Member Profile: Titus Syengo, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
Member Profile: Titus Syengo, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
Our Member Profile blog series features Humentum members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. This month we feature Regional Director, Program Implementation and Country Management, Titus Syengo of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). Based in Kenya, Titus (seen in photo below) has been working in development for 20 years and has been with EGPAF since 2011. Here he talks about his career path, the operational challenges in his role, and how he defines operational excellence.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your career path and how you came to EGPAF.
A: I grew up as a herds-boy or shepherd, and I think this background prepared me well for a career as a development worker. In addition, I went to a seminary and missed priesthood by a whisker, but I did not lose my desire to help others. I must say, though, my nature of helping was either to be a priest or a teacher until I landed a development job by fluke through a career in IT. I was trained in the ’90s to be a high school ICT teacher but ended up using my IT skills to implement accounting systems for companies as I waited for my posting as a teacher. I finally got posted to a school in a remote part of Kenya. As the school had no computers, I declined the appointment and returned to the IT firm.
I later joined Pact, an American NGO to manage a regional ICT for a development project that they had just won. I enjoyed crunching M&E data, to the extent that in the early 2000s, before M&E became a buzz word, my former supervisor and mentor would take me with him to donor meetings and would always give me a few minutes to articulate our program performance and coverage, mainly because I had developed a data warehouse and reporting system for all our projects. I had a great interest in data and performance. I found the use of evidence fascinating and intriguing, and I guess my supervisor at the time also saw my potential and kept challenging me to do more in the development world. My crucible was when I visited South Sudan and was moved by the challenges the South Sudanese faced before the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement. At that time, I thought that there is no better job than helping those in need and the disadvantaged, and that boosted my career.
I stayed at Pact for many years and later co-founded the local Pact Kenya office which later changed its name to ACT. However, after many years I thought it was time to resign my position as the CEO lest the “founder’s syndrome,” which we discouraged in our capacity building work, would set in.
At EGPAF, I started off as a deputy country director in 2011. My role included overseeing all our projects and ensuring EGPAF delivered on its promise, including its mission to virtually eliminate Pediatric AIDS. I oversaw program management, coordination, program compliance, and monitoring and evaluation of the country program with multiple large projects. In 2012, I was promoted to the country director position where in addition to the above functions, I also oversaw our operations and research departments.
In 2015, I was promoted to a regional director position in program implementation and country management. Since 2016, I have been supporting four countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.
Tell us a little bit about your current job responsibilities.
I can summarize my role as thus: I bring headquarters to Africa and Africa to headquarters by bridging any information gaps between the two. When I was in the field, I used to see people from HQ as outsiders who had little understanding of the field, and I used to see the field staff as the folks who did all the hard work, understood the context of development well, and had to take a lot of time responding to many queries from those who did not understand the context. Now as a regional director, I have taken time to understand HQ and it is my turn to help the field understand HQ and HQ to understand the field.
As a member of the EGPAF global senior leadership team, I provide vision and strategic leadership in the development and oversight of EGPAF programs in Africa. I currently oversee four country programs; support four country directors and four country support team members in our head office in the US; I advocate for policies and programs that maximize impact and resources to further the Foundation's mission and objectives; and support EGPAF and country directors in strategic direction, and resource mobilization plans. I also support country directors to carry out workforce planning as well as project work planning, and budget planning and monitoring, use of data for decision making and ensuring we achieve program results. I facilitate communication, connection, and coordination between US-based offices/teams and country offices/teams; and ensure that Global EGPAF priorities are recognized and country needs are addressed by the global office.
What are some of the biggest operational challenges you see in your organization?
The biggest operational challenges are related to our ability to have a real-time system that tells us where we are on spending per project and per line item, to gain confidence that we will not overspend or underspend and that the spending is in tandem with the deliverables. This challenge is compounded by the varying capacities of the countries where we operate and their connectivity capacities as well as staff capacities. The other challenge is that of aligning budgets with activities, as the majority of donors almost always want us to achieve more with less, and others would like to fund some activities and administrative costs but not all of the costs related to their full program. Also, we operate in countries considered to be high risk in security, political environment, and corruption and these have an impact on how we plan and deliver our mandate.
What strategies and tactics do you use to respond to these challenges?
What we have done in the past is to ensure that we use multiple systems in HQ and field levels to help us achieve some level of real-time data to make decisions on finances to the extent possible. We have built and continue to strengthen the capacity of our staff. We ensure we build sufficient bandwidth into our internet services to meet some basic minimum standards. Our hiring process is rigorous to ensure we get great colleagues who subscribe to our values of integrity and limit our risks of fraud. We also have strong systems to help us detect fraud early and deal with it, as well as having responsive systems that help us address any outside factors that affect our work.
How do you foster professional growth with your teams?
EGPAF has a strong culture of encouraging professional growth through a variety of channels that support individual goals, where performance and improvement or growth plans are discussed and implemented. To best serve the individual while also meeting the business need, we encourage staff to pursue opportunities through training, mentorship, coaching, and other programs. We also have a tuition assistance fund for all staff who need to grow in their careers through academics as well as short professional training provided by groups such as Humentum. EGPAF also provides opportunities through our online training portal, named Ariel Academy after Elizabeth Glaser’s daughter, and partners with other eLearning resources courses such as eCornell.
How do you define operational excellence?
I think operational excellence is achieved when we implement our programs and meet objectives consistently at the highest quality possible and with the highest efficiencies.
What do you perceive as the value of Humentum membership for you and your team?
Humentum’s trainings are excellent and always a step ahead in NGO thinking. Also, the networking events held in the country are topical and bring incredible value to our staff. We also enjoy the annual operational excellence week and various conferences that are available. All these enable our staff to grow professionally and connect with others in the sector.