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From medical doctor to social impact leader working on systems-level change: My career journey

Frida Njogu-Ndongwe 15 March 2023

When I was completing my medical degree in Kenya, I never would have expected that nearly two decades later I would be leading a team of data scientists and policy experts working to drive social impact in East and Southern Africa. Yet this career has allowed me to contribute to the systems-level change I witnessed was needed early in my medical career. It has also allowed me to advocate for African women’s voices and leadership in the evidence-to-impact space. 

I currently lead IDinsight’s work in East and Southern Africa, supporting decision-makers in the social sectors within governments, NGOs, philanthropies, and social enterprises to be more rigorous in their work through the use of data and evidence. I’m also a medical doctor and a public health specialist by training with clinical, public health, and management consulting experience. In this post, I share my leadership journey in the hopes it will be helpful to others, especially women, looking to make a positive impact through their careers.

From treating the individual to treating broader systems

I always knew I wanted my career to make a positive impact on people’s lives, which was why I went into medicine. As a young doctor working at a large public health facility in Kenya, I treated individual patients every day, and this work was satisfying––but I was also limited in what I could do.  Every day I  saw systemic issues that affected the quality of care and patient health and survival on a large scale. The challenges were manifold and related to leadership and governance, healthcare financing, service delivery, supply of health products and services, and the need for more and better human resources for healthcare – the pillars of a health system. 

I began working in roles that aimed to strengthen health systems in Kenya at various levels, at the community, facility, sub-national, and national levels. My public health work helped promote the need for population-level action and system-level change, especially to affirm preventive and promotive care, and contributed to most of the health system pillars I mentioned above.

My career took a slight turn about six years ago to focus not just on public health but more broadly on the development sector. I got into management consulting, working at McKinsey & Company as a public and social sector consultant. After that, I began providing consulting services as both a management consultant and public health specialist. I have been fortunate to support health systems in various countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

I also co-founded Afyakit, a health-tech startup aimed at providing data and evidence support to improve health facility management operations. That was a great segue to my current work at IDinsight, which has a broader sectoral mandate–– the entire social sector. While health remains my greatest love, I am happy to work towards addressing the social determinants of health through support for the other social sectors. I’m driven by my personal goal of having people everywhere live quality lives.

Supporting change through my experience as an African woman leader

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to reflect on how my identity affects my work and career trajectory. 

Health is a profession where the majority of workers are women. As you ascend the rungs of leadership, whether you are in a private, research, government or non-profit entity, the proportion of women reduces markedly. I have been fortunate to have mentors, coaches and other advisors, including family members, who have encouraged me to go beyond my comfort zone. Others have acted as sponsors to allow me entry into spaces I would not have entered otherwise. They have encouraged me to lead as a woman – not as a man would lead – and to bring my best self to work, not to try to be someone else. Importantly, they have encouraged me not to compromise on the important things in my life: faith, family, and personal well-being. 

I’ve also found that my experiences as an African woman leader in the global health and data and evidence spaces help enrich various discussions, including how people like me are perceived. I have been fortunate to highlight perspectives that aren’t always included. I find myself challenging language and assumptions made in regular work (e.g., assumptions that leaders are men or white and the normative use of the male and male pronouns as the standard).

I’ve endeavored to ensure the spaces we work in support women, including through the provision of comfortable nursing rooms and facilities and clean and well-furnished toilets (with sanitary products in our office). I’ve also worked to ensure that we factor in the need to be flexible to allow women to meet their non-work responsibilities, while pushing against norms that expect women to bear the burdens of unpaid care and domestic work.

I encourage other women not to be afraid to change their career trajectory if they feel that’s where they’ll have the best impact and opportunities. There is always room to grow, and we should explore those opportunities, both academic and otherwise. I also encourage women to continue the fight for equal opportunities – though this fight will look different for each generation. Our achievements will be the baseline for the next generation of women until gender parity is finally achieved.