Adan Mohamed: The resolute achiever

Adan Mohammed with British High Commissioner Jane Marriott during the launch of ease of doing business report in Kenya.

If ‘stick-with-it-ness’ were a word, it would perfectly describe the career of Adan Mohamed. He is one of the few Cabinet secretaries who served in the same ministry for the entirety of each of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government terms: first in Industrialisation and Trade, then in East African Community and Regional Development.

Before that he had worked at Barclays Bank for a good 13 years and was at the pinnacle of his career when public service came calling.

Mohamed started at the top in government because he was already a top manager. Now, after eight years in government, he’s seeking to start at the top in a brand new career — politics — in his bid for the Mandera gubernatorial seat. And no matter what anyone may say about this career change, it is unlikely that one would recommend the bottom ranks for a man who has already risen to the top and excelled.

What makes Mohamed’s achievements so impressive is that he is a self-made man. He started at the very bottom. Born in the early 1960s in Elwak, Mandera County (previously Mandera District), the son of an assistant chief whose greatest ambition for his son was that he would become a District Officer, Mohamed showed signs of excelling even as a boy. He was one of the few students from Mandera Primary School who made it to secondary school, eventually studying at Kangaru High School in Embu, about 800 km away from his home. Excellent grades in his A’ levels earned him a place at the University of Nairobi where he studied commerce, graduating in 1989 with first class honours.

Mohamed’s star was shining bright, and it was destined to shine even brighter. An opportunity to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he started as an audit assistant and rose through the ranks to Senior Management Consultant, led to his training and qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in London. Later he graduated from the Harvard Business School with an MBA. The sky seemed to be the limit for this brilliant young man. In 2000, after eight years at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Mohamed joined Barclays Bank as a Chief Finance Officer and, by 2013, he had risen to Chief Administrative Officer, responsible for Barclays businesses in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Seychelles, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Ghana and Nigeria.

In 2013, Mohamed was faced with a life-changing decision. As a top manager at Barclays, he had had occasion to meet Uhuru Kenyatta, who served as Finance Secretary in President Mwai Kibaki’s government. Uhuru had clearly taken note of the transformation that such a professional could make if his acumen was applied to the public sector for the country’s benefit. When Uhuru took office and named his Cabinet in 2013, Mohamed was appointed Cabinet Secretary (CS) in the Ministry of Industrialisation Trade and Enterprise Development, a position he saw as an opportunity to serve the country, even though leaving the private sector meant taking a hefty pay cut.

The national goal of transforming Kenya into a middle-income industrialising economy providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 was hinged on this ministry’s success. With Mohamed at the helm, assisted by Principal Secretary (PS) Dr. Wilson Songa, and later by Betty Maina, the plan was set in motion: accelerate industrial growth and mobilise foreign and local investments into the sector. The ministry’s strategic plan emphasised uplifting the manufacturing sector, in particular by supporting the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), where the bulk of Kenya’s industries belong.

Uhuru recognised immediately that a major reason for the low investment in manufacturing by the private sector was the lack of a conducive business environment. Kenya ranked 136th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report in 2014. That year, the President decided enough was enough. He set the ambitious target of reaching the top-50 in the global ranking, a feat that would require serious reforms to achieve. By fostering a conducive business environment, the government intended to attract investments, hence accelerating economic growth and helping create purposeful employment. A Business Environment Delivery Unit was established in 2014, with membership from various ministries, departments and agencies to implement business reforms in partnership with the private sector. In addition, the President established the Department of Business Reforms and Transformation in 2018 to implement initiatives that make Kenya more competitive both locally and internationally.

Mohamed has headed the Government’s Ease of Doing Business agenda since its inception in 2014. With his experience and expertise from a successful career in the private sector, in just five years, Kenya was among the most improved countries in the world, ranking 56th in the 2019 Ease of Doing Business Report.

Among the reforms that have transformed the business environment is the ease of registering a company. This was accomplished through automation of the registration process, with access through the online e-citizen portal reducing the number of steps as well as the cost and ease of making payment. This and other measures resulted in increasing the number of companies registered daily from 30 in 2014, to 200 by 2020, counting as a win for the government in terms of revenue collection as well. By 2020, the revenue collected by the registry was KES 1 billion, 5 times more than the 200 million collected in 2014. This and several other legal and regulatory reforms have greatly enhanced Kenya’s business environment for the private sector.

Having a CS such as Mohamed who came in from the private sector to head this initiative was the right thing to do. He provided the perfect bridge between the private sector and government.

In 2017, the UK-Africa Trade and Investment Forum awarded Mohamed the African Leadership Excellence Award for his role in advancing Kenya as a trade and investment hub. The Forum is an international trade and investment platform that seeks to strengthen trade and investment links between Africa and global economies.

Mr. Mohamed, was declared the winner for his “…solid work as one of Africa’s most innovative revenue generations developmental thought leaders whose able leadership and wealth of experience has strategically positioned Kenya as a trade hub and investment destination of choice for investors from across the globe.”

In March 2015, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission made allegations against 175 government officials, among them, the four Cabinet secretaries (Agriculture, Transport, Labour and Energy) in a report on corruption. Although each said they were innocent, the President, who had made known his zero tolerance on graft policy, ordered them to vacate their posts during investigations. In the meantime, he appointed four Cabinet secretaries who were already heading other ministries to stand in. Mohamed was one of the four appointed to hold brief for an additional ministry. He was appointed to take over the Agriculture docket, a role he undertook for a year alongside running affairs at the Industrialisation Ministry.

The Agriculture docket is a major and extremely important portfolio. Besides providing food to ensure a strong and healthy nation, it is the country’s chief money maker. Horticulture has maintained its lead as Kenya’s top foreign exchange earner to date. Agriculture is also a ministry that has been prone to scandals and allegations of scandal. This time sugar was at the centre of the tumult with allegations made that permits had been issued to some importers without going through open tendering, which is against procurement laws and COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) rules.

The new ministry became a fairly hot seat for Mohamed. In August of that year, he was summoned before the Parliamentary Agriculture Committee to respond to allegations that the President had signed a sugar importation deal while on a visit to Uganda, leaving Kenyan sugar farmers in a compromised situation.

Adan Mohamed (2nd from left) follows deliberations during a Kenyan delegation bilateral talks with their Tanzanian counterparts at State House, Dar es Salaam.

After Mohamed clarified that the President had signed no such agreement with Uganda, he gave an indication of the government’s direction for the industry as well as his adversity to mediocrity in matters business. “Over the last five years, privately owned sugar companies have had better yields and better production than government-owned ones, and the government has made it very clear that we want to privatise some of these sugar mills that have been operating at sub-optimal level,” he asserted, speaking to the press. In May 2015, the government had approved the sale of its stakes in five sugar companies, two of which were under receivership, and expected to sell 75 per cent stakes within a year. The process, which has been riddled with controversy, is ongoing.

In December 2015, after Mohamed had held fort at the Ministry of Agriculture for about seven months, Willy Bett was appointed CS. Bett took over the docket while Mohamed concentrated on delivering Jubilee promises at the Industrialisation Ministry until 2018 when a new CS took over after the President reorganised the government that July.

The Ministry of East African Community and Regional Development was established with the reorganisation and Mohamed was named CS. Until this reorganisation, the State Department of East African Community Affairs had been under the Ministry of East African Affairs, Labour and Social Protection, while Regional Development had been coordinated by the Ministry of Devolution and Planning. At his new post, Mohamed was assisted by Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) Ken Obura and two principal secretaries — Dr. Kevit Desai in the State Department for East African Community and Dr. Margaret Mwakima (and later Dr. Richard Belio Kipsang) in the State Department for Regional and Northern Corridor Development.

The East African Community (EAC) was home to about 177 million citizens by 2019. The original three Partner States — Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda — were joined by Rwanda and Burundi in 2007, by South Sudan in 2016, and most recently by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which acceded to the treaty in April 2022 and is in the process of ratifying it by September 2022. The entry of DRC increased the region’s combined gross domestic product (GDP) by 22 per cent and its geographical area by 79%.

Mohamed’s last assignment on 8 February 2022, his last day as CS, was one close to his heart — the recommendation that DRC be admitted into the bloc. The EAC Council of Ministers made this recommendation during its 46th Extra-Ordinary meeting that was held virtually on 8 February 2022 under the chairmanship of Mohamed. DRC, which has a population of more than 90 million, shares borders with five of the EAC Partner States — Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan — and is therefore geographically well placed for intra trade within the regional bloc.

Mohamed’s role in attaining and maintaining duty free trade access to the European Union (EU) market for Kenya is a major achievement for the country. The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that provides for duty free-quota free access to the EU market for EAC countries was negotiated in 2014, and Kenya started benefiting from it. However, things fell apart when some of the other EAC member countries declined to sign the pact. Kenya is the only member of the EAC that is ranked as a low-middle income country, and therefore the only one that would have had to pay the duty. As they are categorised as poorer nations, the other EAC member states got free access whether or not the EPA was signed at least for as long as they retained their ‘Least Developed Countries’ status.

Kenya had signed and ratified the agreement by the October 2016 deadline, but all the EAC bloc countries also had to do so for the agreement to become effective. In 2016, Mohamed negotiated a pact with the EU on behalf of Kenya that allowed the country continued duty free access. By 2021 when the EAC Heads of State Summit concluded that members who wished to implement the EPA could engage with the EU bilaterally, Kenya was already ahead of the game and has since signed an interim EPA with the EU.

Mandera County sits on the north-eastern horn of Kenya, bordering Ethiopia to the north, Somalia to the east and Wajir County to the south-west. Mandera is a large county, stretching over 25,991 km2, with a projected population of just about 1.6 million people. The County’s slogan — A county with unlimited opportunities and endless possibilities — gives hope to a region that historically has suffered economically. The absolute poverty level in Mandera is 89.1% compared to the national average of 46%, making the county’s residents among the poorest in the country.

It is thought that the name Mandera comes from the cordia sinensis fruit, an egg-shaped, yolk-coloured fruit locally known as madheer, that is ubiquitous in the drier regions of Kenya. the fruit is known as mkamasi in Kiswahili, mkayukayu in Giriama, kithea in Kamba, nokirwet in Kipsigis and saucer berry in English. About 95 per cent of Mandera County is semi-arid. Pastoralism is the predominant activity, though in recent times beekeeping and irrigation-aided agriculture along the Daua River have gained a foothold.

Mohamed — who will celebrate his 60th birthday in 2023 — is running for Governor of Mandera County in the 2022 elections. This is his first foray into politics after a hugely successful career in both the private and public sectors. What would induce Mohamed to leave a high profile Cabinet position for politics?

Clearly, Mohamed is not unaccustomed to making major transitions when they are necessary to meet his objectives. He is ready now to start over in a new career, to help turn around the lives and fortunes of the residents of Mandera. Mohamed is aware of the dire need for economic empowerment of the people of Mandera, for whom livestock production is the predominant sub-sector, employing over 84% of the entire population. These pastoralists experience recurring drought, yet no lasting solutions have been instituted. It is only recently that devolved government has empowered the people to become the architects of their own progress.

“Devolution means a lot more to counties like Mandera and those in the north than many others. Economic empowerment of the communities is what eradicates poverty,” Mohamed said during an interview with Citizen TV in May 2022.

The man who has played a major role in opening up Kenya for business with the world, midwifing a growth in foreign direct investment in the country from USD 300 million to USD 2 billion, now wants to apply his knowledge and experience to the county where his roots and heart are; a county which holds great potential, but has yet to achieve it.

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