Nothing has been so real, and so poignant than that philosophical reflection by Rev. Alfred Apela of the All Saints’ Cathedral, Nairobi regarding the abundance of the Lord’s Blessings. When something good occurs, it usually occurs more than once and often within a short period of time. This reflection was shared with me when lost, totally mesmerized by the world events, and filled with the pessimism brought about by the ongoing COVID pandemic. That reflection has provided me with succor, revived my faith, and offered hope when it seemed that all around was fast slipping and falling away. I am told it happens to the very best of us.
The last week of June 2021 proved to be so. On a material Thursday early morning, an old classmate and friend elder Moses Muriungi summoned me to the Royal Golf Course to get the second dose jab of the COVID vaccine. My better half, Mama Laito, was very much with me. Later that morn, a phone call from London was to inform me of an offer for a senior position by a successful bidder in response to FCDO’s (formerly DFID) call for a programme to effectively realize the synergies between their objectives of strengthening research systems in Africa.
Well, well, this has been a long journey with numerous twists and turns…
I am reminded of another who walked that long road to freedom. He tried not to falter; not missteps along the way. He discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. He took a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounded him, to look back on the distance he had come. But he could on rest only for a moment, for with freedom came responsibilities, and he dared not linger, for his long walk is not yet ended. That was Nelson Mandela talking to us from his memoirs “Long Walk to Freedom”. Indeed, the late Malawian novelist Legson Kayira had also made a historical bid. He is remembered most of all for his 1965 memoir, I Will Try, an account of the astonishing journey he made after setting out on foot from his home village in the northern part of Malawi. He went first to Kampala, then to Khartoum, and finally to the United States, where he had won a scholarship to study at Skagit Valley College, Washington State.
I have also made bold moves in my career. I transited from a bench scientist to a funder when joined the Consortium for National Health Research (CNHR) in 2008. I followed Wole Soyinka’s call: `You Must Set Forth at Dawn’ to give merit-based research grants in Kenya. I was later head-hunted for the role of a Project Team Leader in 2015 in the East Africa Research Fund (EARF) was supported by DFID and fund managed by PwC. It was indeed a bold move when I was offered no office and had to do with a desk chair and a working bench where I would plug my laptop. That journey ended in March 2021.
If EARF was a challenge, then the new programme I was about to head would wield the sword of Damocles over my head. So, Where shoukd I begin..?
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The beginning must surely be my choice to pursue a university education in biology and major in zoology. That choice opened work opportunities as a Livestock Husbandry Officer (II) with the Ministry of Livestock Development between 1982 to 1984 working at the National Beekeeping Station. This opened yet another opportunity with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) where I worked until 2008. I changed direction to work with a donor agency (Consortium of National Health Research, CNHR 2008-2015). It is here that I was handpicked to become the Project Team Leader of the East Africa Research Fund (EARF), a funding facility supported by the then Department of International Development (DFID), now merged to be Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). EARF was part of the East Africa Research and Innovation Hub (EARIH). The Fund supported FCDO country offices in eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan) to use evidence to drive development impact and value for money, linking with UK’s wider science and research agenda in the region. I led in the commissioning and oversaw the implementation of a total of 38 socio-economic research projects (17 regional-specific and 21 country-specific).
This was indeed an exhilarating experience that has made me who I am. I was supported by a very talented team consisting of finance and contract expert and program monitoring professional. The six-year programme delivered far more than was thought possible. A June 2021 end-of-programme evaluation report scored our achievements in a top category A. I am proud to be a part of that history.
The “Big Four” is the term used to refer to the four largest accounting firms, as measured by revenue. These are Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG). When I joined the fund management team in mid-2015 with one of the “Big Four” to begin a contracted consultancy, I found myself confronted with a very different working style, something I had never experienced before. I was not provided with a private office (which I had been used to before) but rather had to work in a large hall, almost akin to an assembly line, dotted with large tables and desks. It is here that workers would plug in their computers and work their phones. The environment was paperless and demanded strict confidence in all that was done. Passwords were the order of the day as were the many trips for a refreshing cup of tea or coffee that was always readily available as were the numerous rooms for conferencing. The work environment was always pulsating with creative energy. Any space available was used to send positive images of work ethics and purpose. Their website was phenomenal and language, pictures and cliches used vividly to drive the message across. I still recall reading: `..We believe the most important problems are better solved together. Our purpose means working with others to help address the biggest issues facing the world in a way that builds trust. For our people, this means connecting people, businesses, and technology across capital markets, tax systems, or the economic systems within which business and society exist, every day…’ Can anyone say this better?
I was interviewed and recruited by a jovial senior partner who had a loud boisterous infectious laughter that would echo all around. I joined a month before he retired. It was he who told me plain and simple. We were there to make money. The past of working for the `common good’ as it was at ICIPE and CNHR , was now over. Plain and simple. Culture shock!
I was briefed, rightly or wrongly, that the working ethos of the “Big Four” tends to be quite alike. My chosen firm identified its main purpose as to ` build trust in society and solve important problems. In an increasingly complex world, the firm helps intricate systems function, adapt, and evolve so they can benefit communities and society – whether they are capital markets, tax systems, or the economic systems within which business and society exist. helps its clients to make informed decisions and operate effectively within them’. The firm has made a case of their approach found in this link: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/services/people-organisation/workforce-of-the-future/workforce-of-the-future-the-competing-forces-shaping-2030-pwc.pdf
Many who know me were dumbfounded and asked what a research entomologist was doing in an audit firm that The truth is that these firms started out as providers of auditing services but they’ve now totally diversified to corporate finance advice, technology consulting, risk consulting, strategy consulting, and advice on people and change.
The firm taught me how to `worry as many others do “as to what should we tell our children. That to stay ahead, you need to focus on your ability to continuously adapt, engage with others in that process, and most importantly retain your core sense of identity and values. For students, it’s not just about acquiring knowledge, but about how to learn. For the rest of us, we should remember that intellectual complacency is not our friend and that learning – not just new things but new ways of thinking – is a life-long endeavor.‘
It is here that I learned what the modern trade of consultancy entails. It is big, busy, and really hard work…! Often you are an adviser to yourself, learning to co-create, innovate, mobilize, team-build, and prioritize. The sum total of all these experiences leads me to describe myself as a scientist with a keen interest in the place of science, technology, and innovation (ST&I) in economic development, and the role of learning and knowledge sharing in capacity strengthening, especially in the Global South. I am an ardent lobbyist for the enhancement of research evidence to inform policy and practice.
My exposure working at PwC impacted and prepared me for a better and more effective working style that is really the way we need to go. Do we need physical offices? That is an outmoded idea. Do you need to go to the office? COVID has taught us of ways that we can engage without meeting physically meeting. Does that have its setbacks. It does. Mental health, not coping, insomnia etc. ? I don’t know. Too early to tell. All I know that this form of engagement does not extricate me from my family and I can sip my hooch, then practically undressed linkup and no-one can tell the difference! My brain is better engaged and vibrant. This has allowed my brain to wonder and enquire on difficult questions such as the “future of work”. Two of the `Big Four’ have already tasked their minds to this issue as can be seen from the two links:
We also need to consider the excellent paper titled ``Designing the Hybrid Office: From workplace to “culture space” by Anne-Laure Fayard, John Weeks, and Mahwesh Khan’. The authors argue that ‘The natural experiment forced on the world by the coronavirus demonstrates that the academics and tech visionaries who have been talking since the 1980s about the possibilities of remote work were not exaggerating. After months of working remotely, we have all learned that most tasks are accomplished and most meetings go just fine without the office.
But the authors warn, doesn’t mean companies should suddenly abandon their workplaces. Going to the office, they argue, has never been just about work. And technology won’t make socializing less dependent on direct interpersonal contact anytime soon. In this article they describe the important social functions of an office: It’s where people build trust through personal interaction, learn the nuances of their job, and build and maintain organizational culture. And it’s through random in-person encounters between people from different functions and cultures that many of the most innovative business ideas are born. The authors conclude by showing how design, technology, and management practices can be used to make tomorrow’s offices more effective as social, learning, and innovation spaces..’
Do I feel fulfilled? Very much so. I have had a fulfilling career. I have had the opportunity to be mentored by the very best.I have worked in great regional organizations with international repute. I have sat on boards of state corporations as well as the private sector. I have pursued my love for beekeeping and started a brand of my own. I have started a dog breeding programme. I have authored, directed, acted, and produced plays and won international awards. I have been recognized by the head of state and received national colours. Beyond all, I am a husband and father in a very fulfilling relationship.
Have I made mistakes? Plenty. However, I think I have always learnt my lessons, be it at work, leisure, family or friends.
But, surely that can’t be the limit. For I have found my God and salvation in Christ Jesus who died for me. I sing `Tukutendereza’ with passion and zeal, the way my late mother did.
What would my mentor and friend, the late Prof. Thomas R. Odhiambo, founding director of ICIPE, founding President of the African Academy of Science (AAS), say of my scorecard? I believe he would in that impeccable English say: Ochieng’, You did it!
So I too must now take a moment to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounded me, to look back on the distance he had come. I dare not linger, for my long walk far from over.
“I will see you again… but not yet..”
Najua kudhiliwa, tena najua kufanikiwa; katika hali yo yote, na katika mambo yo yote, nimefundishwa kushiba na kuona njaa, kuwa na vingi na kupungukiwa.