I Wish I’d Stayed More with my Kids

CEO of Kenya Horticultural Council. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
CEO of Kenya Horticultural Council. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Word out there, albeit tongue in cheek, is that there would be no romance in Europe without Kenya. That’s because the European Union buys most of our flowers. Last year, the country earned Sh85 billion from export of flowers, fruits and vegetables . For 14 years, Jane Ngige was the CEO of the Kenya Flower Council, the floriculture umbrella responsible for this success. She retired a few months back . She now heads the Kenya Horticultural Council.

She met JACKSON BIKO at Nairobi’s Sankara Hotel.

Allow me to place this voice recorder right here, next to you.

At least you don’t have a camera. I don’t like cameras. (Laughs) I have lived with them for 13 years and I never got used to them.

I don’t like cameras either. But one has to have a nice picture for their funeral. That one picture.

Why need it be a special picture? Can’t it be just be a normal picture?

Because you don’t choose when or how you die, surely the least we can do is choose what picture they use. Oh! That will be their headache, not mine. (Chuckles)

When someone Googles you, they just find tons of stuff to do with flowers. What’s the other side of you that isn’t about work?

I’m not quite sure how I ended up with flowers because my background is food science and technology. I was much more at home in the business of food, particularly around safety and hotels. I also run my own consultancy. I gave up all of that to work for the flower industry. I had worked with Kenya Bureau of Standards and that’s where I drew a lot of vital experiences.

I also had a very interesting experience working alongside Wangari Maathai (the late Nobel laureate) as her deputy where I was exposed to environment conservation.

Tell us something exciting about flowers that we don’t know.

I hated Valentine’s Day.

What does that mean?

Valentine’s is the biggest season for flowers, and for me it was the most stressful period. There was a lot of attention on the industry from within and abroad, some negative. So I really hated Valentine’s. Now I am looking forward to be able to really enjoy it as I don’t carry the responsibility of making sure the business goes well.

Oh! Because I thought that you have a problem with love.

(Pause) At that particular time, I wasn’t even thinking about love (Laughs). I was thinking about my responsibility for people to enjoy their love. So that I could continue having a job.

If you are given a magic wand to undo a certain period of your life, take it away or redo it, which part would that be?

It’s a very interesting one. (Long pause). Well, I don’t want that on the record, but I can share with you only.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

(Pause) Err, shoes. I can spend money on shoes, I don’t care that much about clothes, but I can spend money on shoes.

Which of your habits are you least proud of?

(Long pause) I am very bad at eating. I think it’s from my childhood, because my mother used to tell me I was terrible at eating. I don’t like that about myself, I should be able to eat along with everybody else and enjoy a meal.

You’re not giving me Jane’s heart. I want your heart. Give me your heart, something to work with.

(Laughs) What I don’t like about myself? Very difficult to say, because, it’s very difficult for one to see themselves in that light.

When are you vulnerable?

(Pause) When am I vulnerable? Okay, one of the things that I am, uhm, not very proud of is the fact that my life is not very expanded, if you like. I have tended to close in on the work front and what that has done is that, it makes you less informed about what is going on out there.

So if you’re sitting in a group of people who have nothing to do with your business, you tend to feel like a fish out of water. I did not manage to get that work-life balance right. In fact, I used to be really bad.

Are you going to do something about that?

I have started.

What are you doing?

For one, I retired at the end of January. But even as much as I retired, I’ve taken on another role at Kenya Horticultural Council, an umbrella body of fresh produce exporters.

I want to steer it until it is formed and then I get out. I don’t want to work forever. Other than that I’ve created other interests.

Fortunately, my girls are back home and they keep pushing me to get out of this and look beyond the office. You know, what you call the things that you put on ears, on horses? I need to enjoy my friends, my family.

I’m now very active in my women groups. I am very keen on young people, I guess because I have five. So I spend quite a bit of time with young people, they have great ideas.

What do you think is the greatest gift you’ve given your children?

(Pause) A good work ethic.

A good work ethic?

Yes, I also think I’m a very confident person, so they have gained quite a bit of confidence as a result. Just looking at how they do what they do, they do a good job of it.

What are you struggling with right now?

What to do with myself post retirement. (Laughs) And particularly when, as I said, my children are growing and grandchildren are beginning to come into the picture. What is my role in their lives going forward?

Because gradually, you begin to feel that they become independent and that they’re carving their own destiny.

And sometimes you wonder, how relevant are you still in their lives or being able to advice or to add value? Tables turn very quickly.

What’s your greatest regret today?

(Pause) I should’ve spent more time with them when they were young instead I was very career focused, I was very work focused, and they tell me this openly.