An interview with Lillian Kidane, the newly appointed Regional Director for Africa

Africa is increasingly playing a leadership role in the future of sustainable development globally. I am looking forward to continuing to meaningfully support changemakers on the continent who are dedicated to making it a reality.

Newly appointed as Regional Director for Africa and Partner at Dalberg Advisors, Lillian Kidane reflects on her vision for this role and shares her perspective on the most exciting challenges and opportunities in sustainable development today. In her view, the continent is not merely a canvas for change but a vibrant and diverse landscape of innovation and progress. Her ability to work closely with partners, stakeholders, and communities across the African continent, as well as to inspire teams, empowers Dalberg’s sustainable and impact-driven strategies for emerging markets. 

With extensive experience spanning public health systems, climate initiatives, trade policies, and digital transformation across Africa, Lillian is poised to play a vital role in shaping its development trajectory. She has spent two decades collaborating with governments, foundations, corporations, and NGOs, both in Africa and across the globe, fostering systems transformation and improving access and affordability to quality healthcare services for all populations. Her recent role as a senior advisor to the COVID Vaccine Delivery Partnership in Geneva, where she oversaw vaccine allocation and distribution across the globe during the pandemic, underscores her commitment to meaningful impact. She is eager to deepen collaborations with changemakers and partners to drive sustainable development throughout Africa.

Lillian, as you assume the role of Regional Director for Africa, you inherit a substantial legacy. What aspects of this are you particularly enthusiastic about building upon, and where do you envision forging innovative new directions?

As the new Regional Director for Africa, I’m excited to build upon Dalberg’s strong legacy in the region. We have a rich history of deep engagement in Africa, spanning nearly two decades, and the DNA of our approach is distinct — we are not consultants who fly in and out and make recommendations that someone else carries out. Instead, we aim to be embedded in and originate from the communities we serve. Our mission is to empower the drivers of change by providing them with strategic thought partnership, with technical and implementation support. Our approach in Africa has always been to pull in a range of verticals, whether in data analysis, design thinking, research tools, systems or implementation solutions, or even mobilize communities through communications to ensure our clients’ strategic interests are met.  

At times that means being willing to step into uncomfortable spaces. Our vision is clear: If we are effective in our role, it should have a clear endpoint, an exit. We measure our success by our ability to transition out of roles when the time is right and be part of the shift from incremental to transformative change. We understand that the requirements around solving substantial problems today won’t be the same as two years from now and so we have to be constantly willing to evolve to meet the needs of our context.  

Looking ahead, we will leverage our legacy and evolve our approach. Today, Africa has more energy, resources, and leadership than ever before. Personally, I want to deepen our engagement, continue to evolve our approach, and be thought partners in a way that supports community organizers, organizational leaders, government officials, and civil servants to deepen and scale their impact.  

What do you see as the most pressing sustainability issues facing the African region today, and which opportunities are you most excited about leaning into?

We always aim to prioritize a human-centric approach to problem-solving because people come first. The most pressing sustainability issues in Africa today in our minds are climate change and health security, and then enablers like education, job creation, and access to affordable financing. But to be clear, we do not just want people in Africa to survive, we want our communities to thrive. Addressing these issues depends on broad systemic change, particularly in areas like climate resilience, healthcare accessibility and quality, and digital enablement. So, systemic change should involve a people-centric approach if we are to achieve sustainable progress.  

Our approach considers not only our clients but also the communities that we live within, and the ecosystems in which we operate professionally, both within and outside of Dalberg. We encourage our staff to invest in their communities and bring innovative ideas into their work, as this fosters a comprehensive approach to problem-solving. It allows for the kind of innovation, creativity, inspiration — and even the healthy disagreements — we need to engage in with our counterparts and peers to truly succeed at what we do. Our work, if done well, demands highly localized and nuanced ideas and solutions; we cannot be ‘one-size-fits-all’ sales (wo)men.  

As of late, I am most interested in understanding long-standing conflicts and supporting humanitarian efforts across Africa and collaborating with established partners like the Red Cross and UNICEF to learn. As an Eritrean who has lived in Ethiopia for nearly two decades, my personal lineage has been forged by trauma and conflict; my mother often makes jokes that ‘trauma runs in our blood’ to justify my tendency to confront difficulty head-on. This legacy has made me resilient, and I am proud of it. But I am not proud of the realities that have sent our communities to fight or of the consequences — both seen and unseen — of long-standing conflict. I am most interested in leveraging Dalberg resources to help me bring innovative ideas to such challenges.

Your empathetic leadership style is well-known, and it’s evident that you bring a unique perspective to your role. Could you elaborate on Dalberg’s Africa team and how that fuels your sense of inspiration?

Ultimately, Dalberg-wide, we want to embody a leadership style that nurtures young talent and encourages them to surpass their current capabilities. We believe in a world where leadership is not command and control-centric but focuses on fostering growth and challenging each other and ourselves.  

I believe that the innovative problem-solving we experience within our teams reflects mental wellness and being part of the external community in which we operate. We emphasize the value of interconnectedness within our community. What truly resonates with me and fuels my inspiration is seeing our team members at their best — when they exhibit critical problem-solving, effective delegation, healthy communication that involves constructive conflict around ideas, and unwavering determination to achieve excellence. 

As Regional Director, I am enthusiastic about leaning into this culture of empowerment and continuous growth. I find immense excitement in witnessing our consultants as they take ownership of their ideas and initiatives. It’s essential for us to provide them with the space to experiment and be creative, always keeping the relationship between intent and impact close to our hearts. It is not acceptable to claim good intent when the impact of our engagement results in negative externalities, as is at times the case in our industry of management consulting. 

Accountability, both at the organizational and individual levels, is the secret that makes us a high-performing team. It’s this commitment to nurturing talent, encouraging creativity, and maintaining accountability that fuels my sense of inspiration within our Africa team.

Dalberg’s presence in Africa came early in the firm’s evolution. You alluded to a secret sauce, tell us more about what is behind Dalberg Africa’s strong contributions to the sector. 

Our clients’ dedication to solving some of the hardest, most complex issues today has shaped our commitment. While several impact-focused organizations operate in silos due to the urgency of their tasks, we see ourselves as being able to ask provocative questions and shift thinking from more immediate to more transformative outcomes. Always helping to shift the focus from outputs to outcomes allows us to be conveners and curators, challenging the status quo and shifting the narrative toward a more people-first approach. 

This entails taking courageous risks and pursuing ideas that go beyond incremental progress. We are excited to support clients who show the willingness to craft bold ideas with us, and we do what it takes, building evidence, creating strategic structures and finally consensus. 

Our goal is not only to serve clients but also our partners and stakeholders, as we strive to ensure that the best ideas — and the opportunity to ideate — is made accessible to everyone.  

As for our organization, working as we do in a field driven by ideation, we value diversity of thought and experience. We nurture leaders who are not just technical thinkers but who exhibit strong emotional intelligence. We encourage healthy conflict and prioritize the development of leaders who can pursue their unique directions. In an indirect way, this also allows us to redefine ourselves in a constantly evolving Africa. We challenge ourselves to evolve and grow even out of the firm. Part of our mission is to nurture new leaders in the development field. This is one measure of our success. Though we have many examples of how our leadership transition into changemakers, some notable ones include: 

  • James Mwangi, former Executive Director of the Dalberg Group who recently left to be the co-founder of Climate Action Platform Africa; 
  • Nirat Bhatnagar left Dalberg as a Partner to be the founder of Belongg, a platform that bringing diverse voices into mainstream debates 
  • Andrew Stern, a founding Partner who left to be the CEO and co-founder of Global Development Incubator 
  • Sanchali Seth Pal who left Dalberg to begin Commons, an exciting startup driving pro climate shifts in consumption.  
  • Daniella Ballou-Aares, one of the founding Partners of Dalberg, who left to be the CEO and co-founder of Leadership Now 

And there are many more. 

The Dalberg brand is a unifying platform in a diverse social sector, where individuals can build connections, develop new ideas, and chart their path to who they want to become. Our alumni network often transforms into clients and partners, contributing to a web of changemakers. From our inception, we knew that being on the continent, immersed in the communities experiencing change, was essential, and we are always seeking new talent to keep our ideas from being locked in the past. An example of this is how we undertook a firm-wide reflection to update our vision and mission statement. Staying relevant means staying uncomfortable with the status quo. 

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