The five women watching over Kenya’s public purse

If you think of Kenya’s public funds as being placed in one huge purse, then the decision to determine and check how the money is in the hands of at least five women with that legal authority. This is no mean feat in a male-dominated bureaucracy.

No government office will legally draw money from that purse unless the Controller of Budget Margaret Nyakang’o gives her nod.

Controller of Budget Margaret Nyakango./File | Nation Media Group

And any portion of the money intended for government employees’ salaries will have to be approved by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission chaired by Lyn Mengich.

Also, because devolution has been the name of the game since 2013, the question of who takes how much between the national and the county government, and what each county should receive, will have to be settled by Dr Jane Kiringai, the chairperson of the Commission on Revenue Allocation.

When all division is done and monies spent, Auditor-General Nancy Gathungu will have to conduct a post-mortem to find out if those who drew the money spent it according to plan.

At the agency charged with creating monetary policy to ensure stability of prices and to dictate how currency should be released, there is Ms Sheila M’Mbijjewe, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Kenya.

The stories of these five women controlling Kenya’s purse embody a journey of hard work to rise in public service. They began their career journeys almost three decades ago and their profiles and interviews with Lifestyle tell stories of individuals not ready to settle for less.

Lyn Mengich: Chairperson, Salaries and Remuneration Commission

Her office has a say on where about half of Kenya’s tax revenues go to — salaries. The commission is also supposed to monitor the balance between salaries in the private and the public sectors and also how Kenya compares with neighbouring countries salary-wise.

A seasoned human resource professional, Mrs Mengich had held senior roles at various organisations before she took the reins of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SCR) in late 2018.

Some of the responsibilities she had held include being the regional human resource director for SmithKline Beecham; talent manager for Africa at Shell; and human resource director at Kenya Commercial Bank and Barclays Bank.

She would later found Nuevo Consulting, a company she ran until her appointment to the current role.

In between, she also sat on the boards of Jamii Bora Bank, the National Social Security Fund and Sovereign Group. It is through that experience that she advocates for having women in boards.
“Having women in boards brings a different perspective on the table, and that is backed by a lot of research,” she says. “Women are also more accountable, are likely to speak out, and are more forthright in what they do.”

It is Mrs Mengich’s belief that a company without women in its board lacks the point of view of 50 per cent of Kenya’s population in whatever decisions it makes.

“I want to emphasise that because a lot of times there is always a question as to whether women can pursue their careers and be successful in their family life,” she says.

One key ingredient for the progress of any woman, she says, is having a social set-up that can back her up.

“For example for me when I was away, my husband would always be at home. That way, the children were covered. And for others it might not be your husband; it could just be your extended family,” she says.

Ms Mengich wants Kenyan women to understand the value of being go-getters.

“Do not wait for anyone to make things happen for you. You have to make it happen,” she says, also emphasising on the need to have networking skills and the need for women to speak up against corruption.

Away from office, she tries to be a social animal. She says she recently discovered golf and that she enjoys cooking: “If I have free time, I’ll want to try a new recipe somewhere and see what it looks like.”

In her current role, the responsibilities on her shoulders are immense.
“We control a lot that has an impact on the economy,” she says.
“About 50 per cent of the entire revenue for the country goes to the wage bill. So, we’re essentially controlling that 50 per cent of the ordinary revenue. That really puts a lot of responsibility on the commission to ensure accountability, transparency, equity, and to ensure that the public service is able to attract and retain the requisite skills,” adds Mrs Mengich.

Commenting on the fact that she is one of five women heading major institutions governing the country’s finances, Ms Mengich says it is a message of competence and the value of woman leadership ahead of anything else.

“Women are likely to say No when things are not right. Women are more accountable. And therefore for me, beyond even the fact that we’re all women, all of us were given these jobs because we have the competence to do these jobs,” she reasons.
The SRC boss is therefore confident that Kenya’s money is on the right hands.
I have no doubt in my mind that we’ve got the right team to deliver that agenda,” she says.
“Kenyans then should be proud that (a) we have women in those positions; and (b) to feel that the purse is safe. It’s in safe hands and there will be accountability across board,” adds Mrs Mengich.

Chairperson, Commission on Revenue Allocation Jane Kiringai./File | Nation Media Group

Dr Kiringai got her first degree in statistics and computer science. But a government assignment as a statistical officer made her change her mind about her career choice. That is how she switched to economics.

She would return to the University of Nairobi for a second degree in economics. She would later join the Treasury and was an economist in the budget department for a number of years.
She would later take her Master’s in economics at Williams College in the United States, a place she says opened her eyes into how enjoyable economics can be.

Years later, she would upgrade to a doctorate in economics from the University of Nottingham.

Before she took over her CRA post in February 2017, she had worked at various institutions among them the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), the European Union and the World Bank.

One message she is keen to send to Kenyans is her personal mantra — thoughts become things.
“And as a man thinketh, so he is. Unless you can conceptualise something in your mind, it will never be. So, that is the philosophy I live by,” she says.

Dr Kiringai grew up in a family of eight children in Nyeri County and their parents had a great respect for books. Whenever anyone picked a book, she recalls, they could not be given any household assignment.

“I think I grew up like any other child. I went to a rural school, grew up on a farm, which was a lot of fun,” she recalls. “Growing up, we knew that if you didn’t want to be sent anywhere, you just took a book. If you didn’t even want to be told to do dishes, you took a book.”

She is a mother of two boys aged 27 and 25.

“One took over from his father. My husband is in the IT and agriculture space and is working there with our elder son. The second one took after me, an economist,” says Dr Kiringai.
At home, the CRA boss loves keeping it simple.

“I’m just a mother and a wife. I’m just me. I don’t think any of me changed because I moved to CRA. I still do my cooking on Sundays, and I do my shopping,” she says, adding that she maintains a kitchen garden that she calls her pharmacy.

Living healthy is one of her top life missions.

“When I’m not doing the numbers, I’m online telling you how to live healthy and to eat well and to make your body heal itself,” she says.

“During the weekends, I love going to the farm. We have a farm as a family where we rear dairy goats for milk. We believe goat milk is very healthy; a very good alternative to a cow’s milk,” adds Dr Kiringai.

CRA sets the criteria on the revenues that county governments should receive every financial year.

Does Kenya need more women in the public finance sector?

“We can do it and do it well. I believe that,” Dr Kiringai replies, retelling a story of an advisor who used to say that if he had the opportunity, he would make the Finance minister a woman.

“Every journey starts with a few steps and I think we’re slowly getting there. Those coming after us, I’m sure they’ll hit the glass ceiling,” she adds.

To Kenyan girls who would want to take the mantle higher, she recommends a time-tested recipe.

“Thoughts become things. Think big. Pray about it. Anchor it in faith. Think it, dream it, vision it, anchor it in faith and prayer. It’s gonna be,” advises Dr Kiringai.

Dr Margaret Nyakang’o: Controller of Budget

Dr Nyakang’o heads one of the most demanding organisations in the public finance arena. Her office has to approve of any amount of money being withdrawn from the public coffers.

“I approve money to move from the Consolidated Fund to the various accounts.

So, even the Treasury has to come to me to approve the movement of funds from the Consolidated Fund to any operational accounts. And because we have devolved governments, I also do the same for the county governments,” she says of her role, adding that she is also supposed to prepare a report to Parliament every quarter to explain utilisation of budgets.

Hers has been a three-decade journey to where she is.

“I’ve been working for just about 36 years and mostly finance and auditing but my duties have also included human resource and administration and also strategic management,” says Dr Nyakang’o.

It all started with a commerce degree from the University of Nairobi in 1983 and her first job was at the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General. She was there till 1994.

She would later take a dive into the private sector, and she later became financial controller of the Lake Basin Development Authority between 1995 and 2000 before she joined the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority as a preventive services officer.

She would soon move to BM Security as a finance manager and later as finance manager of Harambee Sacco, from where she left to try a hand in private practice.

“I set up MN Nyakang’o and Associates, Certified Public Accountants. And I ran the firm for close to two years. But because my spouse was also in a similar industry, we agreed that I should work in industry for a while before joining him. So, we merged our practices and I went back,” she says.

“I am married to David Nyakang’o, a long-term accountant. I must say he has influenced my growth quite a lot, because he was like my mentor,” adds the mother of four.

Her first engagement after leaving her firm was being the finance director at the Africa International University. That was in 2008. She would later join the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, which she left around 10 months before she became the Controller of Budget in December 2019.

Her clarion call to Kenya’s girls is that they should not be afraid of mathematics.

“Let the girls start doing math from very early in school because maths is life as they will find out later. There is very little you can do without maths,” she says. “Professionally, maths is very important. And I have to say that for me, my breakthrough has been through maths.”

Dr Nyakang’o is also a big champion of integrity.

“I know that throughout my working life I have met people who don’t believe in integrity. But all the time I used to say, ‘If I’m honest, I know it will pay at the end of the day.’ Sometimes the results are not immediate but if you continue a life of integrity, at the end of the day everybody knows that you are reliable and that you’ll do a good job when you’ve been given one,” she says.

At home, you may find her glued to her laptop because there are days she has to work from home.

“I have a laptop at home to ensure that my inbox is up-to-date on a daily basis. I don’t go to sleep with mail in my inbox,” she says, noting that at her role she is also the CEO of the Office of the Controller of Budget.

She can also be found doing domestic chores. And because all their children are grown, she says, life is easier at the homestead.

“I also play golf. On weekends, usually I’ll do some errands in the morning and then in the afternoon I’ll be playing golf,” she says, adding that her husband is her playmate.

Speaking of playing, Dr Nyakang’o is a big believer in exercise and good nutrition.

“It is very important that we lead healthy lives in order to continue working,” she says. “All forms of exercise are very important. Even those who have a shamba can try to dig. Anything that keeps you active is going to help you to stay healthy.”

Regarding the place of influential women controlling Kenya’s public finance sector, Dr Nyakang’o thinks more could have been known if women liked blowing their own trumpets.

“I have to say that many of the women in the finance arena are hardworking and people of integrity. But I guess that’s for you to say,” she tells Lifestyle.

Nancy Gathungu: Auditor-General

Ms Gathungu heads the office that vets expenditure of public funds. She has had a long career in public audit before she became the Auditor-General.

From as far back as 1993, she was a financial auditor at the Office of the Auditor-General.

She was the audit director in the office by the time she got her current role in July 2020.

A member of such organisations as the Association of Women Accountants of Kenya and the Kenya Leadership and Integrity Forum, Ms Gathungu has a Master’s in business administration from the University of Nairobi and was pursuing a PhD at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology at the time of her appointment.

She told the Parliamentary committee that vetted her for the job that her ethical conduct had never been brought to question in the past and that if she became the boss, she would ensure that officers who joined the office as young graduates would get mentorship.

In her CV to Parliament, the Kisumu-born accountant said she was single. She noted that she had taken part in a number of social initiatives for instance supporting a children’s home near her estate “where I have occasionally contributed clothes and foodstuff as well as money for shopping for necessities”.

She also noted that she has personally paid for the education of the children of her house manager “together with other relatives”.

Asked by MPs on what motivated her to apply for the Auditor-General position, Ms Gathungu replied that her track record and professional experience were a testament that she was suitable for the work.

Sheila M’Mbijjewe: Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Kenya

Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Kenya Sheila M’Mbijjewe./File | Nation Media Group

Mrs M’Mbijjewe is among Kenya’s seasoned minds in the fields of accounting and audit. She deputises Dr Patrick Njoroge at the management team of the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), the country’s fiscal policy nucleus.

She was first appointed CBK deputy governor in June 2015 and her term was renewed in June 2019.

Prior to joining the Central Bank’s top team, she had held senior positions in Kenya’s banking sector and holds the distinction of being the first woman to be the executive director of a publicly listed commercial bank in Kenya.

Her profile on the CBK website states that she has been a board member of a number of companies, among them Capital Markets Authority, the Nairobi Stock Exchange, Old Mutual Insurance Company Kenya, the Financial Reporting Centre of Kenya, PwC Kenya, and Deloitte Touché Kenya.

“She holds a BA degree in accounts and finance and is a chartered accountant, England and Wales,” says the profile. “Mrs M’Mbijjewe was a founding member of the (CBK’s) Monetary Policy Committee and the Crime and Anti-Money Laundering Act Advisory Committee of Kenya.”

The Monetary Policy Committee that she helped create develops the monetary policy framework for the country. In 2008, President Mwai Kibaki awarded her the Moran of the Burning Spear medal for her service to Kenya.

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