Read our candid and thought-provoking interview with Ms. Joyce Githuku, a Biochemist working with Kenchic Kenya Ltd. She takes us through her career journey from aspiration, to the heights that her career is taking her.
Question: What led you to Biochemistry?
Joyce: Initially, my dad and cousin told me to choose a course that I was not too difficult and easy to pass, not Biochemistry. I was shocked at the extent to which they did not believe in my abilities. So I took up the challenge and the rest is history. Another reason is that I have an autistic brother and I was interested in finding out how diet affected his mode of thinking or tantrum behaviour. Certain foods have negative interaction on a cellular level for autism, causing “flare ups”. I was also interested in doing more than nutrition, having a deeper understanding in the chemical make up of the nutrition, which is where biochemistry came in.
Question: Plans versus reality, where are you currently in terms of career?
Joyce: Wow. Life took me through so many turns. My plan was to join a food company like Nestle and go into research in order to learn how different food combinations influence the human digestive system. So I had a clear path of what I wanted, but life clearly threw me a curveball.
Joyce: I started off with a chemical industry, Orbit Chemicals Ltd. I left to do my Masters in Human Nutrition and Metabolism in Ireland. I came back to Orbit Chemicals shortly before joining Kenchic.
Question: What is your current job?
Joyce: I am currently the quality supervisor at Kenchic. Another curveball, I am currently in the water department and not nutrition. I am in charge of water and waste water treatment. Kenchic is the largest monopoly in Kenya that provides chicken, slaughtering 30,000 chicken a day. Chicken is distributed locally in Kenya and also exported. The water that cleans this chicken is my responsibility. Most people think that chicken is just about plucking feathers, removing intestines and that is it. The process involves so many factors such as how the chicken is put in the farm to how it is captured, packed into crates, transported, offloaded at the factory and slaughtered, slaughtering temperature, and processing. It comes down to a science because all of it affects the shelf life of the chicken. If shelf life is affected, quality is also affected. So there is a lot that comes with it.
Question: How was it joining a new field of water?
Joyce: Kenchic moved to a new plant in Thika town so there are things that were very novel to Kenchic. The new plant required treatment of river water unlike the previous one that was supplied by the municipal council. Water, like food, will be ingested so we have to analyze it, improve and recirculate it. Then we have to run the effluent from the manufacturing processes properly, so that it can be discharged into the river. We are finding ways of recycling effluent so that we can limit depletion of the natural resources. I was thrown into a place that was completely novel, but I have also realized that my life or the jobs that I have taken are in places where it is a complete novelty. I have no prior experience in water management, I am a biochemist. I think I was given this task because it would be easy enough for me to understand the science behind this. I hit the ground running and learnt so much. When the stakeholders came in after 3 months, I am able to explain the process to them. Kenchic, currently, looks to me for wisdom in terms of effluent and water.
Question: Tell me about the novelty in your previous jobs.
Joyce: Orbit chemicals made me a quality analyst in a new department. When I finished my masters, I joined an R&D program in Northern Ireland for Mackle Pet Foods. Pet food was a new product and the developed product had to compete with big names such as Nestle. So this was something I had never done before. I was unable to see this project to completion though, because my graduate program ended. When I came back to Orbit, L’Oreal came into Kenya and they wanted cosmetics made such as Dark and Lovely. I was appointed as the quality controller for the cosmetics, which is something I had never done. We had no idea what we were doing but we managed to create good products and sail through audits. I would never have done these things myself. I would have wanted to be behind the scenes but someone always comes and says ‘I know you have this capability. If things need to be done, I am sure you will get it done.’ So I have always taken up the responsibilities, but there are many challenges.
Joyce: There are those who don’t want to see you in that position. To start with, you are a lady. There are also people who have commented about the time I have spent at the company. ‘I have been here for 10 years. I have never been given my own department and yet this lady just walked in from university and thinks she can run the show’. I know that the person who gave me the task saw the potential that I had in running the department and that is that. I also have a difficult boss, who feels I am not doing enough or challenges my every move.
Question: How do you deal with people judging you according to your gender or the opinion that “we deserve this, not you”?
Joyce: I think your work needs to speak for itself. Do not cower. My previous boss, Njoki Karianjahi, taught me to ‘have a spine and do what needs to be done.’ She always backed up my decisions. The true test came at Kenchic where I had no such back up. My boss has deemed me incapable and always throws obstacles and negativity my way. But there are those who tell me “Joyce, there is something that I see in you that you don’t see in yourself. I know you can run that department”. So I am doing it. I have realized that because my work is a novelty, there are always some forces working with you and noticing your work. At one point, I was recognized by the Group MD of Kenchic and our other sister companies for outstanding work. There have also been engineers working under me who don’t understand why I am heading a mostly male department, except for one lady, 15 people in total. Some of them think they should be the ones running the department. I have learnt to rise to the challenge. I let them know that I run things as well as I am able, since I will be the one answering questions. I also choose to use my brain power to run the department instead of worrying about their negativity, which would be damaging to my career. I stay at Kenchic to grow my career. I am in intense training in water management as well as how to lead a group of people, against a resistance. I cannot run away from this. It is preparation for something bigger and if I can’t handle this, I will not be able to handle larger things.
Question: What is your typical work day?
Joyce: I arrive in the office at 6.30 a.m. First duty is to check the night shift reports, walk through the water treatment plant, the factory, then the effluent plant. Our water treatment plant is running well, but effluent plant is new and we are just getting the hang of it, in compliance with the relevant environmental laws. So we need to be on our toes when it comes to effluent and ensure what is being discharged is ok. I also monitor the factory processes throughout the day. I leave the factory at 7.00 p.m.
Question: What have you learnt about leadership throughout your career?
Joyce: Leaders need to be present and involved with their team and do what they are doing. Ask questions and even challenge them a bit. Never sit behind a desk and bark orders and expect the team to handle it since you are the one who will answer to management. I am usually on the factory floor. I need to be in there to get it and ensure that the operators are doing what they say they are doing. At the end of the day, I am the one who will be asked. I am lucky to have a team of operators who know what they are there to do. I expect each one of them to move up the corporate ladder by being first diligent with their tasks. So I talk to them about these things as we work, just to challenge them. Even when I give orders, I like to explain why I am giving a certain order and the repercussions of the contrary on the running of the plant. This makes it easy for them to give useful suggestions based on their experience. I have learnt to give people a chance and listen since they may know something that you do not don’t. Other times, if an order is issued from management that is not right, then, you may have to go against the grain to get your point across. Making people understand is key.
Question: Do you consider biochemistry as a male dominated career?
Joyce: In our class at the university, we were rather mixed. So I wouldn’t say it is a male dominated field. I think it is an even playground. Opportunities are available. There is an advantage of course for ladies in a technical field, but this is based on merit as well.
Question: Would you say women are pulling their own weight when it comes to Biochemistry? There are opportunities available, are they doing all they can?
Joyce: Not necessarily. I have friends who wonder why they did biochemistry when they could have gone into banking or telecoms. Some feel the opportunities out there in biochemistry were not enough. Most people go into biochemistry without knowing what they will do at the end of the program. Our program was a trimester program for three years, back to back, with no internship to even learn what you would do venture into after completion. So once we graduated, then we ask ‘Now what?’ Do you become a medical representative, go to the industry or consultancy? Yet, all these require experience. Most people were discouraged because they did not know where to go. We don’t have a regulatory body for biochemists which means no platform for networking. It is unlike doctors, pharmacists or engineers who have such bodies.
Question: Is this because of the structure of the industry in Kenya? Are there any structured biochemist bodies?
Joyce: I don’t know whether there are. Again, it depends on your specialization, either medical biochemistry, nutritional biochemistry and so on. The challenge with nutritional biochemistry is that since you are not a full dietitian/nutritionist, you are unable to register with nutritional bodies. Apart from that, they would wish to know about your nutritional experience. This ends up reshaping your career, you do certain things to gain experience and exposure, just to prove that you are capable.
Question: Greatest fear?
Joyce: In my career, my fear is that I am veering away from my dream of being in Research and Development, developing food products, that I would be proud to have helped bring to life. I find myself going further and further away. So I am not sure if I am making the right decisions. My initial excitement at Kenchic was that I was in the food industry, which would boost me to other nutrition based organizations like Nestle. My CV right now reads different. I am doing water management, which is very interesting and I am not ready to leave. Our society is polluting water and we need to recover it. I want to be there to treat it. It is a bit similar to food and is an opportunity to grow in a different area.
In terms of life, I am one of the few people who know what their talents are. If they were nurtured properly, I would have gone far with them. I am an artist(I can draw cartoons) and I can sing as well but have never been trained. My friends tell me “I am able to sit in a crowd and draw people in”. There are things that I wish I could venture into like radio hosting and doing voice overs, and still do my job, which I love. But getting the opportunity to do these is difficult and discouraging. My fear is that I am not using these talents and that is a part of my life that is going down the drain. I also work long hours, which any sort of social life you had.
Question: Favourite mantra?
Joyce: Let Go and Let God. Sometimes you want so much control over everything and when it falls through, God tells you “Some things are beyond you. Let me do it.” And when you do, you see the reason. Whenever there are fights for my position or issues with subordinates, these words help me get by. Leaders are God chosen. Bosses chose themselves eventually bringing down whatever they are in charge of. Leaders are given ways and methods that, even if people jab you, you still come out on top. God opens up your mind and gives you the right people to help you face the challenges that push you forward to higher positions. So when you let go, God gives you the best. Sometimes it is that one word that God gives you that shapes the life of another person headed to a path of destruction. Another mantra is ‘There is something bigger than this. Aspire for more.’ Do what you do because it satisfies your soul. Do it out of integrity. Do it because there is nobody else who is watching you but God. Because one day you will have to account for your actions.
Joyce: It is an aspiration, yes. I don’t want to settle for marriage just to have a family. I would not want to ask myself “what if” if I had to choose between a career and marriage. I do want to have a family but it my social life is currently non-existent. I also have an authoritative nature which is, apparently, intimidating. I would not want to lessen myself just to have a family.
Question: What next for you?
Joyce: So far, I want to be better than I was yesterday. Matthew McConaughey, while giving an Oscar acceptance speech said that when he grew up, he would ‘want to be 10 years into my life’. When asked what he would do once he caught up, he said ‘There will still be a guy 10 years ahead of me that I will be chasing up to.’ I do not want to be the person I was 10 years ago. I want to be better than where I am right now.
Question: If you were to go back to the day you applied for Biochemistry, would you still choose it?
Joyce: If I was very good at math, I would have been an engineer or an architect because the of the design aspect. I was horrible at math, hence, I would still do biochemistry.
Question: Role Models?
Joyce: Prior to doing Biochemistry, I had none. Njoki Karianjahi, my boss at Orbit Chemicals, is my role model in terms of leadership. She is skilled in calmly handling issues and putting out fires. She is an asset at Orbit where she ensures quality of big brands like L’Oreal, Unilever and Proctor & Gamble. In terms of family, my mother has done it all. She was a proper homemaker and is currently doing her Ph.D in South Africa. Despite having a bad marriage, she still did it and is still standing.
Joyce Githuku is a Biochemist working at Kenchic Ltd. She is currently in charge of water treatment and management at the factory in Thika, Kenya. She has done her Masters in Human Metabolism and Nutrition at the University of Aberdeen, Ireland. She has previously worked at Orbit Chemicals Ltd. as a quality controller.