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Cover Story

Interview with Phyllis Wakiaga, CEO, Kenya Manufactures Association (KAM)

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 04/07/2018
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1. Women are multidimensional and dynamic, and in this sense, who is Phyllis Wakaiga and what keeps you going in 2018?

Phyllis is a mother of three children, a wife, the CEO of the Kenya Manufactures Association – she’s passionate about the development of our country. What keeps me going is knowing there are better days ahead – that if we come together and focus on the bigger picture, we’ll be able to grow our economy, create jobs for our youth. What wakes me up every day is knowing that we can leave a better country behind for our children.

2. We’re sometimes struck by the rareness of your kind of success in this country, it’s not all the time that you find young women doing all the things you have achieved – how did you get here, how do you feel being here?

It feels good to know that I am in a space that I can influence decisions and policy in the country. I can drive an agenda that has a big impact on society. How I got here was through opportunities that came along the way, and God was lining up the stars to make things fall into place. My background is that I’m a lawyer. I studied law, worked briefly in a law firm and then moved to Kenya Airways where I initially worked in the marketing department, handling claims and business improvement and then moved to become the manager for government and industry. That’s really where my passion for policy started – in terms of doing the work. Policy is something I’ve always been passionate about because after high school I worked at an organization called Students Campaign Against Drugs for two years, where we dealt with advocating and educating on matters of drug abuse, speaking to students and government on what policies they need to change. So my passion started then, and when I went into government and industry affairs at Kenya Airways, I got to interact with aviation policy nationally, continentally and the entire international civil aviation space. This was about how we can open up air travel, make it more affordable, give rights for flights to move more freely around the world and especially traffic rights in Africa, which is a big challenge and that’s why our cost of travel is so high.

Then I moved to KAM as the head of research and advocacy, now passionately pursuing business competitiveness for manufacturing, but also governance of the sector, public participation, firm-level support and all the things that KAM does to support its members to grow. In doing that I spent a lot of time achieving some of the things we pushed for, as head of policy at that time, working with parliament to come up with policies that were favourable including tax policies, influencing in cases where we could. Working with the judiciary, first to penetrate the bureaucracy that was then, but under Chief Justice Willy Mutunga we were able to do a lot of work developing content for illicit trade - for training, changing the mindset regarding how the judiciary viewed cases of illicit trade. They were looked at as petty crimes in the past, but we were able to give enough reason for them to be treated as the serious crimes that they are. We helped set up the business court users committee.  We also did a lot of work with county governments at the time, devolution had just kicked in, and we had new governors and members of the county assembly (MCAs), we wanted to push the business agenda around the country so that they would prioritize creating a conducive business environment. We had an interesting time at the beginning when different counties started levying charges all over, we were receiving complaints from our members and so we had to figure out how to reach out to the counties, eventually we designed a program where we wrote six key revenue laws for all the 47 counties which are in the process of going through the county assemblies being passed by the county governments.

After that, I became the CEO, and we’ve continued to do the work of advocating for the business community as much as possible. Supporting small and medium enterprise (SME) growth, working on the green growth of the economy through our programs on the centre for energy efficiency and conservation, looking at export growth. In the process our membership has grown and  **

3. I’d like to ask you more of a personal question - If you could retire to a beach today, what is the one thing you would be most satisfied that you’ve already accomplished, and the one thing you’d want to first finish before you retired?

*laughs* Wow, the interesting thing about this work is that everything is always work in progress. But one of the key things we’ve managed to do in the last five years is really amplifying the importance of the manufacturing sector to economic growth, and because of that, I see a many more interested people asking about the sector and how we can take it to the counties; the president has identified it as one of his big four agenda items to deliver. So for me, highlighting the issues of the sector, identifying our sector as a priority, and turning the policy conversation to how we support manufacturing to grow -  is a big achievement. This has taken a lot of work from the time Betty Maina was CEO, and so it’s been a concerted effort to really drive home the message. When I read government policy documents today such as the Kenya Industrial Transformation Policy (KITP), I see that a lot of what they are saying is the things we also say, and so they have picked up and are running with some of the things we have been advocating for which is something positive.

What we still need to do, is creating jobs for our people and good governance. I still feel like we must do much more to create jobs. We cannot keep having growth where there is no shared prosperity, a widening gap between the rich and poor, the failure of development to trickle down to the grassroots. Basic things like health care and good education are not in place, while at the same time we see the looting of resources. So governance and accountability will be critical if we are going to create jobs. That’s what I feel I need to sort out before I head to the beach. If we fix that, then we can achieve our agenda. The rule of law, governance, issues of accountability and corruption – we still need to fix that bunch of things.

On governance, another thing that bothers me is the 2/3rds gender rule. If we can keep agreeing to not allowing women to participate fully, we are not going to go anywhere as a society. Women are half of the population, with diverse skills and bring a lot to the table. If we disrespect the gender rule, at very high levels, then the same will trickle through society, and we will not get as much participation of women in development and political issues and other social parts of life. We, therefore, need to implement the gender rule fully.

4. The theme for 2018’s International Women’s Day is ‘Press for Progress’. It is a reflection – as we look back at the progress we’ve made and how women behind us have pressed for progress, but it is also a call to action now – to keep pressing on. It is also a vision for the future. It is personal, but it is also political as well. When you reflect on the trailblazing progress you’ve had as a woman today - how does this theme resonate with you on a personal level? 

The theme ‘press for progress’ is very personal to me, because I feel we are still far from achieving what we need to as women. We have made some strides, and we are encouraged to think that we’ve arrived and that it’s now time to look at the boy child. Whereas I have boys of my own and know there are still things we need to deal with for them, it is not the time to stop pressing for women’s progress. We have not arrived, and we are still far from it. If we still have girls undergoing female genital mutilation, early marriages and girls in parts of this country that are still not going to school, we still have women unable to scale up the corporate ladder, if we still have boards dominated by men without women representation. Are we really there? So, it’s something that we must pass the baton and keep pressing to achieve gender equality. It’s about ensuring we have both 50% ‘s playing on a level field, and all of us bringing our diversity our differences, our capabilities, and skills to the table and achieving a better world for all. So, there is still a lot more we need to do to acomplish that.

It’s a fact that in business, and particularly the manufacturing sector is still highly male-dominated. If you look at the informal business sector, 85% of those involved are women and it means women have not been able to get the support required to formalize their businesses and grow. KAM has started a platform called ‘Women in Manufacturing’ realizing the challenges women face in the sector. Here we want to have a conversation with women about how to encourage more women to get into manufacturing because it is something that is doable. We have a number of successful women in manufacturing including our current board chair, Florah Mutahi, others like Hellen Mutahi, Rita Kabashe, Jane Karuku – all leaders in the manufacturing sector. We are saying that women can do this. There are a lot of opportunities for export that they can take advantage of, and there is an opportunity for mentorship and to create linkages with other businesses. We are using this platform to inspire women into action and participation in the manufacturing sector. 

5. Thinking back on our country’s founding fathers, and perhaps more so our founding mothers – I think they would be exceedingly proud of where women are today, and particularly in your sector. It is intergenerational and also multiracial. If you could speak back to them, what would you like to share most about this progress we’ve made so far as women in your sector?

Well, we’ve seen more women join the sector, though not as many as we would like, begin to get into manufacturing. If you’ve seen the statistics lately, most of the new businesses being set up in the country are owned by women – which is really good. 48% of the country’s SME’s are owned by women. We are seeing more women into the space of business and specifically the manufacturing sector. We have trail blazers, not just in Kenya but Africa-wide and world-wide. We have a forum in March 2018 where we host one or two trailblazing women from Africa in the manufacturing sector. More women are getting into manufacturing. There are opportunities for export and trade; opportunities women are exploiting through the different programs KAM runs with support from some of our partners. There is a lot of room for growth. What is positive is that we are making progress. What lies ahead is a lot of opportunities if we can support and mobilize women to take advantage of them.

To our founding mothers, I would tell them that they laid a foundation that we need to take advantage of and solidify our nationhood. When they started off in the years when we fought for independence, we struggled as Kenyans, and we got our country back. But we are now at a place where we need to focus on coming together as a nation. Because to achieve the things we’ve set out to, we cannot achieve them as a divided country. Addressing the underlying issues that cause divisions as a country would be an important step for us. We need to go back to our foundation, where the enemy was bigger than us against each other. That’s the same situation now, but we don’t realize it and are spending too much time squabbling amongst ourselves. If we recognize the enemy now is unemployment, irrespective of the side you sit on, coming and rallying together on national issues. Addressing the issues, we must as Kenyans, instead of sweeping them under the carpet, addressing them. Hopefully, we can have a strong nation, as we did some years ago.

6. If you had a magic wand and could fix one thing in Kenya now, what would that be?

Cohesion and nationhood.

7. As you pointed out, we still have a long way to go. The 2017 WEF global gender gap report indicates that we are ranked 76th of 144 countries, trailing behind Rwanda, but also Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. We are doing well on the health and survival front, and in education, but we are trailing behind in the economic participation and opportunity indexes, and even worse in political empowerment of women. Does Kenya’s poor rank surprise you? What are some of the greatest challenges still faced by women?

I’m not shocked by the gender gap ranking; if we are implementing the 2/3rds gender rule the way we are, selectively, then this is the result. We do it in the political space and think that it’s just political, but it isn’t. It goes to our executive, into business – we think it’s acceptable to run businesses without involving women. It’s something we need to keep consciously working towards and how we move forward is to respect for the constitution and implement policies that will ensure we achieve we ensure gender parity and equality in our country. That way we can get to where Rwanda is, with the highest representation in the world of women in parliament. It’s something we can consciously decide to do as a country.

8. Looking into the future, what do you hope will look different for women in your shoes, 20 years from now?

I hope that women will get into boardrooms and not they won’t be the only women there. Now, a lot of the meetings and forums you attend at a certain level, are highly male-dominated. We need to get to a place where there are equal men and women in a boardroom - and no one blinks. I look forward to more women participating at high levels, more women involved in all spheres of society. In Kenya, for me, we need more women in parliament, the first place where we make decisions and laws. As long as it remains male-dominated, our policies and laws will continue to reflect inequality. But more than anything, we need women’s economic empowerment. When we have money in our pockets, we’ll be able to do much more. Having women economic empowerment, and dealing with some of the things I mentioned earlier such as female genital mutilation, early marriages – I hope these will soon be a thing of the past and unheard of, 20 years from now.

Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2018 10:36
Phyllis Wakiaga

CEO, Kenya Manufactures Association (KAM)

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