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Naji Mahfood | Shaping tomorrow's leaders

Naji is guiding Indian youth through his social innovation and cultural exchange-led programmes for building leadership

Naji Mahfood | Shaping tomorrow's leaders

What if travelling could not only expose you to other cultures but also help you become a social impact leader? This is what Naji Mahfood believes in, and works towards.. 

A changemaker from Malappuram, Naji grew up with strong values of helping people from a young age. However, he didn't know there was a way to realise his calling. It was volunteering and travelling that opened the world up to him. Today, he is a learning designer and the co-founder of three social impact initiatives that provide a space he didn’t have growing up. All his social ventures provide platforms that nurture young minds and foster a mindset of change and innovation. They seek to make it easier on youngsters to enter the avenue of social impact work, with much more ease and awareness than he did. 

A travelling volunteer

Naji’s first volunteer experience is what perhaps left the biggest mark on him. He volunteered at the Kannur Medical College while he was still in college. His five years there was also a time when the hospital was operating with limited resources. did everything from, helping patients without bystanders to even performing CPR. The knowledge and experience that he gained from his time there is what prompted him to continue. “Volunteering gave me self-esteem and a sense of purpose.” he says "Even after college, I kept volunteering with a state-level NSS cell. This was a platform for me to develop leadership skills. But then, I wondered what more I could do.” 

This desire to do more led him further on his path. It prompted him to travel extensively to meet more people and see all that he could do to make a change. "I wanted to move beyond personal satisfaction and do things that benefit others," he says. But to create lasting impact in people's lives, one has to work for a longer period. Taking the example of the medical college, Naji mentions the need to help make systemic changes. "Many of the accidents at the hospital happened due to alcohol or drugs, but it's one side of the problem,” he says. “The hospital is a temporary fix. We also had to address broader issues like drunk driving and addiction. Hospitals also had to tackle systemic under-staffing to ensure patients received better care."

He started encouraging others to volunteer as well. Over the years, Naji has devised various ways to address grassroots-level issues. He also learned of opportunities in the social impact sector, beyond unpaid volunteering. “During my journey in social impact work, I found there were full-time jobs in the social sector, which I hadn't known before,” he says, debunking a common misconception. “I used to think we do social work without any salary." Naji stepped into a leadership role to encourage more youngsters to do social impact work. 

Naji's passion for travel and bringing people together for change has taken him far and wide

One of his trips took him to Khadbamniya in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, where caste-based atrocities are still commonplace. "During our three months there, we interacted with the people and understood their mindset,” he elaborates. “We also tried to address grassroots issues, such as caste-based segregation. Untouchability still exists, and we have witnessed it up close and personal.”

He and his fellows initiated conversations to challenge established notions gradually. They found ways to make kids from different communities engage with each other, through activities and games. While this might seem like a small step, it could have planted a seed of questioning in these young minds. This could perhaps pave the way to changing the community's attitude.

Building leadership

Today, Naji Mahfood makes a living by doing social impact work. His volunteer travel has taken him to almost 27 states in India, besides Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and beyond. He has also worked with many organisations, from the Volunteer Service Overseas program to Australian Volunteer International. He is an active member of groups like Ecoversities Alliance and Indian Multiversities Alliance. 

Professionally, Naji has stayed true to his cause of paving one’s own path and of encouraging systemic change. He co-founded Ignite India, Khoj, and Take a Pause, all of which foster a mindset of social impact among youngsters. Khoj India is a social initiative for young Indians seeking to step out of their comfort zone, learn new skills, and pave their own paths. Their primary program is The Great Indian Treasure Hunt. It gives a chance for those aged 18-28 years to explore the world through the lens of social change. The youngsters travel to different parts of India led by the Khoj team, on a journey of learning and growth. The participants use their unique skill sets to solve problems they may face. Through this, they design their unique solutions to social and environmental concerns.

The Ignite Foundation is a collective that addresses “the dearth of capable leaders in India who can take initiatives and have the passion to work for a sustainable, just and peaceful world.” Naji, who has worked in the sector for almost 8 years, has seen the impact that passionate and skilled leaders can make. Through Ignite, they are facilitating capacity development sessions for youngsters from Kerala and 7 other states. Over the past five years, the team has engaged with almost 2 lakh young people through the developmental programs they have hosted. 

Naji is helping empower a crop of young leaders year after year. He hopes that these young leaders will collectively be able to bring forth sustainable changes through inventive and unique initiatives, within their communities and beyond.

Fathima Abdul Kader profile image Fathima Abdul Kader
Fathima Abdul Kader is a Freelance Lifestyle and Culture writer from Kochi, Kerala who is constantly curious, and chasing the thrill of the next information rabbit hole to fall into.