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The iron lady of public service

Esther Koimett and then Permanent Secretary
Esther Koimett and then Permanent Secretary Joseph Kinyua have a light moment as they appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee PSC meeting in Nairobi, April 12, 2012. They were answering into the De La Rue minting saga. Photo/File 

Esther Koimett welcomes us into her office with a wide smile. Her body, respect and welcoming grin have remained unchanged over the 25 years that she has been in the Civil Service.

The secret to her fitness and enviable physique, she says, has to do with her regular routine of taking a walk up the stairs from her office on 2nd floor to the 15th floor where her boss sits.

But apart from that, she swims whenever time allows. These are two activities she has kept to over the years. This is how she has been able to deal with the pressures of her demanding job, evident from the stack of files in every corner of her office.

“This (the papers) is my job. This is what I deal with on a daily basis,” she says, talking about the piles of papers in her cabinet and side table.

It’s in this very office that government transactions worth billions of shillings have been hatched and concluded.

These include privatisation of the national carrier Kenya Airways, KCB, Housing Finance, TPS Serena, Mumias Sugar Company Ltd, Safaricom Ltd, KenGen, Kenya Railways Corporation and Kenya-Re either through Initial Public Offering (IPO) or by getting a strategic investor, through sale of government owned stakes.

It’s these transactions that Esther takes pride in. More so for the sheer fact that they have contributed significantly in building the capital market, to what it is today.

“The impact privatisation has had on the Nairobi Securities Exchange has been tremendous. We have given a lot of depth to the NSE through the privatisation programme,” says Esther as she takes stock of her milestones at the National Treasury. 

As the Investment secretary, Esther’s work involves looking at government institutions and recommending whether they should be sold to private investors through a common process referred to as privatisation or not.

At present, her team is waiting for the conclusion of two transactions that already got Parliament’s blessings, the sale of government shares at Kenya Wines Agency Ltd (Kwal) and three high-end hotels namely the Hilton and Inter Continental and the Serena Mountain Lodge in the Mt Kenya National Park National Park.

Privatisation of publicly-owned sugar companies, Kenya Meat Commission, New KCC and 13 other state institutions are some of the others that her privatisation team are working on.

Although she acknowledges that her job is tough, Esther who is a technocrat, wife and a  mother of four - a daughter, two sons and a daughter-in-law - has learnt over time to balance family and career.

“I’m much more of an office-to-home person. My life is between my work and my family,” she says. Even though she admits balancing the two has not been easy.

“Sometimes to balance that time, when you have a young family and a demanding job, can be a little difficult.  But I am lucky that I have a very supportive husband,” she adds.

She believes women can juggle between family and career without compromising either. “I often tell young mothers, it’s really important to spend time with your children when they are young. We need, as mothers, to find that balance. Personally, I believe some of the challenges we are seeing in society today among our youth, may have to do with the role of the mother in bringing up the children and shaping their values.”

Esther’s rise to the big seat, she says, was not something she envisioned in life, as a young girl growing up in the village in Tambach in Elgeyo Marakwet. Her childhood was ordinary, similar to that enjoyed by her peers.

“I grew up in the village like most Kenyans my age, a normal childhood. I suppose I always aspired to work to the best of my ability in whatever God gave me to do. It’s just been a growth process,” she says.

She spent the earlier part of her school life in Kessup Girls in Tambach before moving to the Elgeyo border. She later went on to study for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Nairobi, after which her career took off.

But unlike today’s modern woman, marriage for the Master of Business Administration graduate was a central part of her life. “I grew up at a time when the script was drawn - you went to school (if you were lucky), got married and had kids, this was the life.”

But even so, she doesn’t regret. It’s her family that has given her the support she needs in her private life, which she has kept away from the public for years and throughout her long career.

“Ultimately, the most important unit of society is a family. It’s unfortunate that sometimes it has to be a choice of either or for some women but I think we should be able to thrive in all these aspects of our lives,” she says.

She feels a friendly policy environment for working mothers needs to be embraced to help women balance the two.

Christianity and family are the two values she holds dear.

Support

“At my age now, when I think about us growing up in the village, your mother is the one who brought you up, she disciplined you, taught you work ethics and so on. We weren’t brought up by maids but by our mothers. And this is the difference because we grew up holistically. I think as a society, we need to look at that and learn from it. As employers, we need to support young working mothers to nurture their families and careers. I’m happy that some private sector companies, have crèches. More of the need to embrace this,” she adds.

But how easy has it been for this 57-year-old technocrat to navigate the career ladder in a male-dominated world? “Throughout my career, I have never really stopped to look at myself as a woman. I’m just a Kenyan doing my job to the best of my ability,” she says.

The relationship she enjoys with her colleagues, people and mentorship from her bosses, she says has been a major part of her growth process.

She owes a lot to three people who have impacted her life positively - the late Silas Ita, former director Investment Promotion Council, George Mitine, former Investment secretary and Joseph Kinyua, who was Treasury PS and is the current head of Civil Service.

“I have had very good bosses. For example, when we were at the Investment Promotion Council, we had the late Silas Ita. He was a very empowering boss. He trained us, took us to investment promotion trips overseas and exposed us to the world. If there were meetings in the ministry, he would tag us along to interact with people, principal secretaries and so on,” she recollects.

“George Mitine used to be in this very office (her current office). He was also an empowering boss. If you did your work well, he appreciated and he gave you the space to grow. He defended you if issues arose and so on,” Esther says of her former boss.

Esther would later, for a long time, serve under Joseph Kinyua, a man who she says, pushed them to work hard.

“He is also a very empowering person and hardworking too. He leads from the front and you work hard because your boss works hard, he listens and gives guidance. I think I have been lucky in that way. Having very supportive bosses and then getting the opportunity to work and learn,” Esther says.

As Esther nears retirement, she is doing the same with her juniors. Inspiring and guiding them. She hopes that in future, when she hangs her Civil Service cap, she will find a role in the private sector boards.

But farming will also be part of her life too. “Farming is good because you plant and watch things grow,” she says.

Does she have regrets for any deals gone wrong? “The privatisation process is quite challenging. You make a transaction the outcome doesn’t come out as it was intended. And sometimes the conversation when reviewing, what has happened doesn’t always appreciate the situation on the ground,” says Esther.

KPTC, which was divided into three including Telkom Kenya, a France majority-owned company, is a good example of transactions that have rebounded.

Learning from failed dealings, Esther has one important observation.

“This is my personal view, from experience over time. Perhaps what we need to do is to get our own private sector who understands this market to go out there and form the relationships. If we can get a Kenyan consortium to go out there and form a partnership with a company that has this kind of skill or management, because the private sector understands our market  and how to run things  in this market. Maybe we should be a bit open that way.”

Local companies have often being locked out of privatisation for lack of experience and skills which international firms thrive in.

Such setbacks, exposure, coupled by the successes on denationalisation, are what have made Esther who she is today. But not forgetting the fun office environment especially when they are busy preparing for transactions. “In this office, we laugh a lot,” she says. Laughter and animated transactions keep them alive.

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