers, and believers primarily focusing on making art. HEVA is a creative economic catalyst fund and knowledge, research strategy and development mainstay for creative entrepreneurs in East Africa. HEVA is very intentional about inclusive feminist values, and centering young people and women in particular, to mobilize social change leveraging different forms of investments and funding. Dr. Njoki says, “The idea of a feminist value system is that it goes into whatever your life is about, and starts asking hard questions about why power flows the way it does, or why resources flow the way they do.” 

Below is the conversation edited for length and clarity.


Dr. Njoki Ngumi:

I was a general practitioner before I phased out of clinical practice. Now, I conduct strategic consults in health and many other areas, including the arts, creative and cultural economies, and the status of youth, women and marginalized groups. I think, write, do policy work and design interventions focusing on feminism and gender marginalizations, wellness, improved communications and barriers to access, and breaking harmful social norms. I remain deeply invested in ongoing health-side discourse, specifically surrounding sexual and reproductive health. 

At HEVA, we recently developed a program called OTA, which focuses on the issues that women face as practitioners and entrepreneurs in the creative sector. We want to fund women in the creative sector at multiple levels–– seed, early and growth stages. We also provide business support through networking, mentorships and customized training. We’ve been supported by the Urgent Action Fund-Africa to design our business clinics for women in the creative sector and most recently, to conduct research around women’s economic empowerment in the context of COVID.

The Nest is a creative collective and one of the things we’ve been supported to do in partnership with Urgent Action Fund-Africa and OXFAM’s Enough Campaign is to create graphic narratives about historical Kenyan women figures using a deliberate feminist lens. In 2020, we produced short graphic novels retelling the stories of Mekatilili Wa Menza and Wangu Wa Makeri.

When we say “women”, the common understanding is “cisgender women”. Opening up the discourse to trans, gender diverse and gender non-binary populations to understand what being underrepresented by gender really means is long overdue. In 2013, our documentary archival work, Stories of Our Lives, gave rise to a film (banned in Kenya) and a book. The first edition of the book was rightfully critiqued for skewing more towards younger and cisgender people. To correct this, we conducted some more interviews and included more older folk, as well as trans and gender diverse people, and we also included a chapter on LGBTQ sex workers within the Kenyan context. 

Tenzin Dolker:

That’s incredible. It says so much about an organization when it can be reflexive, open and humble enough to “correct” course. You mentioned Urgent Action Fund and OXFAM’s Enough Campaign, can you share a little more about where the funding comes from for all the different work these organizations do? 



We get project funding from a variety of partners. Different entities provide different levels of financing. Project financing is far more common than institutional financing, but what we find is that it is more challenging to get funds for work that is specifically and deliberately focused on women.  



Yes, that seems like a common road block for many feminist groups. And in terms of the funding that you seek, are they usually international funding, or government funding, or funding from private philanthropic sectors? 


Most funders want to fund more traditional, safe and “investable” kinds of projects, and not so much the programs and campaigns around culture and the creative economy. We find that it is easier for funders to resource a direct grassroots NGO, rather than think about ways in which culture and the arts can speak to the issues they want to address. 

Then there’s the “give a woman a goat and save a village” value system that is problematic but is a mentality that many corporate-leaning funders and investors have. Data may show that ‘investing in women’ yields more returns, or that women are ‘reliable’—meaning that they are less likely than men to blow all the money lent to them. But this is a function of patriarchy with expectations of virtue from women more than men, tallied with socialized risk aversion in women. So, it’s a real problem when funders, in the name of “women economic empowerment”, become extractive and invest in women because they are better returns. Funders need to do the necessary unpacking. Why do they give to women?

Women continually cite that service providers do not understand their needs and are not listening when they speak. A lot of women also start their child-bearing careers early with the hope that they might be able to give time to their businesses and other work outside the home later. This brings about yet another problem when funders and programs focus only on empowering “young women”. 


Absolutely– there are so many nuances that can so easily be overlooked and not understood. So, in terms of The Nest and HEVA, do you think you are getting the kinds of resources you need to do the work?


We’re grateful to have received some financing, but we could always use more. Sometimes I wish funding could be more flexible. People are eager to give you the funds but may not be interested in paying your staff adequately, or want to control who you can hire as consultants and for how long. Funders also get antsy about how “expensive” women can get because of possible maternity leave and early childcare. But, of course the minute a woman has a more secure job and is financially able to care for her family is precisely when she should get pregnant. So sometimes, it is less about money from donors, and more about wanting space for newer, wider opportunities.

And then there is the question of the “S” word: sustainability. I’ve always found the idea of sustainability, as communicated to Africans, troublesome.


Say more. At AWID, we’ve been talking about “self-generated resources” and “autonomous resources,” and I was wondering if you could share what you think could be the ways in which non-donor institutional funds can support the work that you’re doing? I know in certain development speak it is called “sustainability,” but we believe it is quite different in what we’re thinking in terms of feminist movements autonomously resourcing themselves.



People with unending streams of money want African feminists to be able to resource themselves quickly in ways that funders have traditionally been resourcing; that is, within the lifecycle of a few grants with extremely fast turnaround time, and relying on for-profit mechanisms. The power dynamics therein is problematic––someone with a lot of resources at their long-term disposal asking someone with a lot less money, access, and connections to sustain themselves, and do so quickly. 


For The Nest, we make films and people pay screening fees and we’d like to publish books to sell. But we are not selling or screening nearly enough to bring in the kinds of money that we would like. For HEVA, because we have all sorts of expertise in the cultural spheres–– strategies, approaches, methodologies–– we’re able to sell our skills. We also do a lot of policy-level interventions tied to the arts. Oftentimes when funders want to pilot a project, we are at the round table as consultants. Even so, the income from selling our skills cannot cover the expansive need for all levels of financing we seek in this sector.



That’s very insightful and it’s so great to hear that HEVA is at the forefront of catalyzing change in the creative economy at the policy level. You mentioned earlier about how funding that comes with strings attached or specific stipulations sometimes doesn’t allow you to pay your staff adequately and impacts your work. Is that what you were referring to in terms of the funding that you have received? 



“Strings attached” is not the problem. All money has strings attached. What I mean is that sometimes funders want far too much project for far too little money. And this shows in the restrictions especially around how you can pay personnel, or the indignities of having to ‘okay’ every single budget line each time you want to spend. Some donors can be flexible and open, but there are those who aren’t. 


I think most of this can be solved with a little more listening and a lot less assuming. For instance, funders immediately assume that doing something in Africa is going to be cheap when in fact, sometimes it’s actually more expensive here than in the global north, simply because of the kinds of access we have or lack. So, you have to believe whatever your grantee is saying. This is also pertinent especially to our work at HEVA, because we invest directly in businesses.  We ask ourselves how we can best distribute funds to creative business owners. We demand financial transparency but we practice kindness and do not make assumptions, and nor are we patronizing towards our partners.


What you’re saying resonates, and I think that is the power of always leading with feminist values– you’re able to ask yourselves the difficult questions. Earlier, you mentioned Urgent Action Fund-Africa and OXFAM, so in terms of the funding that you receive or want to receive, what are the types of funds that have been most helpful or useful to do the work that you want to do? 



That’s a really good question. The best kind of funders are open and able to fund projects they don’t traditionally fund. Funders also need to create friendly application processes– ones that are demanding but easy to understand and not unduly invasive. I find it problematic, for instance, when donors want to know who your other donors are. I’m like, “Really? The program  your grant will support is a small percentage of what we do, so is that query important? If you want to know us better, ask for references.” Funders should want to have dignified relationships with their grantees. 


At HEVA, we have found that women entrepreneurs need a hybrid approach of upfront seed money and sustained business support. You can’t just throw money at a woman and think that your job is done. This is a “both/and” scenario: both training and direct resources for women and their communities, and the grassroots work that makes their lives more bearable in a patriarchal, capitalist dispensation. So, funders should be willing to support work that may not always have immediate impacts or tangible returns. 


The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the lack of feminist value investment in mainstream spaces such as healthcare and education. What would a school with feminist values look like? How can healthcare practitioners be better communicators so that power barriers dissolve and patients gain more knowledge and agency?


TD: That’s an interesting thought– you’re speaking about having feminist value investments but particularly in the health and education sectors?


DNN: Or even in agriculture… because the idea of the feminist value system is that it goes into whatever your life is and starts asking questions about why power flows the way it does. Why is gender utilized and weaponized the way it is? Who gains and who loses? In any sphere, whenever these questions are asked, there can be many radical outcomes.


So, are you thinking about a feminist value investment in the private sector space or are you wishing to see this influencing government policies and government resourcing for health, education and agriculture?  



I’m a “both/and” person. We need feminist perspectives in all aspects of our lives. While I believe that a lot more resources and efforts need to go into mending and building adequate and accessible public systems, working with the private sector is unavoidable especially in the short term. The focus on profit in the private sector exists at odds with fundamental feminist values, because to increase profit margins you have to cut the costs of investments per unit, and this usually manifests in the reduction of quality services, or reduced care matrices, and more. It’s even tougher when we consider that the strength of some private sectors is reliant on public service failures.


But with wider regard to feminist perspectives, they’re needed everywhere. For instance, when the government does not set up protective policies that recognize how the work of caring falls mostly on women with limited economic security and access, that is not simply oversight. It is the government enabling society to rely on women to care for its most vulnerable populations, and thus forcing them to remain unpaid and under-resourced. 


How is learning happening for children and adults? What kind of a world are we preparing for? What is the future of work? Feminist are needed in all these spaces. We must learn to hold spaces for building futures even though people, who are marginalized by gender, are being harmed and killed today because of horrifying or absent policies, and harmful social norms. We need all of us in this work, all the time, and moving in as many different directions as possible.



TD: Any additional comments from the changed context with COVID?


The rates of gender-based violence went up and the violent repercussions of that are still ongoing. Many women in dual or multi-income businesses had to focus on childcare as lockdown rules kept children at home. The digital gender gap, closure of civic spaces and the exponential rise of fascist statecraft strategies, and limits on access to reproductive health create an environment where women’s survival is always urgent and emergent. And since we are constantly trying to survive the next immediate threat, our focus is on short-term goals which leaves less resources for community building, organizing and pushing for better futures. The existence of long COVID is yet to be unpacked and the effects of all this on people living in multiple marginalizations are too many to count. 


It is difficult to have hope when considering all this, but we have to keep trying. We have to take it one day at a time, with as much help and support we can muster, for however long we can.