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What the new Kepsa leadership promises

Towards the end of last month I logged in to Kenya Private Sector Association (Kepsa’s) 17th annual general meeting, and what an impressive event it was.

CEO Carole Kariuki Karuga reeled off the highlights of the year’s activities and achievements, and as we heard them all listed together we could hardly believe that such a wide array of issues had been handled or that such a significant positive influence had been brought to bear on the wellbeing of not just the private sector but of Kenyans generally.

It’s not surprising that we learned lots that we had not been aware of, as so much of what Kepsa does happens quietly behind the scenes. As I wrote in one of these columns a few years ago, much of Kepsa’s work can only be effective if it is done behind closed doors and in small groups or one-on-one . So many are unaware of what it is doing (which all too often leads quite a few to assume that it isn’t doing very much), and it’s not always appropriate to shout about it.

As one of the founding directors of Kepsa back in 2003 I am proud of how successive leadership teams, at both the board and the secretariat levels, have continued expanding Kepsa’s circle of influence. No wonder it is the envy of private sector umbrella organisations around Africa and beyond.

The other element of the AGM I wish to highlight was the report by Lee Karuri of Kepsa’s Nominations Committee recommendations for the incoming board. For a number of cycles now this committee (composed of some of the organisation’s past leaders – including me) studies the upcoming board needs and selects a balanced array of men and women from different sectors and professions; some new, some renewed. Our proposals are then put to the members at the AGM for ratification.

This managed democracy has worked extremely well – avoiding the kind of over-the-top campaigning and politicking seen in other institutions and ensuring the best mix of directors and the smoothest transitions.

To take over from chair Nik Nesbitt and Vice Chair Rita Kavashe (both of whom have performed outstandingly) we had put forward the names of Flora Mutahi as Chair and Jas Bedi as Vice Chair, having earlier ensured that if proposed they would be prepared to serve. Happily they were.

In Flora Mutahi’s acceptance speech she looked forward to Kepsa engaging more with small businesses, which I remember her trying so hard to promote when she chaired the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). It’s quite a challenge, I know, as leaders of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises are so operationally committed that it’s difficult for them to make the time to either contribute to or benefit from such members’ organisations. But like KAM, Kepsa has been working hard at finding viable ways of engaging them. (Some wrongly accuse Kepsa and KAM of only being interested in big business.)

She also looked forward to unlocking the potential within counties and regional economic blocs, and here synergy with the Chamber of Commerce and its county branches will be key.

Many Kepsa members would like its leadership to be more aggressive and outspoken in confronting government over issues such as corruption and bureaucracy; high taxation; and other impediments to doing business. But as I wrote in another article nearly a decade ago, we saw that a confrontational style rarely succeeds. Rather, constructive engagement, however less glamorous, is far more effective.

“Above all,” I wrote, “we found that you can’t beat sitting together in the same room, tackling common opportunities and problems. This is what builds trust and respect; this is what builds relationships. And as we got to know each other personally, our respective labels of ‘public sector’ and ‘private sector’ faded from our identities. We became just Kenyans, seeking a better Kenya.”

I noted then that “many businesspeople were so consumed with outrage over some government abuse that they found us far too polite, too compliant, and that we were just wasting our time. But I believe that in the long run the give-and-take, win-win approach of Kepsa and its members has paid off handsomely.” I am convinced that this is as true today as it was then.