Sasini's gender strategy 'boosting profits'
What you need to know:
- Martin Ochieng’ says one of the cornerstones of their sustainability pillar is gender equity.
- Championing inclusivity at the workplace is a trait he credits to his parenting.
Martin Ochieng’, the man at the helm of Sasini Plc, is what many would describe as a visionary.
In just four years, Mr Ochieng’ has steered the agricultural firm from loss-making to a billion-shilling profit company. Just when naysayers had written off the seven-decade-old company, the group managing director’s strokes of genius swiftly put the company back on East Africa’s map.
In efforts to achieve gender balance, the company has promoted women to key decision-making positions.Today, Sasini is an agricultural giant dealing in tea, coffee, avocado and macadamia with a market reach that spans Asia, the United States, the Middle East and Central Europe.
“When I joined the company in 2019, Sasini had a rough year. We had made a Sh400 million loss after tax. The market for our main business drivers – tea and coffee – was unfavourable. Furthermore, the company had a weak strategic direction, and the operational excellence was quite low.”
Nevertheless, Mr Ochieng’ turned Sasini's fortunes around. By the end of 2020, the company broke even, and in 2021, it posted a profit of Sh573.2 million. By September 2022, it registered a net profit of Sh1.17 billion, almost double what it made in the previous financial year.
He says effective strategy is the cornerstone of Sasini’s success story. Besides the financial health of the company, they also focused on the feminine touch to the business.“We are guided by six pillars: a performance culture; cost containment; excellent sales; and marketing; exceptional talent base; financial astuteness; and sustainability," he says.
“When you look at some financial indicators like our profit after tax, achievement of revenue lines and payment of dividends, Sasini has taken a different turn in the past four years.
“We had to make tough decisions on our key leadership. We needed a team aligned with our new strategy, so, naturally, some people fell off, some felt the new model was too different from what they were accustomed to, and some could not cope.”
Championing inclusivity at the workplace is a trait he credits to his parenting. “I lost my mother quite early in my life but was raised in a family full of women and girls. I was the only son in a family of four. We also had female cousins who lived with us. My father did not treat us differently based on our genders. He drummed into my head that there was nothing different between my sisters, cousins and me.”
And that would stick with him so that when he joined a pharmaceutical company as a sales representative, he immediately noticed a wide gender gap. “I worked in an all-male team, and when I asked the hiring manager why that was the case, he told me women could not handle the constant travelling the job required. I thought it was a feeble reason not to have women on the team.”
From that point, he vowed to change the pattern. True to his word, when he got into management four years later, he hired women medical representatives. Decades later, when he joined Sasini, he set a target of 40 per cent representation of women in top management and across the business.
“I go for women when interviewing people with the same experience, skillset and potential. I struggle to find examples where men are better than women based on gender.”
Before his tenure at Sasini, only nine per cent of women occupied senior management positions, and only 12 per cent of employees across the business were women. Yet, after five years of his deliberate and strategic gender mainstreaming, 39 per cent of Sasini’s top management is now occupied by women, while 30 per cent of women work in other cadres.
“We are so deliberate when recruiting for certain positions. That is why we have a moratorium that stops recruiters from employing men when a woman is specifically required in a role. In case of exemptions, they have to get approval from head office to stop recruiters from perpetuating sexist biases in hiring processes.”
He has also eliminated low-cadre jobs that women dominated, like tea picking. “There is no reason for boasting 60 per cent of women employed in your business when they work at the lowest wage band. In the avocado sector, for instance, the general manager is a woman, as are all the employees, except four men, at the processing plant.”
Being cognisant of the patriarchal nature of our society, he met with the top 40 leaders of the company and drew a consensus on gender inclusivity. “For that reason, I didn’t meet any resistance in Sasini. When we were setting up the strategy, every leader owned it. The implementation was, therefore, smooth. I don't think the culture in the entire private sector will change overnight, but I believe we can make steps towards achieving gender equity.”
With the agricultural firm’s vast estates across different counties, including Nyamira, Kericho, Kiambu and Bomet, they have made available basic amenities like schools, hospitals and nursing centres for all their workers.
Commenting on the recent ‘Sex for Work; the cost of our tea’ BBC exposé that implicated two British-owned tea estates in sexual harassment and rape of women labourers, Mr Ochieng’ said he was disgusted by the findings but also empathised with the multinational.
“I believe the agriculture industry needs more sensitisation to sexual harassment of women in the workplace. The exposé is not a unique case. That is why we need strong policies that address sexual harassment in the industry. I can confidently say that at Sasini, we have set up measures, including a hotline where anyone facing sexual harassment can report misconduct.”
The business also has a code of ethics and a sexual harassment policy that binds all its employees.
Mr Ochieng’ is also the chairman of UN Global Compact, a coalition of private corporations that foster the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Guided by four thematic areas: human rights; international and national labour laws; sustainability; and anti-corruption, he leads a strong network of private businesses that accelerates the realisation of the SDGs.
“At Global Compact, we are serious about implementing the SDGs. For example, at Sasini, we committed to using renewable energy for 30 per cent of our energy needs. We have just launched a 1.5 megawatts solar station that caters for 30 to 35 per cent of our energy needs.”
Surprisingly, Mr Ochieng’ also knows his way around the kitchen. When not reading or exercising, he prepares supper for his family. “I find cooking to be quite relaxing. I see it advancing my father’s legacy because he also enjoyed cooking. I understand there are stereotypes about gender roles, but my family enjoys my cooking, and I love it.”
For a leader who believes that every day should be a day to celebrate women, he has proved that gender equity is good for business and provided a model for other private sector leaders to emulate. For Mr Ochieng’, this is just the start for Sasini Plc.