Florence Mutua: Why I quit UN job to join elective politics

Former Busia Woman Rep Florence Mutua.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Florence Mutua joined the Busia woman representative race in 2013 and won, retaining the seat in 2017.
  • She threw her hat into the gubernatorial ring last year but lost the contest.

Before 2012, the idea of leaving a rewarding position at the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) for a career in politics had never crossed the mind of former Busia Woman Representative Florence Mwikali Mutua.

But as the 2013 General Election approached, pressure began to mount on her. Friends and relatives, eager to see her make history as the first Busia Woman Representative, encouraged her to enter the political arena.

“I had never once contemplated entering the world of politics before, but the persistent encouragement from my friends and family became overwhelming. My primary concern was leaving the security of a well-paying and comfortable job at the UN for an uncertain path.

“Eventually, I acquiesced, and the most challenging decision I've ever made was resigning from the UN,” says Ms Mutua, who had held various positions at Unicef, including programme assistant, human resource assistant, and operations roles.

She quickly embarked on the campaign trail and won the election. She was re-elected in 2017.

“My re-election in 2017 was a smooth journey, largely due to the hard work I put in and my ability to deliver on the commitments I had made.”

Genetically modified organisms

For the 10 years she was in the National Assembly, Ms Mutua served in the Agriculture committee that gave her the opportunity to actively advocate the lifting of the ban on genetically modified (GMO) crops, including BT cotton, which had been imposed just a year before she got to Parliament.

Last year, she was among 10 African leaders who were honoured in Malawi by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (Ofab) for promoting the adoption of biotech products in agriculture, both within and outside Parliament.

“One of Ms Mutua's standout achievements is her relentless advocacy for the adoption of BT cotton in Kenya. She played a crucial role in pushing for the final steps in the landmark BT cotton cultivation, leaving an indelible mark on the progress of biotechnology adoption in the country,” Ofab said in its brief before presenting the award.

In 2014, Ms Mutua was among the leaders who successfully petitioned the European Union to rescind its earlier statement that Kenyan farmers would fail to find a market in the EU if the country lifted the ban on genetically modified crops.

“Why are developed countries that are able to feed their people coercing us into remaining backward? In Spain, we met farmers growing GM maize. It is illogical to associate cancer with GM technology, yet so many Kenyans are dying of cancer when there is no genetically modified foods in the country.

“Even cellphones faced opposition due to myths when they came to Kenya,” said Ms Mutua when she led MPs on a fact-finding mission in Europe, where she called for the unconditional lifting of the ban.

Last month, President William Ruto waved a new cotton price card to farmers in Busia County in a drive aimed to win back growers who had abandoned the crop. Dr Ruto said farmers would now sell a kilogramme of cotton at Sh250 from the current rates of between Sh50 and Sh60.

The offer came weeks after the government distributed 17 tonnes of BT cotton seeds, a genetically modified variety, to boost production and cut the pesticide cost the farmers incurred when using conventional breeds.

“Farmers in Kenya are now actively planting BT cotton, particularly in Busia and Kirinyaga, with the aim of revitalising the cotton industry and enhancing textile and apparel manufacturing. BT cotton has been genetically enhanced to withstand infestations by the African bollworm, which is the most destructive cotton pest in Kenya. This not only leads to increased savings on pesticides but also reduces the need for frequent spraying," stated Ms Mutua.

“My little effort in this BT Cotton introduction in Kenya was to use the legislative agenda and the first step was to join the Parliamentary Agriculture Committee to push for crop.”

But Ms Mutua says the push for the lifting of the ban on BT cotton has not been a walk in the park.

“The issue was sensitive, given the fact that BT cotton falls under the genetically modified organism (GMO), which had been banned in the country in 2012. We, however, put in a well-coordinated and spirited fight and I realised from public perception of GM foods that we had to push each crop on its own. I put a spirited fight for BT cotton as a standalone non-food item at least for the cotton farmers to start benefiting with the sale of the cotton bolls as a start,” she says.

“Just before one of the national holidays, the then Head of State, President Uhuru Kenyatta, met leaders from the Western region and my request to him during the meeting was to talk about the introduction of BT cotton. He accepted and he captured it in his speech. That was the turning point and the best day of my life in this fight.”

According to Ms Mutua, BT cotton is more profitable than conventional cotton as the former needs only two seeds per hole during planting while latter requires at least six.

“Cotton farmers harvesting conventional cotton will yield 500 to 700kg per acre, while those growing BT cotton harvest 1,500 to 2,000kg from the same piece of land. What is urgent right now is timely delivery of seeds for the cotton-planting counties and for the counties to invest in modern ginneries. Most ginneries collapsed because of low production and most farmers had naturally moved on to new crops."

Ms Mutua, who holds a master’s in project planning and a bachelor’s in human resource from the University of Nairobi and Methodist University respectively, made headlines when she sponsored the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, 2016.

The Bill would have seen police officers trained in how to handle victims of sexual offences. According to her, most victims fear reporting to the police "because they end up being embarrassed instead of being helped”.

The Bill also prohibited victims’ parents or guardians from receiving ‘gifts’ from perpetrators. “This was a good Bill but it flopped because of bad politics in Parliament,” says Ms Mutua.

She says she has now directed her attention to her family since failing to clinch the Busia gubernatorial seat in the last election.

“Apparently, I appreciate the God-given break because I have given my family more attention as I am able to plan better with the time on my hands. Politics is extremely draining and it is harder for women, being the nurturers. So, any little time with family is appreciated,” she says.

“I have private business, though my business partner handles most of the work, so I am able to focus on my family. My father died three years ago and we were deep in campaigns, so I never gave my mother the needed attention. I have now been able to help settle her psychologically and be with her more.”

Political lessons

But what has she learnt from politics?

“I trusted some people too deeply, which, in turn, became costly because at the end of the day it was their perceived loss versus letting me go. So, I became the casualty at the last minute. Rising politically and gaining ground is exceptionally challenging for women,” she says.

“Politics revolves around momentum and time; once these are lost, you essentially have to start from scratch. This means you must invest more financially, physically, and emotionally in areas you previously had established well.

"I am pleased that I strengthened the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party in every way possible, and I take pride in being a loyal and trusted member throughout this time. I wish the party and its members the best in all they do."