Rita Okuthe is responsible for leading the enterprise transformation to deliver business platforms for Corporates, SMES, Government and Farmers as well as E-Commerce at Safaricom PLC. She joined the company in August 2009 as Head of Consumer Segments, a role in which she proved over the years to be invaluable in driving voice revenues through her great understanding of our consumer behaviour. Rita holds a degree in Economics and a Master’s degree in Marketing.

We had a sit down with her and this is what she had to say.

What does your work as Chief Enterprise Business Officer at Safaricom entail?

As Chief Enterprise Officer what I try to do or what we do is provide digital solutions to power Kenyan businesses. We work very closely with the SME sector, we work as well with the corporate sector or what sometimes we call the large enterprise sector, and we also work with the public sector. So, County Governments, Central Governments, Parastatals and other Government agencies. We have evolved beyond the provision of GSM services and fixed data connectivity and are now at the point where we’re saying, how do we use technology to drive efficiency in business, to minimize wastage, and to provide revenue assurance.

And we can do this because as Safaricom we’re very uniquely placed. You may or may not know that we now provide fixed Broadband services that allow clients to convey huge volumes of data at very good speeds. Then we provide cloud services which is an opportunity for clients to store their information securely. Sometimes they can store it in the cloud, and sometimes they can actually store it at an alternative physical site which we call a data redundancy site. We are also into the Internet of Things (IoT) which enables users to track their assets or to track a manufacturing process.

Then lastly, we have M-PESA for businesses which is different from the traditional P2P. You may certainly have experienced this to a certain extent when you go to a shop and pay for goods and services via Lipa Na M-PESA. That is a business service. But beyond that we allow businesses to pay other businesses via M-PESA. We also allow businesses to pay their employees via M-PESA and more importantly, we link this into their enterprise system or ERP systems.

A good example of our work is what we did in collaboration with Government service eCitizen where we managed to digitize a lot of services. Like getting your passport, getting your ID, registering a company, and paying for these services via M-PESA. You get a receipt back on your phone and then after that you go and collect your document if need be. That is driving efficiency. And we have to give credit to our Government because they’ve been brave enough to digitize and drastically reduce the amount of time that we used to waste queueing and waiting for these services.

Or if you look at Kenya Ports Authority, we digitized the entire system so you’re able to track your cargo and pay for it on time. So those are the things we mean when we talk about digitizing Kenya.

Digitizing Kenya has become a buzzword, but it is actually not that simple to do because it means you take these processes, understand them, and make them digital so that there’s no human intervention. Eliminating human intervention is not simple.

One of the areas that we’re now looking at is how do we digitize the education process. If you have biometric registration of a student for instance, he or she should ideally keep the same index number upto the time they get to University and beyond. And we should be able to track that student. Using IoT, we can track exam papers so that you know at any one time that Geography paper A is either at the warehouse or on its way to Kisii Girls High School for example. That the paper is right now at Kehancha and is expected to get to the school at any time. When it gets there it is opened and we can confirm.

With SMEs as well, we help them to digitize their businesses in a way that is friendly. SMEs don’t have the money to hire a whole IT department but they certainly can get basic applications from the cloud. Same way as Amazon or Microsoft, you can get a payroll service or a financial management service that helps you to manage your business using technology but in a friendly way and from your phone.

So, that is what I do.

That’s a lot! It looks like you never have a minute to sleep.

Yes it is a lot because every customer is different and therefore every suite of services that we provide is bespoke. That is the difference between enterprise and consumer. Because in consumer I can put out a few tariffs and they’ll be valid for everybody. But in enterprise I’m really getting into your business. If I look for instance at what we’ve done with World Food Program, we have a lot of beneficiaries who live in our country. Before, they would get aid in terms of actual supplies. But to a certain extent it is dehumanizing because we should be able to give them money and allow them to choose what to buy. Do I want to buy beans, do I want to buy rice, do I want to have maize flour? And so what we did we created a special wallet within M-PESA that is specific for the beneficiaries. This wallet is locked so that they’re able to use it within the retail stores in the camp, but at least they can buy what they want.

And then secondly, all the way down to World Food Program in Italy, they can actually see that this month, Rita got rice, or she got this and that. This also drives accountability. This service is bespoke, but it’s also very exciting because of the transformation made in the lives of people.

When you look at other projects we have done like the cameras for the police, that has improved security significantly. Some people may say no but it has improved security significantly.

If you look at what we’re doing with NTSA now where we are providing them with IoT devices that go into their engines and that are able to tell how fast a driver is driving, the fuel consumption and the load that he has in his matatu. This way we reduce the number of accidents. And I don’t know whether you have realized that in the last couple of months, the number of accidents on our roads have reduced significantly. You don’t hear as many matatu accidents as we used to before. So, when you digitize Kenya it means that you improve the quality of businesses and therefore the quality of life of Kenyans.

At Diageo we’re now able to track their refrigerators. We put in a tracking device that tells them whether their refrigerator is powered, when it was last opened, whether it has been moved, and whether drinks are being served at the right temperature. Remember that at the back of this we’ve given then a cashless distribution system so if the retailer or wholesaler wants to order from a distributor, they pay via M-PESA. So what goes up the value chain is cashless and what comes down is product. This way the number of incidences that we used to have of people being robbed of cash and so on and so forth are no longer there. Over and above that, because it is linked to their enterprise system, they’re able to see in real time what is happening to their sales. Like which drink is moving faster than the other.

For taxi drivers, other than providing them with the Lipa Na M-PESA service which improves their security because they don’t have to have cash on them, we also provide them with WiFi that customers can use. What the WiFi allows you to do is to track where the vehicle is through the Share My Ride feature on taxi apps which is powered by GPS location and WiFi.

What we do really is transformational. It is heavy lifting but when you finally get it to work, it is truly transformational. So that in a nutshell is what I do every day and that’s why I’m always excited, I’m always inspired and I’m always motivated.

What does your typical work-day look like?

I don’t have a typical work-day to be honest. Today I could be working with a company in Private Sector to try and make sure that their manufacturing belt is working, tomorrow I could be seated with County Government to see how to digitize health services so that as you sit here as a Governor you can tell how many people have walked into a hospital and whether medication has been disbursed. The next day I could be sitting with Central Government looking at how to carry out a nation-wide project. Another day I could be sitting with farmers talking about how I can help digitize agriculture. Beyond providing digital services, we can get involved in farming. And we’ve chosen to get involved which means we choose the seed, we test soil, we send extension officers, we provide credit for inputs, we make sure that farmers are growing the right crop, and then we get them a market. And we do that through DigiFarm.

The next day I could be sitting with someone discussing health insurance and saying, how do we use M-PESA to make sure that for those who are not able to reach the threshold for NHIF, we’re still able to provide them with some form of medical cover working with partners like mTiba.

And of course some days I could be sitting with my team looking at what next big thing to do. We have about 50 next big things. We have customers like in the insurance sector asking how do we do user based insurance? That means that if you’re a good driver, and you have a good track record as a driver, you shouldn’t pay the same premium as someone else does if they’re a not so good driver.

I have hospitals saying to me that they want a hospital management system. Remember what I said at the beginning – our services are all bespoke. Because they’re bespoke, everything is exciting and it is not one size fits all.

Some days I’m sitting with you. Some days I’m mentoring women.

So I don’t have a typical work day, but I love what I do.

Do you think there’s justification for the world to set aside a day like International Women’s Day? Or should we work with being mindful of women all day every day?

I think the answer is yes to both. It is important that we set aside a day where as a collective we take stock of what we have done for womankind. Where we look at some of the indexes that we set a couple of years ago and evaluate them. If we don’t set a day aside then it just becomes part of the norm.

Having a Women’s Day does not negate the fact that both men and women should look at the progress that we have made, or the lack of progress. Then understand why and figure out what we’re going to do next. So I think it is important to have a Women’s Day because it creates a level of national and international accountability that is sometimes required.

What is more important than the day though is the follow through. What do we do after the day? Beyond the events and forums on the material day, how do we follow through and what are we really doing for the next generation?

As women as well we need to do some introspection. If you look at Kenyan today, we have the largest number of women in leadership than we have ever had at any time in our history because of the two thirds rule. Whether you look at the county assemblies, the Senate, technocrats, women sitting in Government as PSs, the number of women leading parastatals, or the number of women who are leaders in Private Sector, we have more women leaders today than we’ve ever had. The question we as women leaders should be asking ourselves as a collective is, what have we done to improve the lot of womanhood. Because we’ve been given the opportunities. We’re seated in places where we can make decisions. What have we done to improve the lot of Wanjiku in Kenya? And we need to introspect as women before we say we need more seats – and maybe we do need more seats. I’m not in any way saying that we do not. But perhaps there’s also a place to say, do we have the right quality of women in terms of the ability that a subject matter requires in terms of leadership skills to be able to rally a community around a vision of womanhood and move us forward? And if we don’t, what are we doing today as women leaders to help the next generation of women who will take up these positions to be in a better place to deliver more?

I think for me when it comes to women’s rights, that is the fundamental question for us as Kenyan women and especially those who are in leadership. Is Wanjiku better off because of the two thirds representation? And if she’s not, why? And what are we doing about it before we say let’s throw more women and throw more money at the problem. How do we organize ourselves better to be able to make a change?

A lot of the times we say we bring a lot to the table or we need a seat at the table. And that is true. There are some tables where you need a seat because those tables are established. The political tables for example are established. But I also firmly believe that in certain instances we can bring the table. Yeah. We can bring the table as women. Because when we bring the table, then we decide who sits on the table. And there are many areas where we can bring the table. Business. Government. Women are very innovative. We have ideas and we shouldn’t hold back in bringing our own table and saying look, I’ve brought this table. And this is the way it works around this table. These are the people who will sit around this table and these are the skills that we need.

Don’t just say we need a seat at the table. We need to move from that and bring our own tables because we can. We need to bring more tables instead of jostling for seats at existing tables. And you young people… when I was growing up there were tables that did not exist. Like blogging, vlogging. You didn’t find many women installing DSTV or pulling fiber in homes.

But now as part of the Women in Business initiative we’re saying that it’s fine. Let’s bring more women in business into our core business and give them a chance to reap the higher financial benefits that come with that. Who says that a woman cannot put up a mast? That’s what I mean by bringing the table. When you look at digitization of Kenya and some of the things that we’re doing, we as Safaricom brought the table.

International Women’s Day aside and closer home, how does Safaricom ensure optimal working conditions for the 50% women staff members?

There are a lot of things we do at Safaricom. First of all we encourage motherhood. We have a 4 month fully paid maternity leave in addition to regular leave days, and when mothers return from leave we allow them to do some flexi hours. We have a crèche that allows mothers to bring their children and have them close.

We support women through mentorship groups. And when I talk about mentorship the tendency is to think that we only mentor for work. But women are whole people and they’re very relationship centered. That is something we need to accept rather than fight because that is the way we were created. Men are work centered. That is why when a man doesn’t have a job his whole world falls apart.

So we mentor women so that they have a better understanding of themselves, and understand that their relationships are very important to them. And if you understand that your relationships are very important to you, then you’re very careful who you let into your inner circle. Because you understand that the disruption that that can cause you can be fatal.

We also mentor women on career progression and what sacrifices they have to make. And also being comfortable with the fact that not all women want to rise to the top. We need to make peace with that truth. That not all of us want to be CEOs. There are women who want to say that no this is not for me, I’m quite comfortable being a middle manager and looking after my family. And that is fine. There are also women who want to say that this corporate rat race is not for me and I’m quite comfortable being a house-wife. That is also fine and we should encourage them. There are women who want to start businesses. I think what we need to do is make sure that every woman, wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, she’s achieving her full potential in her space of comfort.

When we do that, we move together as a united front and put the ladder back down for other women to climb up. Supporting women, mentoring them and creating an enabling environment for them to prosper. And understanding that sometimes a woman just needs a day off. She doesn’t need to tell you why. She just needs a day off because she’s a mother, she’s a wife, she’s working in the corporate world, she’s probably engaged in her church activities, she’s in a chamaa, she has a side hustle. She’s running from pillar to post picking kids picking laundry… sometimes she just needs a day off. And if you’re a female leader, understand that. Sometimes there are ladies in my team who come in and say they need a day off. I don’t even ask what are you gonna do. I say go, have fun, go to the spa, do whatever you wanna do to re-center and rejuvenate.

What do you do immediately you wake up? If you reach for your phone, then you’re making other people’s priorities your problem. But instead, your first few hours in the morning should be about yourself. Then you don’t start the day on a flustered note before going to deal with traffic and getting to the office actively stressed at 8.30am. You’re late for a meeting, you get in huffing and puffing, you can’t find your pitch deck, and the whole day just goes south. I tell women to just be. And just being is not necessarily going out with the girls. It’s for you.

So that’s what we do here at Safaricom. Beyond the business and infrastructure, there is also the soft spots. And also encouraging our women to have a male mentor in their ecosystem because men have a view of just really filtering through and pinpointing the biggest problem to be solved. Sometimes as women our biggest problem in the day is that the shoe we’re wearing is pinching the last toe. Or that the make-up didn’t sit right. But men have a way of just filtering through the drama because as women we create quite a bit of drama for ourselves. We do. Men are very rational. They have a way of saying ‘forget the emotions and get to the real issue’. And so I always encourage women to have a male mentor. Don’t get it twisted. He’s a mentor and I’ll leave it at that.

Do you play a role in Safaricom’s Women in Business Initiative? How has it improved the business atmosphere in the country for women?

Yes I play a role. The reason we set up Safaricom in Business is because we wanted to build a sustainable model of empowering women. Safaricom is the largest company in East and Central Africa. With the scale and impact of what we do, what are we doing to enable women to do business with us? So we took a look at all our suppliers and what portion of them are women owned businesses and the results were not very flattering. We decided to deliberately make an effort to have more women doing business with Safaricom. Let us move women into our core business which is technology. Not ancillary services. I’m in no way demeaning the women who do décor. They do an excellent job. But I also believe that until you move women into core services, they will not have the financial might that it takes to either bring that table or to sit at the table.

So we be begun to train women in technology, starting off with the company called Fireside Communications Limited whose CEO is Rebecca Wanjiku. We told Rebecca, these are the women suppliers that we have. Can you train them to begin to get into our core business? And women begun to pull fiber to homes. They begun to support us in terms of maintaining our masts. We started getting more women dealers.

That is what the Safaricom Women in Business initiative is about. Moving women to the core of our business. And my message to private sector, can you move women to the core of your businesses? Because if you train them they can do it. But the thing we sometimes have in our heads is to give women events, decor and catering. We now have women who are doing events and décor who are some of our best fiber contractors and installers as we speak. We’re moving from the unflattering number that we had before to about 50/50. When we’re at 50/50 and not just in ancillary services, we want women to be able to provide us with platforms for technology. We’re encouraging women like Iman Cooper of BuuPass so we can help to move them forward. Because until we move women forward in core businesses, we’re not changing the equation.

This goes back to the question I asked earlier. We have a lot of women leaders. What are we doing to empower others? We’re looking also at education, encouraging women into STEM and telling them that technology is not just a man’s world. We make sure that they have internships, we retain the best and help the others to find jobs. We also run competitions that support women.

Beyond that, the issue of womanhood and supporting women goes back to maternal and child health. And that is why I’m so passionate as a trustee of Safaricom Foundation. If the mother does not survive, and the child does not survive, the likelihood of women moving forward is diminished. The mother must survive. The child must survive whether a boychild or girlchild. If it is a girlchild, she must go to school. That is the only way to get women through the ranks. If maternal death rate is still high, we’re not making progress.

What’s the single most impactful leadership lesson you have learnt in the course of your work as Chief Enterprise Business Officer at Safaricom?

What I have learnt is actually not related to my every day job but to maternal health. That this whole women leadership and women empowerment is a cycle. Women don’t just drop from the sky at 23 and apply for jobs. That the life of a woman is influenced from birth. The number of mothers who survive childbirth, the number of mothers who are able to take their children to school, and the number of girls we’re able to keep in school are all contributing factors.

One thing that make girls drop off from school for example is lack of sanitary towels and access to clean water. So that the girls walk for miles to get water, yet they have to come back, cook, and do their homework. They’re competing with the boychild and we need to equalize that. Then we have more chances of women progressing. When they progress we support them. When we support them they’re able to succeed and do better.

I have learnt that this issue of empowering women does not just start when women are 20. It starts from when a young girl gets pregnant. How do we keep girls in school so that we avoid teenage pregnancies? How do we work with some of our communities that traditionally believe in early marriage? Some of the work we’ve done as Safaricom in North Eastern Kenya and at the Coast has been very instrumental. Now you’re beginning to see a lot of female leaders standing up and speaking.

Like in my department I have an engineer from Marsabit. She didn’t go to the best schools. She doesn’t have a degree. But she’s pulling fibre. And we’re bringing in more and more of those marginalized girls. The M-PESA Foundation is also bringing girls from Turkana and Pokot and giving them a platform to move forward.

It is not enough to just sit in the office and come up with huge strategies about how we’re going to transform the world for women and meanwhile women are dying in droves because they have to walk for 50km to get to the nearest health center to give birth. So we’ve got to start from the bottom and move up.

What are some of the most touching challenges you’ve seen women encountering in your day to day work in maternal health programs?

Oh my God they’re many. Sigh. They’re so many. But the most touching one that stays with me to date is a woman that I met in Mpeketoni. She was in labour and had traveled two hours on a boda boda. By the time she got to the health center her health and that of the child were in serious complications. The facility in Mpeketoni couldn’t help her and they needed to refer her to the main hospital in Lamu. She now had to get on a boat for two hours to Lamu and she lost the child in the boat. By the time she got to Lamu, her womb was also in a mess and they couldn’t deal with the problem. They sent her to Coast General Hospital in Mombasa. We got her an ambulance but in the end she lost her womb. That was her first pregnancy and she was only 17.

I was with her on that boat and I vowed that I would never allow a woman to either lose her dignity or lose her life in the process of giving birth. And that is why we’re doing so many integrated programs in Coast. First of all making sure that a hospital like Mpeketoni can do a caesarian section. Making sure that we have proper boat ambulances that are equipped with facilities to cater for mothers. Improving the referral hospitals in the counties but also improving the facilities in the general hospitals.

In Coast General Hospital we have build a maternal high dependency unit, we have built a Neo Natal unit which is an ICU for pre-term babies, and we have built a proper maternal unit. That is the model we’re replicating. When we go to Baringo we will do the same. We will make sure that at least in a level 3 hospital, a mother can get a caesarian section done. When she’s referred to Kabarnet, they can do basic health care. When she goes to Eldoret, it is a specialist hospital.

I think it is a failure on our part as women leaders that women are going through indignity and death in childbirth in the 20th century. Why should a woman die? Why should a 17 year old girl lose her womb? Where does she start?

So we helped the girl. We took her through counseling and with the help of the County Government of Mombasa we got her a job in a day care center. But I can never give her back her womb.

When people ask me why I’m so passionate about maternal health, it is because a lot of our maternal deaths are preventable.

One of the things that we’ve done in Lamu now is we’ve built maternal shelters. If a pregnant woman comes for her third antenatal clinic and there’s evidence that she’ll complicate, she’s not sent back two hours away. She stays at the shelter until she gives birth. For about the last two moths of her pregnancy she’s well taken care of and by the time she’s ready to give birth, she does not have to travel. And if she does complicate, then we move them in good time.

Outside of Maternal health, what other programs under Safaricom Foundation do you feel are fraught with most challenges?

I think empowerment and TVET. A few years ago Government turned our polytechniques into Universities and though I’m not trying to fault anybody for that, this move killed vocational training. We now have 100% transition from primary to secondary. But we don’t have 100% transition into university. This therefore means that there are a lot of young people especially men who just sit and stare blankly. You see them when you travel across the country. We need to get them vocational training.

And vocational training is not just plumbing and electricity but new areas too. Technology based vocational training like pulling of fiber for example. Those are massive opportunities and that is something that we must do.

Why all the challenges? Because it has not been done for a while at scale, we’ve lost some of the skills we had. We’ve lost professional teachers. So unfortunately, we now even have to import say, welders.

When you call a plumber to your house today, how do you know that they’re certified? If the plumber ruins your house, what recourse do you have? Structuring the TVET environment is a big opportunity but also a big challenge. Because if we had qualified masons, electricians, plumbers, etc we’d be even closer to the Big 4 Agenda in terms of low-cost housing.

Linked to that is empowerment. Meaning that we train the youth and get them jobs. This is where we bring our own table. Look for new things and new opportunities and technology is one. What is the next phase? When you look at SMEs on Instagram for example, almost everybody is selling the same thing. How are we going to create a new future that will sustain our young people for the next 50 years?

From the recent census, only 13% of Kenyans are 35 and above. We have a youth bulge that we need to deal with and if we do not deal with it we’ll have escalating crime and all these vices.

We also need to role model right. What are we showing our children? Is it ok to get rich by any means? Is it ok to be violent because somebody has offended you? It will take time and we can’t solve it as Safaricom Foundation. We need Government, the social sector, and community leaders to get involved in creating solutions for these 77% of people who are between 0 and 35 years. It’s a national crisis and other than just criticizing them for drinking and drug addiction, we need to change their mindsets to understand that being a plumber is not being in a demeaning job. We also have to change their mindset by showing them by our actions that you need to start from the bottom and work your way up. Success is not instant.

What is your dream for the Kenyan girl child and the global female population as a whole?

I just want every girl to fulfil her full potential and to live her dream. That’s it. And that is in whichever field she chooses to shine. Whether she wants to be a housewife, a hairdresser, a DJ – just allow girls to be girls and to fulfil their potential. That’s all I want. I’m not saying that all women should be CEOs. I’m saying that women should have options to be whatever they choose to be. That is so important and coming from me as a corporate leader, not all women will find joy in corporate environments. Let’s accept that and as mothers we need to stop pushing our children. A girl can be the happiest nurse on the planet and that’s fine. Be your best self.

The 2019 Sustainable Business Report points towards reducing inequalities. What improvements does Safaricom have towards that so far?

We’re quite keen on increasing the number of women that we have in leadership. But you don’t just reduce inequalities by reducing the male female gender equation. You reduce inequalities by a lot of other things like investing in health, water, and technology. All those things reduce inequalities and by harnessing the platforms that we have like the Foundation to reduce inequalities at the basic level, as we go higher the inequalities are minimized.

What would you say to young girls who are just starting out in their careers but have self-limiting beliefs about rising to the top?

That they can be anything they set out to be. You will need to ask yourself, do you want to raise to the top and do you want to raise to the top in the career you’re in now? Because you’re just starting. For instance, I started in marketing and never imagined or set out to be a leader in technology. What I’d tell them is to take one day at a time because you change, your environment changes and the world changes so quickly. 80% of the jobs that are here today were not here 10 years ago.

Be easy on yourself and don’t be too set in your ways. It is more of a river that leads you to a destination, and not a road so you need to be able to curve and move along.

One thing that we have as women is our sixth sense. We ignore it all the time and it is always right. Listen to your sixth sense. If you’re not comfortable where you are, you need to move. There’s nothing wrong with changing career midstream. Getting to the top of the corporate ladder is great if you want to, but don’t feel that you have to. There are very many successful women doing different things. There are very many women who reach the apex of their careers and retire to do other things like coaching or wedding planning. And it is fine. At the end of the day what is important is to be happy and to be at peace with yourself.

One other thing. Everybody is running their own race. Sometimes we get confused and think that because someone is ahead of us now, they’ll always be ahead. But just like the stars in the sky, there is space for everybody to shine.

Also find peace. Find something that re-center you. Find that one thing that brings you back to what is important.

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