[Editor’s note: Emily Endres, Program Officer at Results for Development (R4D), recently interviewed Dr. Muyi Aina, Managing Partner and Founder of Solina Group, a Nigeria-based consulting firm dedicated to improving the effectiveness of its clients which include governments, businesses, academic institutions and development organizations.
Muyi is a seasoned management consultant and public health professional with a track record of success in developing innovative and sustainable models that leverage private sector assets for the public good, facilitating public-private partnerships, and supporting young innovators in Nigeria. This interview was conducted in the context of a long-standing partnership between R4D and Solina on the Center for Health Market Innovations.
Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, and separated into two parts. Below is the first blog in this series. To read Part II of our conversation with Dr. Aina, click here.]
PART 1: How Solina Group changed the game and the founder’s advice for other growing organizations
You helped found Solina Group in 2010. Tell me that story. Why form your own organization in Nigeria instead of working with an existing consulting firm or development organization? What gap or need did you see that you wanted to address?
Dr. Aina: All the decisions we made leading up to the founding of Solina were motivated by an attempt to make more impact by the work we were doing. I started out my career as a clinician, and later got more training in public health. During my studies, I noticed that the real problem was in the systems around healthcare delivery and that a lot of the things we struggled with in delivering services in global health had solutions in the private sector — things like supply chain management and logistics and efficiency and a focus on results. I wanted to learn more about these private sector methodologies so I sought out an opportunity in a global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company. I did that for a couple of years and really loved it, but very quickly I came back to my original dream of working in Africa and specifically in Nigeria.
I saw a few acute problems that I wanted to help address in the Nigerian health system, but there wasn’t a platform available at the time to engage with the health system effectively, so I worked with a couple of folks to create one. That work evolved into Solina.
To get a little more specific about what those gaps were that I was trying to address: there were a lot of international organizations and institutions working in the health system space in Nigeria, but they lacked the performance management and output-mindedness and innovation and efficiency of the private sector. It seemed that everybody had been doing the same things for years without achieving better results. The narrative I couldn’t come to terms with was that the government was made up of broken systems that were hard to fix so it was okay to do a lot of work but not achieve much. I just didn’t buy that. So, I wondered if there was some way that we could try to link private sector methodologies with the problems that were in the public and development sectors at the time. That’s the journey we took to get here, and we started with a focus in health.
Solina has grown tremendously since its beginning just 7 years ago. What have been some of Solina’s achievements that you’re most proud of? How has innovation and learning played a role in your success?
Dr. Aina: The thing that I’m personally most proud of is the kind of talent we’ve been able to inject into the development sector. It used to be that the sharpest minds and smartest young people didn’t go to the development sector—they went to the private sector. They went to do things like telecoms because there was more money and it just seemed more exciting. But we had a different model. We had to compete with these large international development firms, so we had a very aggressive model of targeting very bright young people and training them —building their skills in how to think about issues, analyze things and make decisions. Very quickly, we started to build this critical mass of people and became known around Nigeria for our ability to find and nurture incredible talents.
The second thing I’m really proud of is the way we work at Solina. We have a very private-sector-like model. It’s all about results. If you don’t show results, there’s no excuse. We think about receiving grant money like receiving money for a service, so the customer needs to be satisfied. Imagine you buy a shirt from me, and I give you a shirt without buttons. Maybe I have a lot of good reasons why the shirt didn’t have buttons — the button manufacturer didn’t show up or something — but you would take your money back, and never buy a shirt from me again. That’s our mindset. What’s happened over time was that investors and donors picked up on it and bought into it and it raised the bar for everyone else in that space. We think that this precedence-setting has led to a system-wide improvement in the quality of work produced by folks in the development sector.
What’s different about Solina is that we don’t go into anything having all the answers and knowing exactly what we’re going to do. We plan about six months or a year at a time and then we’re really intentional about collecting and using data. We look at that data and when it’s not trending the way we want, we react quickly and change our approach. That’s been really helpful, and I think donors and partners can see that we’re doing something different.
Solina has really changed the way that development is done in Nigeria. What advice do you have for other organizations like yours that are working to strengthen health systems in their countries?
Dr. Aina: First, it’s never an easy journey. You have to really focus on the change you want to make. One of the things we say here, which I’ve found has been a really good approach to keeping people at the center of the work, is that beyond the words “innovation,” “change,” “delivery,” “programs,” whatever it is — there are human beings. Ultimately, what we’re really trying to do is change people’s lives. It’s easy to lose track of that in the midst of the day-to-day work. When we stay focused on those people affected by our work, we understand that when we make mistakes in our judgement, it could affect someone’s life. It could affect their child. So it doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes sometimes, but when you do, you won’t take it with levity. You’ll take it seriously and pay a lot of attention to it.
The second thing is, it’s going to be hard and you will run into bottlenecks. There are people who have been doing development work for 30 or 40 years and nothing has changed and they believe nothing can change. You will run into a lot of people like that and it can really dampen your spirit, but you just have to keep trying because it’s the right thing to do. You have to stand firm to try to do things differently. I remember talking to someone when we were trying to start Solina who had been working in public health his whole life. He said, “What do you know? When did you graduate from medical school? You’re just a kid. These problems are bigger than you and you’re not going to be able to solve them.” The same man called recently and he said, “Hey, do you remember that conversation we had about six years ago?” I said, yes sir. He said, “You know, you and a couple of others are running us old hands out of the show. You guys are taking over and I applaud what you’ve done because you’ve brought a new way of doing things and we can’t keep up.” So, it’s recognizing and respecting those voices of experience but also knowing that you have to do what’s right by yourself in the end.
The third thing is focusing on people. You can’t get superior results by working with average people. So you have to find superior people and nurture them. And superior people want to be successful and you have to create that opportunity to grow and to do things that are incrementally beyond their abilities.
Finally, it’s about the ethics of the business. I think in this environment it’s very easy to blur the lines between what’s ethical and not ethical. Everybody knows right from wrong and people sometimes pretend that right can sometimes overlap with wrong and I don’t really believe that. I think there’s a very clear distinction between the two and you need to decide what side you’re on.
What’s next for Solina?
Dr. Aina: One thing we’re really interested in is taking the tools and approaches we’ve developed in the health sector, and see how we can use some of those in education. For our work in innovation, I’ve been thinking about how to effectively build something and take it to scale. There are innovations that are start-ups in Silicon Valley that go national in a few years but we’ve not done that here yet. We hope to explore more opportunities to overcome the barriers that might stand in our way of scaling and making lasting impact.
Click here to read Part II of our conversation with Dr. Muyi Aina.