Five Minutes with

Craig Nakagawa

Published: September 28, 2007
Craig Nakagawa

Image by Matthew Gilson

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

Signing the memorandum of agreement with Mozambique’s Ministry of Health (MoH) in March 2002 to implement a $5 million project to deliver vaccines and other supplies to Cabo Delgado, a remote province. It was unprecedented; the MoH had never outsourced anything of this scale to a third party. We sat there with the minister of health and Graça Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela and our local partner, and signed the agreement. It’s kind of like making your first dollar. We had a lot of people who were behind us who had given us their support and money as well, and the jury was out to see what we could do.

What’s been your most humbling experience?

Unfortunately it’s related to that memorandum agreement. When we signed it, we thought we had the money in the bank to cover it. A month later, we found out our primary donor couldn’t fulfill the pledge. We had about $500,000 in the bank at that point. Most of the needs were front-loaded in the first two years, like all the equipment purchases. We went from euphoria to crisis mode within a month, frantically trying to triage this program, explain the new circumstances to the MoH and our partners, save our credibility, and even pay ourselves something.

The next 20 months were an ordeal. We scaled back the program immensely from 88 clinics and the whole province to 36 clinics in three districts. So we had to survive from that point until December 2003, when we won the World Bank Development Marketplace event. We were the biggest dollar winner. A few months later, we received a five-year grant from the Gates Foundation for $3.3 million. But I can tell you, that was nail-biting. I learned how to manage a crisis: count every penny, and don’t give way to despair. Not much fazes me anymore.

What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?

Not to overplan or overthink things. You have to do your homework, but then trust your gut and go for it. When you’re 21, that’s the time to take chances, make mistakes, and learn how to synthesize what you’ve learned and quickly make the corrections. You can take the risks then.

Also, mentors are invaluable. A good mentor will not tell you what to do, but will steer you away from the fatal mistakes and subtly reinforce your sounder decisions.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

I hate to travel! I used to love it when it I had a cushy expense account and traveled business class. Now we fly economy class and stay in the most budget-conscious accommodations that meet basic needs, which are security and Internet access. In the field, we definitely lower our standards a few notches more; flying from Seattle to Maputo is about 30 hours, and by the time you get there, you’re shattered. You wait a day or two and catch an up-country flight to the project site, which is another three hours. Despite the mental fog, humidity, and physical discomfort, you have to dig into the work because the clock is ticking.

Another huge challenge for all nonprofits is that the more successful we become, the greater the financial burden. We’re always on the fundraising treadmill. The more programs you have, the larger the organization and the need for funding. We have to live from one donor to the next, and project by project. In this respect, we’re like an early-stage venture, which is constantly raising funds to fuel growth, to live to the next funding event.

What’s the best part of your job?

The real impact we make on people’s lives is what keeps me motivated through all of this, and it’s why I made the switch from investment banking. We’re one small player in the fight to improve health and well-being in the developing world, but I truly believe our work is saving lives. We’ve raised Cabo Delgado’s vaccine coverage from one of the lowest to one of Mozambique’s highest. Our propane company is now the largest propane company in northern Mozambique, and it’s working with the Ministry of Energy to develop a national storage strategy to reduce the country’s reliance on South Africa by receiving propane directly from international suppliers. These are fantastic, really intriguing initiatives and business problems, but you also know you’re benefiting these countries and the people.

If you had to choose another line of work, what would it be?

I’d like to own and operate a remote fly fishing and climbing lodge with a full bar and an extensive karaoke library. That would be my retirement plan, but I’d love to accelerate it. The other thing that seems hugely rewarding is to be owner and managing editor of an alternative weekly publication.—P.H..

Last Updated 5/14/09