She is not your stereotyped geek, there is something of the creative in her. Indeed, at first sight, you would be hard-pressed to point to the ICT and banking industry which she currently straddles, as her professional fields.
The smart beige suit, gold satin blouse and low pumps while paying the necessary homage to tradition, are impishly smirked at by the short trim hairdo, array of large looped earrings, and the big chunky gold earring that sits at the top of her left earlobe.
Mwende Gatabaki looks more like a manager at an arts gallery or an advertising firm’s creative director than a business leader at the African Development Bank.
It was in transforming operations at the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA) that Mwende’s innovative flair shone through. She joined the organisation in 2004, leaving six years later having streamlined ICT operations with a restructuring procedure that was eventually taken up by the organisation’s central system and used in other departments.
Within five years, her efforts at KTDA saw it become the first African organisation and the only one to date, to be recognised as a ‘CIO Global 100’ company by ICT Leadership Magazine in the USA. This is an annual listing of companies using ICT in the most innovative way. Mwende’s own ability was recognised while at the tea firm as well, being awarded the ‘Top Public Sector CIO in Africa’ at the Africa ICT Achievers in South Africa, within just three years of being with the group.
Some of the challenges Mwende faced at KTDA included having to retrench a large number of unskilled political appointees and relatives of managers, previously a common bane of parastatal management. Her novel plan outlining what she would do with the board before taking up the job had however seen them give their approval beforehand.
She has some advice on initiating drastic change. “If you want to make fundamental changes, you have to do it within the first six months. During the interview, I had told the board that these were the changes I wanted to make and they had to support me on them.”
The results at KTDA were more than theoretical; they concretely improved farmers’ lives. “Farmers’ registration used to take six months, in which period they would not get paid. After we set up the system in place, registration took three days.”
Automation also improved procurement, and farmers payments which were previously randomly and haphazardly made, now had a fixed date for which money would get into their accounts.
Changes Mwende oversaw her department implement through mobile technologies also saw theft of tea which had been a regular occurrence at buying centres and factories, come to an end.
“With the tea being monitored from different ends, farmers saw a sharp increase in their returns, yet there had been no increase in the tea they delivered.”
Mwende’s clarity and grasp of how to use ICT to provide concrete solutions grew with her time in the field. Working at USAid on the technical side of things for five years, and nine years with the UN amidst other engagements, grounded her learning and enabled her to pick up additional insights along the way.
She had earlier set up a one-stop IT desk at Unicef, which when noticed by a World Food Programme boss prompted a job offer at the latter organisation as Telecoms IT officer in Rome.
After six years at KTDA, Mwende felt that she needed a new challenge. This time she was interested to explore how to leverage ICT to help the continent move forward and also do something with a slant away from technology on its own.
Joining the African Development Bank in 2010 as division chief, client technology, her ability to integrate ICT into the bank’s system so as to serve their customers better, again saw her get moved to the president’s office as corporate adviser.
Apart from these projects, she has been involved in drawing up the national ICT strategy for Malawi, and getting involved in the ICT project in Eritrea to help automate education services in the country.
Brought up in Githunguri in Kiambu county, Mwende cites her father, a senior colonial chief, as always having been her role model, particularly where education was concerned. “To him it was very clear that for each of us, university education was the minimum we were taking it.”
The creative flair that has proved useful in her work showed its face in high school at Limuru Girls where she loved to dance and often entered dance competitions.
“We had formed a music group and we used to try out all sorts of things.”
Central to creativity, is asking the question ‘Why’, something she avers was crucial to her approach in some of her previous work.
“When I joined KTDA I would constantly ask, ‘why do this in this way?’ I want to understand and see the value in doing things a certain way. I challenge the way things are done but offer better ways of doing them.”
Mwende’s firm grounding in her fields perhaps gave her the confidence to challenge such orthodoxies she would encounter. She studied mathematics and computer science at Kenyatta University, going on to pursue post-graduate studies in computer science at the University of Salford in the UK. These aside, she also undertook an MSc in management and organisational development at the USIU.
Despite entering a very male-dominated world (her undergraduate class of 30 had only three female students), Mwende attributes the seeming ease with which she has found her place in it to her father.
“The sky was always the limit for him. When he saw how good I was at mathematics, he really encouraged me even more. Getting support from the men in my life like my brothers and husband, made things easier.”
Mwende is married to an economist and has one daughter who is in grade three. She says it’s hectic having a family in Nairobi and working in Tunis, Tunisia.
“This is still a man’s world. As a professional woman, you want to be a good wife, mother and career woman but with this comes sacrifice. I wouldn’t say it’s easy but I’m blessed with a supportive husband and we make it work.”
Mwende marvels at Kenya’s ability to have jumped numerous stages and moved to innovating even more sophisticated technologies than countries with better performing economies.
“I’d say we’ve really progressed. The M-Pesa revolution and mobile technology growth has been all inclusive and has lowered the barriers of trade. I like the way we’re going but it’s just about being careful. We need to plan carefully, execute vigorously and follow up,” she says.
Awarded the ‘ICT Woman of the Year’ and recognised for ICT management excellence at the Kenya at 50 ICT awards in December 2013, Mwende’s favourite books are on management and leadership, perhaps not surprising since her accomplishments in large part stem from linking technology to concrete every day necessities.
Mwende unwinds by doing aerobics at least three times a week, jogging in the morning and playing golf. Her small frame belies the dynamo of energy that she is; something which she says feeds itself.
“When you are energetic, you are always thinking about how you can contribute to social development and when you see your projects working out, it energizes you even more.”
Work aside, she also has other plans. “One of the things I want to do is start an African ICT forum akin to the World Economic Forum, to see how to use ICT to address security issues and governance in the continent. We complain about corruption and lack of accountability. So, it’s about seeing how to bring about more accountability through ICTs.”
What advice does she have for budding techies? “It helps to think big and work hard on what you want. It is also important to get the technical exposure because that’s how you prove yourself. Once you have the groundwork down, aim for the skies.”
Mwende, a common Kamba name, started as a nickname. She is the second-last born in a family of 19, and her siblings christened her thus because she was the favourite in the home. It stuck and she made it official.
Mwende comes from a family that’s renowned for politics and business. But she has no heart for politics. She’s all for empowerment of the masses through smooth and efficient processes.
And, she says with a smile, there’s no better way to do this than harness technology.
This story was first published in the Daily Nation