Kenya's supply chain industry remains predominantly a 'boys club.' For most companies, entry-level workers would be equally divided by gender, but the share of women heading supply chain departments drops at every succeeding level.
But now there is a remedy. In September 2021, the African Women in Supply Chain Association (Awisca) recognised 100 women in Africa for their exemplary work.
The occasion was the launch of what is set to become Top 100 Women in Africa Supply Chain, an event that will be held annually to celebrate remarkable women leading change and making a difference in the predominantly male profession.
This will become an important platform that will boost the visibility of women in the sector, and amplify their work as they continue to break barriers.
Grace Murichu–Kariuki, who heads the supply chain function at Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), and who is also a council member for Kenya Institute of Supplies Management (KISM), says her career journey started with putting herself forward for the hard tasks.
“I joined the authority in 1996 as a graduate trainee in the human resource department. Eight years in, a new government took over and a reshuffle saw people in the supply chain moved to different departments. I was one of those who took over the supply chain department. I led the transition team. We had two weeks to figure things out, like retraining and structuring to fit in with the needs of the new government,” she says.
“Learning on the job” and “happy accident” capture Ms Murichu’s entry into the supply chain profession. Now a deputy commissioner at KRA, she credits her rise to the top to both personal qualities such as her work ethic and focus, and external factors such as having a supportive CEO.
Her experiences echo those of Maryanne Karanja who currently heads the supply chain department at Safaricom.
A Bachelor of Commerce graduate, Ms Karanja started her career in the finance department at Unilever. Two years in, she requested to be transferred to the supply chain department which was more dynamic.
Rising through the ranks was not easy but many things worked in her favour, She had support from leadership in the organisation in terms of on-boarding, and from colleagues who were accommodating.
“Many of the challenges were around how I curve my path, discovering who I am, and how I energise. I am introverted, I energise away from public spaces. I had to learn how to maximise my strengths and address my weaknesses and clarify the roles I wanted to go for.
I learned early the importance of a personal development plan. Whereas it's linked to the organisation, it is personal in the sense of helping you work your way into the C-suite,” she says.
Other challenges, Ms Karanja adds, were typical for anyone striving to ascend the corporate ladder, such as finding career clarity, how to show up in the right manner, delivering in time and preparing adequately for presentations.
However, despite more access to education, diversification of professions within the supply chain industry and increasing career opportunities for women, the sector has remained heavily male-dominated, especially the higher up the rung one goes.
A report by John Lewis Partnership published in 2021 found women are concentrated in the lower cadres of the supply chain with 58 percent in garment and textile industries and 53 percent in tea and flower plantations.
Harassment, family and childcare responsibilities, as well as land rights, were among the top issues confining them in low-pay scale jobs.
“It is true that we have more women at the middle level in the supply chain, especially in the public service. Women tend to shy away because it becomes noisy as you go up, and are more susceptible to bruising battles as you get into areas where there is likely conflict of interest. This discourages women from going higher up,” Ms Murichu says.
But this is not to say it is impossible for women to get to the C-suites, as Ms Murichu and Ms Karanja have demonstrated. It may take a little more hand-holding, confidence and courage for more of them to walk through those doors.
“Different organisations embrace diversity and inclusion at different levels. FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] was very quick to embrace that. When I started working over 20 years ago, we already had diversity and inclusiveness and had sessions specifically for women. Which was different when I joined the motor industry or the financial industry. These caught on later,” Ms Karanja says.
Comparing her experiences working in different fields such as FMCG, motor industry, financial services, real estate, energy and telecommunication, she says embracing inclusiveness and diversity was harder for some fields.
“Organisations that are technical in nature walked a more difficult journey. There are roles women just don't apply for – in spaces like engineering, and mining or working in a difficult environment. It was not that the roles were not available, women were just not applying for them, she notes.
She adds:" The journey had to start with creating awareness in schools and encouraging women within the organisation to apply and deliberately, as part of policy, structure, and systems, make sure that females who land in these roles were supported; given executive sponsorship globally in terms of mentorship, to learn and see how to navigate.”
A survey by Gartner, Stamford-based research and consulting firm, showed four in 10 supply chain leaders reported that Covid-19 negatively impacted the retention and progression of women in supply chain roles. Only 21 percent of women are in vice president and senior director roles in 2022.
How to get ahead
How to get ahead in the supply chain:
"Have a plan for your career, and get the necessary qualifications. Invest in yourself. Sit the professional examinations and apply to get your licence through the KISM. Secondly, network with a variety of people. Women tend to shy away from networking. And this is not just about meeting people for cocktails. It's learning to leverage the networks as you progress your career. Thirdly, secure a mentor or coach to help you. I have benefited immensely from coaching. Sometimes what you need is a sounding board," Ms Karanja advises.
Ms Murichu says: "Think big. Look for opportunities for growth and challenge. No transaction is the same no matter what you are buying. Take a chance. Build your skill set. Be resilient and know yourself and take on the hard tasks, early."