Phyllis Wakiaga is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. Phyllis Wakiaga is an accomplished professional with over 15 years of experience in Private Sector Development, Public Policy Formulation, Stakeholder and Government Relations, Industrial Policy Development and International Trade and Investment. She is currently the Industrialization Practice Senior Private Sector Development Advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change where her role includes driving continental public-private dialogue initiatives and the development of global investment programmes across several sectors which are important for the economic transformation of the continent. Her former immediate role was the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, from 2015 until 2022.

Phyllis is the Chair of the Kenya Roads Board, Board Member of the Kenya Electricity Generating Company and sits on the Board of Trustees of United States International University and the Management University of Africa Council. She was the immediate Former Chair of the UN Global Compact Network Kenya. She has been recognized among the Business Daily Top 40 under 40 Business 2016, Top 10 Kenyan Communicators 2017, Top Africa Economic Leaders for Tomorrow on the Choiseul 100 Africa list 2018 and one of the 2019 Most Influential People of African Descent, Global 100 Under 40. 

In this interview, Phyllis takes us through her career journey culminating in her current role at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Your journey as a business leader with legal background:

My journey is interesting; I did study law but didn’t take the typical path of practice or litigation, which at our time was the typical path. I chose the path less traveled, which was quite strange at the time, with many curious about how one could study law and chose a different path. My perception has always been that legal skills are very transferrable to many different roles I wanted to use the law to advocate, push agendas in different areas, but not necessary go to court, maybe one day I will be a litigator, but it was not the most important agenda at the time for me. Based on that, I did seek opportunities out of practice, after my pupilage. I studied Law at Nairobi University in Parklands and went to the Kenya school of Law for a Diploma in Law then got admitted to the bar. By that time, I was clear I did not want to go into litigation.

It has been an interesting time leading an organization with a legal background but the other thing I did was I diversified my skill; After I determined that I didn’t want to practice law, I went to the Institute of Human Resource Management and pursued a higher diploma in Human Resource Management. My first job was at Kenya Airways KQ, although I did a short stint before that at Cooperative Bank which was more clerical. Soon after, I got an opportunity at KQ as a customer relations Executive in the commercial department; their lawyer was leaving so they advertised for a replacement.  I handled customer claims and made business process improvement based on customer feedback to improve the business. That was exciting, it also gave me visibility to the whole business and access to the then CEO Titus Naikuni, who was also very keen on our department and every week we had to give him a Customer Feedback report which he would use to message around the business, on what we needed to focus on. 

Now when one studies law you cover only legal subjects be it succession law, customary law, property law among others, the only course out of law is accounting for lawyers, a course disliked by many lawyers. During my time at KQ, I realized that I was blind on business, so I pursued a Master’s in Business Administration, which helped me understand how businesses operate, as I covered accounting, finance, economy, marketing, human resource, giving me a broader understanding on business operations. This paid off in my role and also all gave me the breadth I needed when I got the opportunity to run KAM.

When you pivoted and what you attribute that to:

A mix of things. I feel like I began with an end in mind. From an early age, I knew I wanted to be successful in life, and that at one point meant ‘make money, drive a Mercedes’ and leave my mark career in the world, at that point the path there was to study law. So, I kept re-defining success, I was also very clear on what I wanted from the word go. 

I’m also from a Christian background, very prayerful and spiritual in my approach to life, so that foundation of having a grounded upbringing, my parents being very visionary and career people, my dad an engineer my mum a psychologist, they gave us a good grounding, education and vision, and those building blocks were part of that. 

Diligence and hard work also played a huge role, ensuring that I got A grades in my studies and even got awarded as top of the class in some of the courses I undertook. I can’t say I’m born a genius; I am a person who works hard, I am not scared to put in the extra work, I have a good mind, but I equally work hard.

Along the way, all through my career path I have built strong relationships with my bosses, colleagues, stakeholders, because life is about relationships. If you are in a law firm, you are dealing with people. At KQ I was dealing with customers, when I got the government and industry affairs role, it was about managing government stakeholders KCA, the Ministry of Transport, Kenya Airports Authority, regional trade and aviation bodies; so, I feel I benefit a lot from relationships and networks, because I feed of the relationship and energy. Sometimes we feel like we need a lot of years of experience; you might have two, but if you surround yourself with people who have 20 years of experience, you feed off them. Akin to standing on the shoulders of giants and this has been my experience and privilege over the years. I was also very curious and ready to learn, and it gave me an opportunity to be mentored very early on in my career. 

What is the intersection between your legal background and the governance role you played.

When I sit and reflect, it was a path directed by God. By the time I was going into KAM, I was already trained on how to handle people, from a customer or human relations perspective. At KAM, you are dealing with people, members who have needs, so learning how to build relationships, listening to them, absorbing their pain when they are going through issues in their business, and then working with them to structure a solution to the problem. The other one was the team; I have had a strong supportive team. So, when I look back it boils down to relationships. Relationships built on mutual respect and partnership.  

I also have an abundance mentality and always think win-win, knowing there is enough to go around, so never feeling the need to be malicious or compete in a negative way, knowing that each one of us has a role to play.

My agenda of driving sustainability and inclusivity at KAM is what I am most proud of. During my tenure one of the platforms, I set up was the Women in Manufacturing in 2017 to drive inclusion of Women within the sector. I also established an SME Hub to support small manufacturing businesses to scale. The Women in Manufacturing program for instance set out to empower women, opportunities for networking and access to finance and also information that they require to take advantage of opportunities that they require. The Centre for Green Growth and Climate Change and building a sustainable Kenya Global Compact Network that is the largest network in Africa are other accomplishments I cherish. 

Your advice to young lawyers

Law is the most transferable degree in my opinion. Approach the law as a basis for doing many things in your society, many opportunities in business, communication, sports data, energy, public policy environment and sustainability just as an example exists and I want to encourage young lawyers to choose new paths. Continuous personal development will also be important and taking advantage of available courses especially in this era of online learning. 

How much better can CLE prepare lawyers to rise into the roles such as the one you played. 

On Continuing Legal Education CLE, I believe that there is a need to diversify the range of offers they have, so that it is not only skewed to litigation. There is a need to make it broader, in the new emerging areas of law, and this can be through partnerships with other bodies offering training in the areas of human resource, accountancy, engineering among others, so that lawyers can study other areas to prepare them for a diverse market. 

You recently had a meeting with stakeholders in the business/private sector with the Tony Blair Foundations. A few take outs from this meeting as well as what you feel local businesses should do more to access such platforms and the opportunities therein.

As Tony Blair Institute of Global Change, we paid a courtesy call to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers to identify areas we can work on together. They are supporting and are part of the Development of an African Automation Monitor that will support African Governments navigate the challenge of driving job-rich economic transformation in the context of disruptive global technological change.

 We will continue to engage with KAM and other stakeholders to see how Africa can achieve its industrialization ambitions, together with governments and the private sector. 

I want to continue to work in partnerships to drive inclusivity, in manufacturing, sustainability and longevity of businesses; this became evident during Covid, whereby businesses built this way were more resilient. In my opinion, Africa’s low-lying fruits include the Africa Free Trade Area AFTA, which brings together 55 countries, 1.3bn people and a GDP of $3.4 trillion. As we move to utilize AFTA, to grow strong value chains, we need to grow regional value chains, to bring down the cost of doing business and become more competitive. I will be in the USA for 6 weeks under the Eisenhower Fellowship working on this later this year. 

Finally, it would be interesting to know whether you have practiced as a lawyer and what that was like, and whether you will practice in the future.

I take out my practicing certificate every year and attend my Continuing Legal Education. I remain open minded on Litigation in the future!