Agulhas at 20 – celebrating two decades of Agulhas Applied Knowledge

As Agulhas Applied Knowledge celebrates 20 years in January 2023, we’ve come a long way from a small group of like-minded individuals to a values-driven, employee-owned organisation that continues to learn and grow.

Founded in 2003 by current directors Catherine Cameron, Nigel Thornton and Marcus Cox, Agulhas Applied Knowledge began with a belief that things could be done differently and better. Its founders saw an opportunity to create a company that provided meaningful, interesting work between a group of people that trusted, respected, and could learn from one another. Agulhas, pronounced ‘uh-guhl-uhs’, takes its name from Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet. An abstract name for a company that grounds itself in real-world evidence and solutions, Agulhas’s name symbolises its work at the intersection of global challenges as well as the earth’s hemispheres and was intended to inspire dialogue and discussion.

From humble beginnings, starting on a shared desk in a spare room, Agulhas Applied Knowledge has grown into a team that can draw on knowledge, expertise and real-life experience from across the globe. Its founders’ experiences of living and working in conflict-affected states, from Africa to Eastern Europe, seeing the impact of both conflict and climate change, had a significant influence on the company’s focus.

The founders were united by an interest in bringing political analysis into development work – a novel approach at the time, now common across the sector. In its first decade, Agulhas was proud to help drive the aid effectiveness agenda, supporting both development organisations and partner countries to implement the Paris Declaration. We were also on the front line of exploring the implications of a changing climate for global development challenges, playing a role in the game-changing Stern Review. We continue to push boundaries on justice, equity and diversity, through our work on just transition, and in areas like modern slavery and safeguarding, and aim to be at the forefront of developing innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Over the years, Agulhas has developed a strong focus on promoting integrity, learning and knowledge management in development organisations. Working with the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) since its inception in 2011, we have produced a large body of analysis across different sectors and thematic areas of UK aid, and frequently delivered the results to the International Development Committee in the UK parliament. In 2015, our influential ICAI report on How DFID learns helped to set the standard for continuous learning in the UK aid programme, and we now train FCDO staff in programme management. We have worked extensively with the African Development Bank on its approach to results management. Through MOPAN, we are helping to drive better organisational performance in multilateral organisations, with ongoing reviews of WHO, UNHCR and IOM. We are working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reimagine technical assistance.

The past two decades have been a time of vast change in our sector and the world we live in. Agulhas, too, has grown and developed, and since 2003 our founders have gathered together a team of likeminded colleagues and associates, many of whom continue to support us as Agulhas Fellows to this day. Taking the lead role in supporting ICAI in 2015 pushed us to build our team and our management capacity, and we moved to our canal-side premises in London in 2017. Lauren Pett joined as COO in 2018 to spearhead our organisational development, and from January 2023 took over as Agulhas’ CEO.

The team has grown organically to more than 20 staff in 2023, supported by its Fellows, partners and network of experts. Our technical work is now organised around two thematic and overlapping  ‘hubs’ – Climate; and Conflict, Crisis and Global Challenges (CRUNCH). These hubs reflect our ongoing interest in exploring the complex interconnections across development, humanitarian crises and climate impacts, and the challenges and opportunities these interdependencies bring.

Throughout this period of growth, the founding principles and commitment to high quality, values-driven work has remained central. All of the team, past and present, share a strong work ethic, intellectual curiosity, commitment to excellence and above all, a desire to contribute to solving the world’s most pressing challenges. While our values are shared, each member of our team has and continues to make a unique contribution to our development, using their experience and skills to help the company evolve. From the expansion of our work into new fields and geographies, to the creation of working groups and the Agulhas Unlearning project, people have made the company what it is today.

Becoming employee-owned in 2021 was therefore a natural evolution for Agulhas. Employee ownership aligns with the company’s founding vision of a team brought together by mutual trust and respect, with a shared commitment to making a meaningful contribution to global goals. Our core principles – commitment, effectiveness, openness, integrity and respect – provide the foundation on which Agulhas continues to grow. At Agulhas, commitment to quality is inextricable from continuous learning, necessary for adapting to new realities and ultimately delivering the best and most valuable work. This commitment continues to evolve under employee-ownership, with the prioritisation of Agulhas Unlearning, as well as working groups for staff wellbeing, charity support, volunteering, and others.

As for the future, Agulhas reaches an important milestone at 20 years, with a new CEO, and the launching of a new Strategic Plan to continue to support our clients’ responses to the most difficult of global challenges with applied knowledge and learning. Our goal to identify long-term patterns and drive sustainable change that improves the lives of others will continue, with more research and evaluations to guide improvements and reform. With the guidance and mandate of our employee trust, we have been delighted to welcome an intern to the team in 2022, and have begun the process to becoming a certified B Corporation, to show our commitment to having a positive social and environmental impact. Our work to drive inclusion and diversity within our own organisation, as well as others, will continue to be a priority, and a focus on justice and equity will permeate all our work. As a team, we look forward to continuing to build a sustainable, values-driven Agulhas, owned and guided by our dedicated team.

Finally, it would be remiss in any account of Agulhas’ history not to mention the long and wonderful list of friends, clients, partners and people who have helped to make the company what it is today. Our network of colleagues, Fellows, current and ex-employees, have all contributed in invaluable ways to the growth, learning and future of the company, and to its high quality and meaningful work along the way. Reflecting on 20 years of Agulhas Applied Knowledge, it’s incredible to think how many people have shaped its path and brought their expertise and enthusiasm for doing good to our organisation. We are grateful to all of them, and look forward with anticipation, hope and excitement to the next 20 years.

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