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The Spotlight

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The Corona Virus pandemic, also known as COVID-19, has been growing exponentially in some parts of Africa, especially in recent weeks, with the region’s total rising to 29,463 cases and 1,079 deaths, for the week ending May 3, according to official reports.

The African governments’ response to the threat of COVID-19 has been a swift implementation of various measures, such as lockdowns or curfew, to contain its spread, which have engendered loss of livelihoods for many people, particularly in the informal sector. Some 85.5% of workers across Africa are in the informal sector.

Needless to say, studies show that the crisis deeply impacts women, men, girls, boys and other genders differently. While men make up the majority of those who have died from the virus, women and girls bear the brunt of disproportionate care burdens, disruptions in income and education, poor access to health and other essential services, greater risk of being dispossessed of land and property, and gender digital and pay gaps.

To cushion the impact of this crisis in the formal and informal economies, and shield vulnerable households from income and food shortages, many African governments are taking a range of social protection steps, to support local economies and vulnerable households.

In an exclusive interview with the Amazons Watch magazine, Dr. Esther Muchemi, a Kenyan author and businesswoman, opined that one sure way for businesses and individuals to survive in this unprecedented season is to adapt to the new circumstances by focusing more on developing strategies and mining opportunities or face the severe consequences. She also discussed the impact of this pandemic on her businesses, and some of her coping strategies in this period of crisis. Excerpt:

Please, briefly introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Dr. Esther Muchemi, Group CEO, Samchi Group of companies. I am an entrepreneur, leader and author of a book, “Give Me My Mountain”, and a mother of 2. I am a career auditor, turned entrepreneur and have been running my businesses for the last 20 years.

Samchi Group is a conglomerate with over a dozen companies in various sectors including Telecommunications, Technology, Financial services, Hospitality, Logistics, Marketing, Media, Entertainment and Events and recently Agribusiness and Health. I have employed about 700 employees directly supporting about 5,000 households across the ecosystem of my value chains.

The series of sweeping measures announced by the Kenyan Government to slow the spread of COVID-19 are expected to bring additional economic hardship in a country where only 17.9 percent of households have an internet connection and informal laborers account for 83.6 per cent of the total workforce. Many workers have either been let go or sent on unpaid leave as nearly all sectors of the economy – including tourism and flower and horticultural exports, Kenya’s key foreign exchange earners – have taken a beating. As a businesswoman in Kenya, how has this pandemic impacted your business? 

As mentioned, I am in various sectors of the economy. Each sector has been affected on a different degree.

My most affected has been the hospitality- hotel and food business. Due to the ban on social gathering and international travelled coupled with partial lockdown in the city of Nairobi where I operate in. The hotel business is operating at below 10% of its potential while the restaurant food business has totally shut down. Telecommunication has been less affected as there are many channels of selling in both mobile money and credit that doesn’t involve physical contact.

Due to the interconnectivity of the ecosystem, the closure of other business has affected almost all our other business. This has meant reduced or no sales, our debtors inability to honor their obligations and redundancy of our human resources. We therefore have made a decision to send majority of our customer facing staff and non-essential providers on leave until the situation normalizes.

My company runs on the values of Care and Concern for the staff and partners we work with. We have been intentional to reduce the negative effect of this pandemic on our partners to the extent we can cushion them especially the staff. To this end, our staff on voluntary pay-cuts to enable sustainable management of the wage bill in the season of no revenues.

According to recent studies, women and girls will mostly bear the brunt of disruptions in income and education, arising from the COVID-19 crisis. The impacts can be a shock to the overall economic stability of women already living in poverty and impede their ability to purchase critical necessities, such as medicine and food. What are your thoughts on this and your coping strategies in this crisis?

In any crisis, the people who are most vulnerable are women and children. These are generally because they are much more exposed and are the caregivers and bread winners in poorest households. But due to the global nature of this pandemic, all demographics have been adversely affected. No gender has been spared. The approach must therefore be holistic and all encompassing. All solutions must be made for the long-term and very sustainable and strategic.

This crisis needs to be managed at a macro level due to the magnitude. It has to be strategically handled as it has major spiral effects on the whole economy. The governments who are the providers of essential services must do more to mitigate and reduce suffering. By providing free medicine and ensuring they reduce the cost of trade on the food value chain to reduce the final cost of food stuff. Some governments like Kenya have introduced cash transfer programs for the vulnerable and old. This is however a quick fix but may not necessarily be sustainable. This is very reactive and we cannot afford to be. All solutions must be proactive and shouldn’t discriminate on gender. Interestingly, the highest number of casualties have been men.

In my opinion, what will make the difference is the leadership. Acknowledging the challenges, looking at the opportunities this crisis creates both now and in the future and how to prepare for them.

Peter W Chacha, World Bank Senior Economist recently said that supporting small businesses and protecting jobs to cope with the negative effects of COVID-19 crisis is particularly critical at this time. As an employer of labor, what are some of the strategies Africa can put in place to protect jobs and livelihoods?

As mentioned earlier, we have ensured our employees have partial salary to enable them cater for their basic needs. The working hours have also been flexible to enable them commute safely to their homes. The composition of my staff is about 45% men and 55% women.

We cannot afford to be reactive. We have to be proactive. This will give us the energy for the long term. The fact that business is low, I cannot guarantee that all staff can retain their jobs on the medium term. My reserves can easily get depleted and thus can’t support the staff costs. Some of my businesses have models that can be scaled up to the online and digital market platforms. Those are quickly adapting to still reach to the clients. The challenge has been the traditional businesses which require physical interaction. However, I have not laid off any employees and hope that that point will never reach. 

Personally, I believe in the spirit of the entrepreneurship. I am encouraging my team and associates to look at the silver linings and opportunities within their businesses and innovate around it. This dispels negative energy and idleness during this time.

We must take care of the mental and emotional health of our staff and those we lead. It possible for them to be overcome by fear and get depressed by what’s going around. As leader, we must rise above that.

Re-examine our expenditure and costs as companies and individuals. Audit your lifestyle and habit. Ensure we are spending on the absolute essentials as we don’t know how long this crisis will last. 

Re-look at your business model and see what elements can still operate digitally using online platforms. Technology will need to be enhanced and fully optimized.

Adapt or die. We must adjust to new circumstances or we perish. This is especially on our mindsets and or hearts. Eradicate the self-defeating patterns and bad attitude of negativity. Some people will fail not because of COVID but because of our attitude.

As a leader, I would like to encourage my fellow leaders and associates to retain a positive outlook. Look at the hard facts but also maintain a clear picture of what we must do. Everything rises and falls with leadership.

Finally, I believe in God above all as the ultimate provider. He will give us the wisdom and power to create more wealth and jobs in the new season and dispensation.

Editor’s Note: This interview forms part of the Amazons Watch Magazine’s special editorial coverage, tagged: “A Gender Lens on COVID-19: Assessing the Risk Perception, Economic Impact, and Coping strategies of Global Women Leaders”, which is essentially aimed at exploring the socio-economic and health impacts of COVID-19 on women, outlining gender-friendly priority measures to accompany both the immediate response and longer-term recovery efforts, and showcasing the socio-economic contributions of women leaders in the fight against Covid-19.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, the Amazons Watch Magazine and CELD wish to celebrate the different shades of women’s achievements all over the world. Women who fought for change and so many noble causes in their communities; women who held the fort in their families and communities; women who made and continue to make history, treading uncharted waters and leaving a trail of examples for upcoming women to follow.
 
This month of March, we choose to celebrate these women in a poem, written by our editor.
 
To all women out there, please read on, this is for you:
 
Today, I choose to celebrate women the world over
 
I celebrate the Inventors
 
I see Grace Hopper and Stephanie Kwolek
 
Who? You ask. I bet their names sound Greek
 
How many female inventors do you know by name?
 
When men tell the stories, they keep the fame
 
Today, I sing a song for women
 
Whose exploits have brought us gain.
 
 
I celebrate the politicians
 
I see the likes of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Hilary Clinton
 
Who came in a skirt rather than a tuxedo
 
With chances they knew was anyone’s call
 
Wouldn’t they be better at answering phone calls?
 
And letting the men know when to stop by for dinner?
 
They knew it would be tough but they dared to succeed
 
Amidst tears and all which gave them nicknames
 
Their names deserve to be in a song
 
Today, I raise up my voice to sing their praises!
 
 
I celebrate the Entrepreneurs
 
Those who dreamt big and let their passions soar
 
Who knew doing otherwise will leave them Nillonaires
 
And so, they challenged the status quo
 
Rising early, knowing ‘’there is much to be done’’
 
Making bold moves and raking in the profits
 
No liability zone is her watchword
 
She toiled day and night and now is successful
 
As she provides jobs for countless others
 
Who will begrudge her as she smiles to the bank?
 
Let my tongue be stuck to my palette if I choose silence
 
Today I sing a song for all female entrepreneurs.
 
 
I celebrate the white-collar workers
 
Who often have to work three times as hard to be recognized
 
With a glass and pay ceiling looming over her as a cloud
 
She fights in this turf with a hand tied to her back
 
And when she makes a valid point – she is too assertive
 
While her male colleagues are very confident.
 
Though diligent with a pedigree marked with achievements,
 
Her authority is often undermined because she comes in a skirt.
 
And even as nature gifts her hormonal surges and period pains
 
She has to wear a smile through her grimace
 
Exhausted, she is home at the end of the day
 
But often, as mother, her day is just beginning
 
Yet, she lives both lives perfectly balanced
 
Which makes her every attainment weighted in gold
 
Would it not be injustice if I left them out?
 
I sing the song for working women today!
 
 
I celebrate the stay-at-home mums
 
Who may lack might or intellect
 
But chose to dim their light for others to shine bright
 
Her toil day and night mostly without pay
 
Busy with drudgery on a daily basis
 
The wellbeing of their family is enough wage, they believe
 
They often have to bear the sneer and grunts from their circle
 
To their partners and friends, it seems, they just love whining
 
‘After all they rested all day’, these ones often reason
 
If you know the burden these women bear
 
Then join your voice in this song of mine!
 
 
Kembet Bolton
 
March, 2020

In line with the Amazons Watch (AW) Magazine 2020 vision of showcasing diverse perspectives, insights, strategies & case studies that will challenge women at all levels across emerging economies, to tread uncharted waters and scale new heights, we are excited to bring you our brand new segment- ‘The Spotlight’.

The Spotlight was designed to follow and track the activities of the Magazine’s/CELD’s Honorees and GWL Hall of Fame Inductees to showcase and spotlight their new achievements and heights attained. The aim is to inspire more women as change leaders as well as congratulate these amazing women for their continuous and undying contributions to society. 

On this first episode, Reinette van der Merwe, aka ‘The Only Woman in the Boardroom’ is on ‘The Spotlight’.  

Let’s take you through the journey of what Reinette has been up to.

Reinette van der Merwe received CELD’s Global Inspirational Leadership Award and was also inducted into the CELD Global Women Leaders Hall of Fame, at the 2019 edition of the South America, Africa, Middle East, Asia Women Summit (SAMEAWS 2019) which held in Dubai-UAE last November 2019. The award was conferred on Reinette owing to her contributions to the growth of the financial services sector in the Southern African Development Community(SADC), as well her role in strengthening financial inclusion across the African region.

She currently serves as the Managing Executive, Relationship Banking Products’ at ABSA Group, and is the immediate past Managing Director of Barclays Bank Botswana. 

For more than two decades, Reinette has made immense contributions to the banking industry in Africa and risen over the years to be one of the region’s finest and formidable professionals. 

She is quite popularly referred to as the ‘’only woman in the boardroom’’, a phrase she used to describe the gender disparity that exist in top management of organizations she has worked for.

The Amazons Watch Magazine had followed Reinette since she received our well-deserved award in November 2019, and found out that the hard working, resilient Reinette was not restricted to the boardroom as she is also a humanitarian who has taken it upon herself to make a difference in the lives of those in need.

Reinette van der Merwe and Linda Tolkens recently initiated a soup kitchen where they provide approximately 150 underprivileged people with soup and bread in Kingfisher Avenue on Tuesday mornings. This laudable initiative by one of our own inspirational women, expanded rapidly and now has a handful of volunteers assisting with the distribution and cooking of the soup.

It is noteworthy that the free and nutritious meals are funded from their own pockets, though they receive support from New beginnings.

Reinette explained further that the initiative was meant to give hope to the people who tend to lose hope so quickly. According to her “Serving the hungry is a call from the Lord and we wanted to reach out to the people who need help. It’s not just about the food; we want to spread hope and His word.

Alongside the distribution of food is often distribution of copies of the bible.

From the onset, as far back as her childhood days, Reinette had set her mind on being a leader and was determined to be one as she once said- ‘’I never thought I’d end up where I am now, but from the time I was a child, I wanted to become a chartered accountant and then one day become the chief financial officer of a company.’’ Today, Reinette has achieved more than her dream.

We love the new initiative by our Amazon; it highlights why she wears our crown in new ways, and hence on ‘The Spotlight’

Way to go madam Reinette.