How I steered Isuzu out of the woods during the Covid-19 period

Ms Rita Kavashe Isuzu East Africa Managing Director, says her organisation is deliberate about gender parity and inclusion. 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Isuzu East Africa Managing Director Ms Rita Kavashe says Covid-19 showed us that we need to go back to our relationships - with our partners, customers, suppliers, financial institutions and all other stakeholders. 
  • The organisation had to find ways to be useful to the community when the pandemic struck, they started making water bowsers, which they used to donate water in Mukuru kwa Njenga and Mukuru kwa Reuben – and other places where water was needed.
  • Because of stereotypes, she has sometimes been mistaken for the personal assistant to the MD, something she has turned a blind eye on.

“The pandemic showed us that we needed to go back to our relationships - with our partners, customers, suppliers, financial institutions and all other stakeholders. In my company, these relationships are strong. We did not have a bank loan but got an overdraft just in case we needed to use the money. Internally, we are a close team and could quickly communicate with each other," offers Ms Rita Kavashe, managing director of Isuzu East Africa.

She held a meeting with her staff at the start of the pandemic and told them the company’s priority was that they all had to be safe. 

“But I did not have answers in March,” she says.

To navigate through a pandemic, she says, a strong pre-existing foundation is critical. Business planning must have contingencies that enable it to go through a crisis and bounce back.

“Women have a longer-term view on business and they put in place long-term foundations for business continuity so the foundation remains strong. This is because of our nurturing qualities, and ability to look at risk more clearly. We also develop a community where there is mutual trust, this is important for the wholeness of a business. My leadership team enjoys trust and this has gone a long way in steering the organisation forward,” she says.

She adds that the organisation had to find ways to be useful to the community when the pandemic struck, even as they kept themselves safe.

“We started making water bowsers, which we used to donate water in Mukuru kwa Njenga and Mukuru kwa Reuben – and other places where water was needed. The government came for trucks like the ones we were using for community outreach, and this gave us business during the pandemic,” she says.

Junior employee

Her staff felt valued and protected, thus remained committed. When the economy was opened, Isuzu East Africa jumped right back into business.

But the story of the trailblazing Ms Kavashe goes back to the mid-90s when she joined General Motors. A relatively junior employee, she was in charge of retail sales. She, however, perceived herself as neither a junior employee nor closed herself off to just the sales and marketing operations of the company.

 “I demonstrated that I had interest in more than the silo role. I wanted to understand what the business was all about and how I could be of value to its growth,” she says.

These qualities saw her get noticed as a potential leader early in her career.

“I was transferred from retail to dealer development, and posted as a regional manager, responsible for Coast and Mount Kenya regions. That market was not doing well at the time. Within two years, I had transformed the region; we were making more inroads and more customers were talking to us, we had also built strong partnerships,” she says.

Her hard work coupled with her visibility, made it easy for people in the organisation to recognise her potential only two years after she took up the new role. She was sent back to Nairobi as the national sales manager of the company.

Senior leaders

“The company saw that whatever responsibility I was given, I added value.  Two years after becoming the national sales manager, I became the sales director, then sales and after-sales director. Every two years, something significant happened in my career,” she says.

 By 2009, Ms Kavashe was among the senior leaders in the organisation.

“I had been exposed to global leadership development programs and senior leadership in different locations,” she says.

To become a thought leader, an authority in the industry and market leader, one must have solid leadership development training.

“In 2009, I was invited to set up an export process for General Motors in South Africa. I was in charge of the Sub-Saharan market. I worked there for six months then continued my operations from Kenya for a year,” says Ms Kavashe who earned this position to expose her to another kind of leadership, and she did a fantastic job.

“The company wanted me to remain in South Africa as the international service personnel but I opted to come back to Kenya because my daughter then, was one-year-old and I wasn’t ready to move my entire family. I also felt I could support the company operations from Nairobi,” she adds.

While setting up the export process, however, she was called back to Kenya in 2010 to head Isuzu East Africa as Managing Director (MD).

Gender biases and discrimination is not something new to this trailblazer. Because of stereotypes, she has sometimes been mistaken for the personal assistant to the MD, something she has turned a blind eye on having gone through professional training that prepared her for these biases.

Biases associated with women

“Gender issues were part of leadership development training when I worked for General Motors. In 2015, women leaders in Isuzu were, for example, summoned to Detroit in the US, for training on biases associated with women, including how to cope with discrimination in terms of wage, gender and how to bring the best out of themselves. “So, instead of getting angry when someone mistakes me for a PA, I step out professionally,” she says.

She quickly adds that gender discrimination for her, came mainly from without not within. Having worked for a company like General Motors where the CEO was female, the organisation had already developed acceptance of women in senior leadership, she says.

Ms Kavashe has a message for businesses: They must think about diversity as a strategic issue, not a woman issue, if they are to succeed. Women have what they bring in as professionals, insights they bring as women and they influence decisions in business.

Commitment, leveraging networks, being open when there is a challenge, building strong relationships and being accessible as a leader, are some of the qualities she associates with her successes as a leader.

Ms Kavashe says her organisation is deliberate about gender parity and inclusion, with women constituting 26 per cent of employees. They also have a council that brings women together and develops them at all levels.

Remote working

“We have always encouraged remote working, leveraging tech more, to encourage women to stay home longer, to nurse, if their roles do not require them to be on-site. We also have a well-furnished, clean and comfortable nursing room,” she says.

Ms Kavashe is, however, concerned about what seems to be the recycling of women on boards.

“To ensure we broaden the pool of women in boards, senior women have forums such as Women on Boards Network, which supports women to be visible in a more targeted way, trains and builds their capacity. It does not matter how humble they start - it could be a church or a school board, the fundamentals are the same,” she says, adding that they have also formed a caucus of women who chair boards of State corporations.

The caucus meets, share and develop networks to train, mentor and support other women. They look at policy that will ensure appointment of women in State corporations.

Although from a policy standpoint the two-thirds gender rule has never been implemented, Ms Kavashe notes that this conversation is already taking place in the private sector and public listed companies.

“I chair the board of BAT. I am a director on the board of Bamburi and that balance is beginning to take shape. We have at least 45 women chairpersons in the public sector. Legally, we are not there but there is already the process of institutionalising the two-thirds gender rule when it comes to board positions,” she says.

Ms Kavashe believes in working within normal hours so that everyone has their free time.


“We have to improve systems and processes so that we don’t have to work beyond regular time. I do mentorship as part of my rejuvenation. I jog, hiking is a new hobby I enjoy to recharge and connect. I also do gardening, I tend to flowers and watch them grow - I find that therapeutic. So free time for me is important,” she says.

Ms Kavashe is counting about five more years before she retires and while her transition ideas are not completely clear, one thing is for sure – coaching.

“I am developing a training model that is coach-based (I am a trained coach). The model looks at the tools that have been useful to me as a leader, and how I can share these with other women.  I am also interested in people aged between 30 to 45 – this is a trying period: Careers are growing, people are getting married, having children and these are the same people organisations put a lot of pressure on because they are the key guys who deliver. They need tools to help them navigate these demands,” she says.