From his humble beginnings in a small village in Uasin Gishu to heading one of the most powerful parastatals in Kenya, Economist Peter Kibet Biwott has come a long way. I caught up with him to find out about his journey and his vision as the CEO of the newly established Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Agency (KEPROBA) which was formerly two parastatals Brand Kenya and The Kenya Export Promotion Council.
Peter Kibet Biwott has worked in different ministries and parastatals before becoming the CEO of KEPROBA. He has led teams at the Export Promotion Council, Dubai Chamber of Commerce, KAM among others.
This is part of a two-part interview. Find out more about his personal story here 13 Questions With CEO Peter Kibet Biwott of KEPROBA. In this interview, we find out more about Peter Kibet’s professional journey and what he wants to achieve at KEPROBA.
In 2008 Peter went abroad for his masters through a World Bank Sponsorship in the Netherlands at the Rotterdam University. He majored in development economics. He was 32 at the time.
Being 32, you must have been able to see the possibilities there. Were you thinking about how you would bring back that knowledge home?
When I was leaving the ministry for the Netherlands, I wrote in my justification request that I was going to do my masters so that I could be involved in high-level decision making in the country. When I came back to Kenya I went back to the Ministry and went to KBDA where I was the Chief Economist. I became Chief Manager for Planning, Research and Development.
My passion when I came back to government was in Business Administration. I noticed that people in government were too stuck in the idea of working from 8-5 pm and if you required any assistance before or after that time frame you could not receive it, you had to wait for people to first go for lunch for you to get a meeting. I went against this culture and started to report to work at 7 am and I stepped in for my colleagues when they went out for lunch. I would also attend to the clients who needed services after 5 pm.
I was also very keen to ask for accountability for every investment we did with public funds. This made me very unpopular because I noticed that there was a tendency in the government of people want to pocket what they had not worked for. It didn’t make sense to me that people were taking good care of their private matters yet when it came to government matters things were falling apart. I wanted them to treat public property as their own property, to take care of it and safeguard it. That has always been my motto and I have stuck with it to date.
Do you think you have been successful in changing the mentality of your employees?
There has been a definite change. It has not been easy because they think I am a difficult economist because before a shilling gets out, I ask a lot of questions first to make sure it’s going to be used well. You can see it in the cars we use, they are not new, but they are efficient and well serviced.
Everything we do is in compliance with government policy and that is very important to me. That we safeguard what we have, love our work, treat public property as our own and not change from who we are. For instance, I drive myself home, I haven’t used a government vehicle in the last three weeks. It is important for me not to lose my personal life because I understand that I am only in government for a season.
I am trying to pass these principles to my colleagues so that we can have a “Model public sector organization”. It’s a tough thing to do but as a country, I feel that this is something we need to implement. My policy is, spend little money and get high returns. We should always have an eye for where we can save money so that the scarce resources, we have can be used to implement more projects.
You mentioned that you are not very popular?
I don’t think it is a question of being popular. My staff understand that I am a good person because they know I don’t beat around the bush. If something is good, we do it, if it’s not, then we don’t do it. That way, there is a specific and targeted response to everything that we do.
People are enjoying their time at work. I have played my role in supporting them in terms of career development, creating opportunities, promotion reviews, and gender equality…. Right now, we are at 50% in terms of gender equality. When I arrived, it was at 99% in the favour of men. There were only two women in management at the time, the Chief Manager of Finance and another lady in the HR department.
That’s a commendable thing you have done, not many organizations have managed to achieve that so far
We try as much as we can. Recently we had recruitments and we took in more women than men. The choice to pick them was based on merit and not favouritism. I have noticed that many Kenyans are well educated, and this goes for all genders so there have been no shortcuts with us. I think that’s how we have managed to achieve that.
How did you end up here?
I have been working in both the public and private sector. In the last fifteen years, I have worked in nine organizations. I started in the ministry, then went to KIPRA, afterwards I went to Kerio Valley Development Authority. I then went on to the Commission of Revenue Allocation, The National Chamber of Commerce for one year and Kenya Association of Manufacturers for another one year.
I was at the Dubai Chamber of Commerce for two months when I decided to come back home and work in the public sector though I was earning good money there. I saw it as an opportunity to improve the conduct and character of public service.
I wanted to achieve this by bringing in the skills I had picked up along the way. My passion for efficiency and good governance and I wanted to demystify the notion that people do not work seriously in public service. This is not true because there are a lot of hardworking people in public service. When I need any sort of intervention for instance ICT, I first go to the ICT Ministry. If it’s an issue with human resources I consult the Public Service Commission and they have been very helpful. When it’s a finance issue I got to the treasury.
I noticed that we have a lot of skills internally, but we also promote the private sector as well. We have been able to do this by implementing a very transparent procurement process that adheres to procurement rules and regulations. Since I came, people have gotten their opportunities based on merit, I don’t need to know who they are as long as they meet the criteria and standards of the procurement law. There is no room for pre-negotiations.
This has led to many young people getting opportunities and we are pushing for them to get 100% of the tenders. This is a deliberate move to support the youth and women of this country. The government has done well to create access to government procurement opportunities, and I have also written about it.
The issue is that people say they don’t get paid
For us, we do not have any pending payments. There is no need to delay because the government procurement policy states that you cannot award a tender when there is no money. So, the fact that a tender has been awarded means that there is money, therefore, I do not understand why payment would be delayed. The rules are precise and after all phases are complete, we pay.
I have realized that if you stick to procurement laws and follow due process, doing business with the government is not as expensive as people think. If you look at the Procurement Regulatory Authority, they already have a price list of commodities so when tendering, you just compare those prices and make sure it is within the provided prices.
Tell us about the merger. What changes it has brought about in terms of management and staff.
I have read so many books on the economy and my background in economics is about learning why other countries have advanced, why others have not and what needs to be done to bridge the gap. I have studied, Japan, China, the US and how they deal with their economics. I am currently reading a book called “Why Nations Fail”. I have just finished another one from a Norwegian author, the book is called, “Why Developed Countries Continue To Be Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor”.
One of the principles they talk about is that for poor countries to develop, they need to focus on what in economics we refer to as increasing returns to scale. This means venturing in value addition and manufacturing. This is the basis of the Big Four Agenda.
What we have been doing is the exportation of primary goods, so we’ve been involved in the business of reducing the returns to scale. No country ever progressed by just selling raw materials. The person who buys the raw materials and adds value to them are the people who are benefiting the most.
One of the biggest impediments to a developing country like ours and those in Sub Saharan Africa, Asian countries, Bolivia, Argentina and the other countries from that side is the system of colonialism administered in African and Latin America. It was of an extractive nature. The model proved to be hard in the US so in 1619 people were allowed to hold Congress where it was decided that land was going to be allocated to the people and they were going to produce for food security and export. That was the beginning of democracy in the US.
For us, a few elites developed themselves during the colonial era. They took land from the people and then made the natives’ slaves exploit the land. This is how they became wealthy and the colonial heritage that was left for us was that of extractive nature. One of the authors says, for a country such as ours to develop, we need to create inclusive economic institutions rather than extractive.
Creating strong economic institutions is going to change the country from extractive nature to inclusive economic development. Weak institutions become avenues for extractive nature of people but when you create strong economic institutions, you limit destructiveness. This promotes inclusive development and a fair system: things in the constitution known as the face of Kenya, giving equal opportunities regardless of where people have come from.
This is why the country set out to implement parastatal reforms. This merger is a good thing and I am very happy that I am here to participate in it. Rwanda has come up with a development programme which improves investment promotion, trade promotion and tourism promotion. For Kenyan to create strong institutions we need to go there. We need to have strong institutions which can exercise their mandate, reach every part of the country and deliver services that the Kenyans require. The fact that this merger is successful and the fact that we want to become a model institution is a good thing. A model institution is going to influence the rest of the country and make others to see the direction that we want to move towards and that is to create strong, effective and robust institutions.
Now that you have merged, what is your one-year plan and five-year plan?
This merger has come at a good time because we have technological capacities and the opportunity to create a new culture and an institution that is aligned with public policy. All this is going to steer this country to the next level.
Going forward, we want to focus on the out of the ordinary activities. We want to change how we have been doing things so that we can become a centre for excellence. We want to focus on four things. We have been having programmes called product development and market development. We want to focus on it on a larger scale and differently.
We want to mobilize Kenyans and educate them that the sustainability of our country depends on our ability to export goods. Every economy that has excelled, has done so because they were able to produce adequately, find markets and deliver products to those markets to enhance foreign exchange. We try to look at the players who are already doing big exports, medium exports and we also focus on SME’s because growing an enterprise involves encouraging others to come on board such as the youth; small manufacturers.
We always need to focus on branding. When you see a Toyota you think about Japan, when you see Apple you think about the US. There isn’t one thing that is synonymous with Kenya, so product branding is important.
As Kenyans, we also need to realize that we are also national brands. We need to convert people’s attitudes so that when they succeed as SMEs, they know that they are representing the Kenyan brand. When our athletes compete and win, the national anthem is played because they are national brands. We need to liaise with different people so that we can encourage people to favour Kenya and increase investment.
There has been a challenge when it comes to Kenyans identifying with a national brand, how will you overcome this?
This is definitely an opportunity for us to do better and we can start by showing Kenyans what we have achieved as a country. Many times, we wake up to negative news but when we bring out all aspects of success in the country, like showing how this country is still a favourable investment destination, resources in filming, topography, fertile agricultural lands, and warm people. We are one of the most admired countries for what we have, and we just need to bring that side out.
We need to highlight success stories of what Kenyan innovators are doing, bring back the patriotic songs in the Kenya music festivals so that we can celebrate and appreciate the Kenyan land and our people. When our athletes run and bring glory to our country the national anthem is played to the world only for them to come back to an empty airport without feeling appreciated. In other countries we see these athletes being glorified in a huge way.
Our cultures for examples are rich and positive and they have a lot to offer. We have the cultural festivals and the Camel Derby; we need to positively bring these cultures out in a way that appreciates other cultures.
There are projects which are very successful in the county which have been delivered effectively and efficiently but we are not aware of them. This is why we have the Kenyan achievement programme where we talk about these projects, their success and where they have failed for us to identify the lessons learnt.
We are also looking at capacity building the citizens in hotspot areas such as airports. Since investors enter the country through the airport, the personnel working there should be branded in such a way that they are guided on how to talk about Kenya. Taxi drivers need to be trained on how to engage guests. They could say the wrong thing to potential investors.
We also need to take these conversations to the media and regulate the local and international content. 50% of the headlines should be about the projects that have been successfully completed to portray us as a centre for excellence. These are the things that should be put as the headlines and discussed in panels. It is not good for our country that only negative headlines are shown in the media.
Don’t you think media might be hard to change because they enjoy sensationalism?
When I was going to the Netherlands, I invited many people to my village to come and bid me farewell. They seemed to be confused when they found out I wasn’t going to America. They thought I would get lost never to come back. But those people who were going to the US had top leaders come to bid them goodbye and good luck as they went to what the people referred to as the land of opportunity.
There is a big difference between a person travelling to the Netherlands and another travelling to the US. The one going to the US is considered to have an advantage over the other but in a real sense, it is in the US where people are killing each other the most. Yet they have presented themselves in such a way that we see them as the country of opportunity. That is what we also need to do. The same is also happening in China. More people are now showing interest in going there.
Besides product development, market development and branding, what else are you doing?
Our main focus right now is branding and promotion of exports. We want to come up with a public service brand where if anyone in the world sees the brand, they automatically know that it is Kenyan.
Other countries have national brands that are used and acknowledged by everyone, why don’t we have such a brand in Kenya?
That is what we intend to achieve with public service branding. For instance, Kipchoge has become the world marathon record holder because of Kenya. He ran here in the Cherengani mountains, he drank Kenyan tea and he is who he is because of Kenya.
Big companies like Safaricom and Equity have been successful because of Kenyans so I think we need to be more patriotic because any success we might see, whether corporate or otherwise, has been facilitated in one way or another by the government and its infrastructure.
We need to focus and give back to our country. People need to associate Kenya with authentic things and of value. We need to position our country in a way that is always Kenya first.
Where do you see Kenya in the coming years in terms of global exchange, global branding and what are the challenges that you might encounter on the way?
I won’t call it a challenge, rather I would describe it as an opportunity; to encourage the Kenyans to participate in development. If we can all focus on value addition, we can achieve any goals that we have for example the Big Four Agenda. If companies come in to help with manufacturing and value addition, we will be able to ensure that there are enough products for the local market and for export too.
What are you doing to ensure that there is value addition in the products that we are exporting?
There is something we are working on called export competitiveness. We are trying to look at the pains or difficulties that exporters are going through in an attempt to improve the level of competitiveness and to improve procedures so that it doesn’t have to take too long for people to export their products. The ministry is currently reviewing the process to shorten the acquisition of export permits so that it becomes easy for people to get these permits.
We then need to map out the country and focus on prioritized branding. We prioritize those areas that contribute to the attraction of investments, promoting tourism to ensure that there is improved foreign exchange. For us to tackle issues of foreign debt, there needs to be a key focus on revenue generation.
The merger has been flowing smoothly so far and we are keen to look at market diversification, product diversification in the African continent because that is our major market at the moment. We would also like to create a hub for information where Kenyans can come and learn about exports procedures and understand the opportunities available for the market.
We are also liaising with counties to create county information hubs to encourage the flow of information to enterprises on the county level. We are going to use the strategies that we have been using but focus more on delivering services and products effectively, giving more value for money and improve the communication strategy because countries such as the United Arab Emirates has invested heavily on customer service in terms of making executive goals, and improving image. For example, in our health sector, patients need to experience good customer service in the way they are treated and engaged.
As a country, I feel like we have overlooked customer service which is an integral part of branding. We need to invest in a way that will create happiness to Kenyans, encourage feedback and promote the betterment in the provision of services. There needs to be a certain way that people are supposed to be treated when they walk into a hospital or any other government office.
What do you hope to achieve in the next year?
In the next one hundred days, we are going to have the Kenya achievement programme which is meant to celebrate Kenyan Success stories.
How exactly will you acknowledge the success stories?
There is going to be a documentary about all of Kenya and most of this will also be on all the major social media platforms. We will ensure there is Kenyan representation abroad in terms of branding and making sure that we have one culture of working and happy staff who are committed to moving the country forward and supporting the institution so we can set a good example for the other institutions.
What are you going to do to increase Kenyan exports are there any projects that are underway?
We have a flagship project called Kenyan Exporter Capacity Development and Promotion Programme. Since we have a National Export Strategy, we have identified current enterprises such as handcraft, manufacturing, livestock and food processing. Through that programme, we want to ensure that we reach out to current enterprises whether small, medium or large as long as they are playing a role in the export business.
A report called “Barometer” was released, which stated that our manufacturing companies’ capacity to utilization is up-to 40%. The African market is already being opened so we want to see how we can work with the companies so that they can scale up their productivity to over 40% to 60%-100%. We can then make a conclusion for the ministry and they will tackle the issues from different institutions and creating efficiency around the entire process.
A country like China was not considered as a major player but they are now in number one because they focused on industrialization. Our role is to conduct market research, make specific recommendations through the budget process and normal government planning process and later implement it. We have analyzed top 50 Trade supportive institutions, countries like Malaysia have created online portals, e-commerce platforms where Kenyan products that are already obtainable in the counties and around the country are showcased.
There is a need for this information to be shared so that all people can know what is available in Kenya and how they can acquire it. We are also branching out to services and exporting services to various parts of Africa and the world.
We need to promote Kenyan companies in such a way that they can also invest abroad. The more Kenyan companies there are abroad, the more revenue will come back home. Casting our net far and wide will help us improve our economy.
We cannot rely on just the local population to do so. We are just a fraction of the world population. There is also a trend where countries such as Egypt are setting up commercial warehouses in other countries to store their products as they prepare to distribute them.
There is enormous potential in the East African region and local companies should penetrate the neighbouring markets to take advantage of the available opportunities. Our export to AGOA is less than twenty products yet the product line that has been approved is for six thousand four hundred.
Why are we not exporting as much as we need to?
There isn’t enough awareness and for now, I think the most important thing is to encourage more Kenyans to get involved in exporting products. The culture in our country has been more about training for white-collar jobs. We need to win more Kenyans to embrace the culture of entrepreneurship, technical and vocational training and encouraging more youth to get involved in agri-business. I believe this is something that is going to promote the mass production of Kenyan products. I want to be a part of the people that encourage more Kenyans to get involved.
What are the challenges Kenya needs to overcome to get where it needs to be in those 5 years?
Improvement of our health situations, governance, culture and heritage, and above all investment and exports. Success in these areas will in part position Kenya as a global brand and we are on track.
Some of the opportunities are in improvement of the above areas and winning the favour of global citizens to view Kenya more positively so that they can consume our economic offerings.