Sicily Kariuki: The finicky honcho

In the years just preceding the advent of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration, something refreshing was brewing at the Tea Board of Kenya. And its Managing Director, Sicily Kariuki, had everything to do with it.

The beverage has become part of the Kenyan identity. And in a country that produces one of the highest quality teas in the world, where “any time is teatime”, and where to fail to offer guests a cuppa is considered just plain rude, tea matters. While some areas like Tigoni (named for its tea estates), Kericho, and Nandi are famous for their tea farms, a carpet of tea bushes paints the highlands a luscious bright green year-round in a whopping 19 tea growing counties of Kenya.

It’s no surprise then that the tea industry makes an important contribution to the Kenyan economy and is one of the leading sources of livelihood in the country. According to the Kenya Tea Directorate, tea contributes about 23 per cent of Kenya’s total foreign exchange earnings and 2 per cent of the agricultural GDP. The country produces over 450 million kilogrammes of tea, which brings in over Ksh120 billion in export earnings, and Ksh22 billion from local sales.

But at the start of 2016 the tea industry was floundering. In 2015, Kenya had produced 328.5 million kilogrammes of tea, earning Ksh42.3 billion from it. In the first quarter of 2006 the region suffered a severe drought that did not bode well for the industry. Output fell and, predictably so did exports. Could fresh management salvage the situation?

Enter Sicily Kariuki, who was appointed Managing Director of the Kenya Tea Board in June 2006. She had worked for the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya for eight years prior, and risen to the helm, heading the organisation as CEO. Her management skills not only turned things around at the Tea Board, but also catapulted it into the leading foreign exchange earner in the country. During her tenure at the Tea Board, Kenya’s tea earnings rose from Ksh44 billion annually to Ksh120 billion, a feat that saw her awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) by President Mwai Kibaki in 2008.

By 2013, Kariuki was a rising star. A new government was in place; one determined to professionalise the Public Service. Sicily was appointed Principal Secretary for Agriculture, a fitting assignment after steering the Tea Board to laudable success in close to eight years. Kariuki was at the forefront – with the support of the Cabinet Secretary, Felix Koskei – of coming up with modalities of devolving the agriculture sector from the centre to the counties.
Within just two years, in November 2015 to be precise, Kariuki was elevated to Cabinet Secretary in the newly formed Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs ministry.

This was a surprise appointment in a Cabinet reorganisation that she learned about in a media announcement along with the rest of the country. The Youth docket, which had previously been under the Devolution ministry, was going through a difficult period following a mega corruption scandal at the National Youth Service (NYS). What had been the Ministry of Devolution had effectively been split into two. The task presented to Kariuki, while a sign of great confidence in her, was, no doubt, arduous. She had, in effect, been thrust into a hot seat. As Cabinet Secretary of the brand new Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs, Kariuki had no Chief Administrative Secretary until 2017 when Rachel Shebesh was appointed. In her team were Principal Secretary, State Department for Gender Affairs Zeinab Hussein, and Principal Secretary, State Department for Public Service and Youth Lillian Omollo, who was suspended as a result of corruption allegations and later replaced by Dr Francis Owino.

It was during her time in the ministry that the government developed the first ever policy on the youth agenda as well as a critical policy framework for gender issues.

In contrast to the ageing populations of developed nations, Kenya boasts one of the most youthful populations in the world. The East Africa Institute reported in its Whole Youth Development in Kenya Report that the median age of Kenyans was estimated at around 19 years in 2019. About 78 per cent of Kenya’s population is under 35 years old, a resource with a huge potential for the good of the nation.

The value of the youth, who constitute the majority of the population of those privileged to be called Kenyans, has become increasingly evident. Their value has not escaped the heads of our government over the decades. From President Moi’s Nyayo school milk programme to aid in the health and nutrition of school children, to President Kibaki’s free primary education, the focus on this important demographic was apparent.

Matters relating to youth have been manifestly important for the Kenyatta administration, as it has worked to achieve one of its most important objectives – youth empowerment. President Kenyatta’s development blueprint, the Big Four Agenda, includes programmes structured to support the development of education, infrastructure, information communication technology, the arts, culture, and sports, among other sectors, all aimed at benefiting the youth.

The first order of business for Kariuki was to get the NYS back on its feet. After some major reorganisation of its management, it was soon up, running, and thriving. Saccos were set up countrywide under NYS. New courses were introduced to equip the youth with entrepreneurial skills. The youth intake at the Gilgil NYS College grew threefold, from admitting 4,000 students a year to 12,000.

As they say, sometimes when it rains, it pours. A second NYS scandal broke out in 2018, with claims of the loss of an estimated Ksh9 billion. Forty-three suspects were initially summoned for questioning in the case that has dragged on in court. Some MPs called for the CS to step aside or be fired, since the scandal had happened on her watch, but she was never personally accused of any wrongdoing despite what she described as “political noise”.

By this time Kariuki was CS for Health following the 2017 elections and the Cabinet reorganisation that ensued at the dawn of 2018. She was now in charge of the healthcare of the entire Kenyan population at a time of radical reforms in the sector, universal health coverage being one of the Kenyatta administration’s Big Four Agenda.

Sicily Kariuki joins First Lady Margaret Kenyatta for the 5th Conference on global public health nursing which creates a platform for sharing knowledge, experiences and innovations for health promotion.

In the two years that Kariuki served as Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Health, with the assistance of CAS Rashid Aman and PS Peter Tum, there were a number of memorable developments. Perhaps one of the most publicised was the flying in of 100 Cuban doctors to work in the counties. There were complaints, and even a lawsuit over it, but in the end the Cuban doctors reported to their duty stations at various county hospitals. In exchange, a similar number of Kenyan medical personnel were welcomed by Cuba for training. The 53 family doctors and 47 specialists included cardiologists, nephrologists, radiologists, plastic and reconstructive surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, trauma specialists, general surgeons, neurologists, urologists, neurosurgeons, anaesthetists, endocrinologists, a maxillofacial surgeon, dermatologist, ophthalmologist and gastroenterologist. Their arrival meant that every single county got two specialists; a big deal for counties that had none at all prior to the posting of the Cuban doctors.

Cuba may not rank as an economic powerhouse, but when it comes to healthcare, the country’s achievements speak for themselves. The country achieved a ratio of 58 family doctors per 10,000 people back in 2001, compared to the 1.5 doctors per 10,000 people in Kenya in 2018. Some counties had less than one doctor per 10,000 people, a clear indication of a yawning gap that needed to be filled.

Kenya’s cooperation with Cuba in this area continues. In 2021, 90 Kenyan doctors arrived back in the country from Cuba after receiving specialised training and are being absorbed into county hospitals. And still more Cuban health professionals arrived in the country to help map key mosquito breeding sites across the country as part of measures to control malaria.

Mental health was another deprived medical area that Kariuki tackled during her tenure, beginning with the establishment of a national task force on mental health. A rising number of mental health-related cases in the country had caused such concern that in 2019, President Kenyatta ordered that the task force be formed to study the status of mental health in the country. Reports by the World Health Organisation indicated that the number of suicides in Kenya had risen by 58 per cent between 2008 and 2017, culminating in a record 421 suicide cases in 2017.
The task force, which comprised a multi-sectoral team from the Ministry of Health and other agencies under the leadership of psychiatrist Dr Frank Njenga, recommended in its final report that mental health be declared a national emergency, and that a mental health commission be established to advise, coordinate, and continually monitor the status of mental health.

As the task force undertook its work as mandated, Kariuki initiated the upgrading of Mathari Mental Hospital to a semi-autonomous government agency. That gave the hospital the capacity to upscale the delivery of services. What the CS began is clearly maturing. Plans are underway for the construction of a Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital on 200 acres in Karen, modelled on the San Raffaele Research Hospital located in Milan, Italy. The Universal Health Coverage (UHC) agenda, which was piloted in four counties – Kisumu, Machakos, Nyeri, and Isiolo – under Kariuki’s stewardship, also has mental health as a priority area of focus.

Governor, Mutahi Kahiga displays his card after he was registered for the UHC at the Nyeri Health Center during launch of the registration exercise overseen by CS Sicily Kariuki

There’s no exaggeration to the statement that water is life; no matter how many times it is repeated. Nearly 97 per cent of the world’s water is salty or otherwise undrinkable. Another 2 per cent is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. That leaves just 1 per cent for all of humanity’s needs — all its agricultural, domestic, manufacturing, community, and personal needs. Water regulates the earth’s temperature. It also regulates the temperature of the human body, carries nutrients and oxygen to cells, cushions joints, protects organs and tissues, and removes waste. A person can live about a month without food, but only about a week without water. Clean water is essential for good health. It is argued that 80 per cent of all illnesses in the developing world are water-related.

In a Cabinet reorganisation announced on January 14, 2020, Sicily Kariuki was transferred from the Health Ministry to head the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation, leading a team that included Chief Administrative Secretary Dr Andrew Tuimur and Principal Secretary Dr Joseph Irungu. The ministry, as it is constituted, came into being in April 2015 when the then Ministry of Environment Water and Natural Resources was split up, giving recognition to the crucial role played by irrigation in a country where more than 80 per cent of the land is arid and semi-arid (ASAL). Kenya’s ASAL area cuts across 29 counties and is home to almost 20 per cent of country’s population, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic and the following day, March 12, 2020, the first case was confirmed in Kenya. In the subsequent months as the war against the virus progressed, with the rallying call to wash hands and sanitise, keep social distance and wear face masks, it became clear that water was among the most important weapons in the war against Covid-19. Kariuki, who was the outgoing Health Cabinet Secretary by just a few months, was now responsible for this most important commodity. Access to clean water was taking on life-and-death significance. The CS set a target to achieve 80 per cent access to safe water and 40 per cent access to sanitation services across Kenya by the end of 2022.

The drive to supply sufficient water was embarked on. Kariuki issued a circular to all water institutions directing them to ensure that adequate handwashing points were installed within all urban areas, including in market centres, bus stations, and shopping malls. “In addition, all the Water Works Development agencies are to ensure that all public water points within their respective towns/city centres are fully operational for effective hand washing services,” she directed. In Nairobi County, before the end of March 2020, Athi Water Works Development Agency, in partnership with the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, had installed 500 free public handwashing points with the rest of the counties following suit.

In recognition of her leadership accomplishments in expanding health access, strengthening the Kenyan health system, and helping to support Kenya’s Covid-19 response through access to water, Kariuki was awarded the annual Harvard Ministerial Medal of Achievement.

During her tenure at the Water ministry, Kariuki oversaw the actualisation of the Sessional Paper No.1 on National Water Policy. This brought closure to water reforms that had been pending for many years. Some life-changing irrigation projects were also completed.

One of the major ones is the Bura Irrigation Scheme, as a result of which 0ver 3,600 acres of land in Tana River County is currently under rice production for the first time, successfully growing the new high-yielding Komboka variety. Green grams, commercial maize, watermelon, bulb onions, cotton, and other crops are also grown at Bura Irrigation Scheme.

The other major water project worth mentioning is the giant Thwake Multipurpose Dam that is now nearly 80 per cent complete The dam is a priority project under the Kenya Vision 2030 and is set to transform the semi-arid lower Eastern region of Kenya. The 80.5m high multi-purpose dam has a storage capacity of 688 million cubic meters of water. It will be managed by the Tana Athi Water Services Board.

In West Pokot, irrigation has contributed to food security and peace. Residents, who are traditionally pastoralists, are farming crops such as maize, green gram, and sorghum for the first time in the country’s history. Irrigation in semi-arid Turkana has also enabled residents to grow fruits and vegetables for domestic consumption and for sale to neighbouring counties.

Sicily Kariuki was born in Embu County to a modest family, the sixth of seven siblings. She attended primary school in Embu, then in Thika, where her father worked, before joining Maryhill Girls High School for her O-levels and Kangaru School for A-levels, after which she joined the University of Nairobi, where she attained a Bachelor of Commerce degree.

She has a Master of Business Administration from the Eastern and Southern African Management Institute in conjunction with Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands. She also has a Postgraduate Diploma in Law and Regulation, from Michigan State University in the United States.

Coincidentally, Kariuki’s sister, Loise Njeru, served as Managing Director at the Coffee Board of Kenya from 2007, during the same period that Kariuki served as Managing Director of the Tea Board.

Both sisters proved to be exemplary managers. Both the Coffee Board and the Tea Board were merged into directorates under the Agriculture and Food Authority in 2014, alongside others including the Kenya Sugar Board, the Coconut Development Authority, the Cotton Development Authority, the Sisal Board of Kenya, the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya, and the Horticultural Crops Development Authority.

In an interview with The Standard newspaper in 2013, Njeru gave credit to their father, himself a coffee farmer, who she revealed referred to all his children as “his boys” and pushed them to excel. Sicily is married to Zabby Kariuki and the couple have four children.

In 2022, Kariuki declared her interest in the Nyandarua gubernatorial election. She resigned from her position as Water Cabinet Secretary on February 9, 2022. “This follows months of listening to the people of Nyandarua, who have come to trust me and my concern for them; my vision, my commitment, dedication and capability to accelerate development,” she said at the time.

However, in April 2022, she withdrew her bid, allowing the incumbent, Governor Francis Kimemia, to carry the flag for Jubilee – the party to which they both pledge allegiance. “There comes a time when a nation is more important than an individual,” has been Kariuki’s discerning observation regarding her reluctance to cause divisions in Nyandarua because of politics. Where will Sicily Kariuki, the finicky honcho who has sat in so many hot seats, find herself next? Only time will tell.

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