What you need to know:
- United Nations Global Compact is a unique organisation because its main focus is private businesses across the globe.
- She will now be the first African head of the UN agency that was instituted in 2000 during the third year of the late Kofi Annan’s reign.
The news about Sanda Ojiambo’s latest appointment followed a series of interviews.
After being head-hunted as a suitable candidate to lead the United Nations Global Compact, Ms Ojiambo was vetted by various persons, including UN deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.
Then the message came early last week, from no less than the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
She will now be the first African head of the UN agency that was instituted in 2000 during the third year of the late Kofi Annan’s reign as the UN boss.
On Thursday, a day before the appointment was officially announced, an excited Ms Ojiambo shared the news with her mother Julia Ojiambo – the first woman MP from western Kenya and the first woman to be appointed to the Cabinet in Kenya.
“My family as a whole is very honoured and proud of the appointment. There are challenges ahead but they see it as a great opportunity to represent the country,” Ms Ojiambo told the Sunday Nation.
“They’re aware of my passion for sustainable development and are excited about the opportunity for me to practise it at the global level.”
The new role warms her heart because Mr Annan is one of her role models.
“It is an honour to take forward the vision so aptly crafted and created by Kofi Annan, whom I respect and admire for his principles around sustainable business,” she says.
United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) is a unique organisation because its main focus is private businesses across the globe.
Businesses join voluntarily and commit to abide by the 10 principles it has laid down to ensure commercial entities operate sustainably and in alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Enterprises promise to honour human rights, recognise labour unions, discourage child labour and forced labour, pledge to protect the environment and vow to avoid corruption, among other promises.
The businesses submit annual reports to the UNGC to demonstrate adherence to those principles and when there is evidence that a business has fallen short, it can be expelled from the agency.
“If businesses learn to do business responsibly, things would be better for humanity and for the globe as a whole,” says Ms Ojiambo.
Currently, some 10,435 companies from 166 countries are members of UNGC, and a total of 70,142 compliance reports have been submitted to the agency.
Among the signatory companies is Safaricom, Ms Ojiambo’s current employer. Since 2008, Ms Ojiambo has been Safaricom’s head of sustainable business and social impact, and playing that role saw her interact with UNGC many times.
In fact, former Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, who died in July 2019, served on the UNGC board for two terms.
“Bob was a big advocate of the SDGs and of businesses doing good business,” she says. “Bob was a mentor and an incredible inspiration to me in this area of work.”
Current CEO Peter Ndegwa has also expressed enthusiasm for the project, and on Tuesday he featured in an online UNGC seminar. He was among the people who congratulated Ms Ojiambo on her appointment.
Ms Ojiambo’s current role has also seen her interact many times with the outgoing UNGC executive director – Lise Kingo of Denmark, who has been at the helm since 2015.
“I have met Lise on many occasions. Because Safaricom is a member of the UNGC and a couple of other membership organisations, we would attend meetings during the UN General Assembly Week,” says Ms Ojiambo.
“She’s come to Kenya a couple of times. So I know Lise well and I’m truly honoured for the opportunity to take up this role from her. Her commitment to the principles has been great,” she adds.
When she finally takes over on June 17, Ms Ojiambo has many aspirations for the organisation. “The responsibility and the opportunities are immense,” she says.
She plans to increase the number of companies signed up. “The idea is to expand that further but make sure there is a deep and strong understanding of corporate sustainability and sustainable business,” she says.
“I would like to take on the challenge of expanding membership in Africa and within the Asian continent, and also encouraging further contributions from governments that are not at present making contributions to the UNGC,” adds Ms Ojiambo.
Ironically, Kenya is not a signatory to UNGC and she plans to address that. “It is the businesses that are signatories, and some member states. Kenya is not. That is what I am going to work on when I get there,” says Ms Ojiambo.
It is the member states, she says, that voluntarily fund the agency. Other funds for UNGC are contributed by member organisations and the UNGC Foundation.
So why does she think she was good enough to be head-hunted by the UNGC board? “That’s a tough one,” she answers.
She believes it is working in both the civil society and corporate fields that lifted her profile.
Prior to joining Safaricom, she worked with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (Africa) as the director of programmes.
She had previously worked with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the United Nations Development Programme (Somalia) and Care International.
“I have a unique blend of both NGO and corporate experience. I leave Safaricom happy that I’ve been able to make the contribution that I have… They have been the perfect foundation for me to be able to step up into my next role,” she says.
During her stint at Safaricom, the tradition of releasing the sustainable business report was entrenched.
Every year, the company issues a document that details various aspects of its business, a number of which are reported to the UNGC.
“One purpose of it was to demonstrate what we call the true value, which is the total value of Safaricom’s contribution to the economy,” she says.
“We also looked into our social impact with the work of our philanthropies and the foundations as a whole, and then we were able to look at the amount of money that we’re paying to the exchequer via taxes, via licensing and spectrum fees, so that we have a well-balanced and all-rounded view of what Safaricom’s contribution to Kenya is.”
SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
With her undergraduate and master’s degrees being in economics, Ms Ojiambo prefers to be called a sustainable development expert.
The last born of four children, she has drawn lots of lessons from her parents and she knows they will propel her further.
“My parents have served as an inspiration on the principles of good living, of being a responsible citizen and of service to humanity,” she says.
“They are people of many firsts. My father [Hillary Ojiambo] was the first Kenyan and black African cardiologist and internal medicine specialist. He taught us the importance of strong academics, and he also taught us the importance of balance. Incidentally, he also worked with the UN at the WHO, and his work also saw us visit a couple of countries in Africa, which were part of his duty stations,” adds Ms Ojiambo.
She continues: “My mother continues to inspire me in terms of commitment to rights, to women’s empowerment and to strong governance.”
Ms Ojiambo knows she is in a position to mentor Kenyan women and she cannot ignore a chance to advise them.
“It is important for girls and women to seize opportunities. I think opportunity is being aware that they can, with support and mentorship, achieve their dreams,” she says.
“I think girls and women should not be afraid of taking on subjects and areas that may be new; that may be different, and certainly should not shy away from taking up leadership positions.”
Some 40 minutes into the interview, she is alerted that someone has broken the news of her appointment before the UN can announce it officially.
It worries her a bit and she knows a flurry of phone calls will come. But she soon puts her phone aside to continue with the interview at her grassy house garden, a small river whistling in the background.