Sanda Ojiambo, the Head of Corporate Responsibility at Safaricom, was appointed as executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, succeeding Danish businesswoman Lisa Kingo of Denmark, effective 17 June 2020.
How did you react to the news when you got appointed?
I was honoured because it is an opportunity to represent Kenya and Africa in general — take this message of sustainable business globally, and hopefully propel it to the next era of sustainable business.
What’s the relation between the work you were doing at Safaricom and your new job?
This area of work is something I have been doing for the last eight to 10 years at Safaricom. So, it’s taking some of the lessons we’ve learnt at the local level to the global level. Actually, we had been partnering with the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) since 2008. So, I’m moving to work with an organisation that has inspired and shaped the work that I do at Safaricom.
Do you see this as the apex of your career life?
I wouldn’t think so. First, I haven’t stepped in the office yet (laughs). But what I know is that the responsibility and the opportunity are immense. I think it is a progression of my career, and it allows me to exercise this work in the area of responsible business at a global level.
Did you ever see yourself being in this position 10 years ago?
I am truly honoured and humbled by the opportunity. What I saw —and I worked very closely with our former CEO Bob Collymore on this — was the opportunity for companies to shape the way they do business, and build a narrative focused on sustainable business.
How was the recruitment process?
I was actually approached by a head-hunter a few months ago, and that culminated in a series of interviews and discussions. And also interviews within the UN system as a whole, culminating in an interview with the deputy Secretary-General of the UN Amina J. Mohamed.
Why do you think they deemed you fit the job?
That’s a tough one. During the interviews, I brought what I had to the table. And I think for me it is about 20 years of experience working in the area of development and sustainable development. I began my career in the NGO sector, working across various development areas and countries in Africa. I then moved into the corporate sector, working with Safaricom, where I began the practice of sustainable business from a private sector perspective.
I have a wealth of experience from the NGO sector — I worked with the UNDP in Somalia — and then I came with about 11 years of solid corporate experience. Thus I have a unique blend of both NGO and corporate experience.
Give us an idea of what your new role will look like?
As the executive-director, my role involves shaping and ensuring that the principles of UNGC together with the SDGs become a way of doing responsible business. Currently, we have 10,000 companies that are members. Obviously, the idea is to expand that further but make sure there is a deep and strong understanding of corporate sustainability and sustainable business.
Has the leadership position ever been held by an African?
No, I’m the first African to take up the role.
How does that make you feel?
Again, it’s an honour to represent Kenya; and the continent. It is an honour to take forward the vision so aptly crafted and created by Kofi Annan, who I respect and admire for his principles around sustainable business.
What would you say has been your biggest achievement since you were employed in 1999?
In the early stages of my career, I spent a couple of years working in Somalia. That was especially eye-opening because I was able to work across a very wide spectrum of development. The highlight for me was contributing to the first-ever United Nations Development Programme human development report for Somalia. And it really helped put down some firm statistics around the development indices and what was going on around health, education and economic empowerment in Somalia.
At Safaricom, my career journey there has prepared the ground for where I find myself in this new role. I had the opportunity to work with Collymore, who was a mentor and an incredible inspiration to me in this area of work.
Tell us about your upbringing and how it has made you who you are
I’m the lastborn in a family of four children. My parents are a great inspiration to me. They are people of many firsts. My father was the first Kenyan and black African cardiologist and internal medicine specialist. He taught us the importance of strong academic foundation and balance.
He was an all-rounded medical practitioner, but he also enjoyed sports, outdoors, and travelling. Incidentally, he also worked with the UN at the World Health Organization, and his work saw us visit a couple of countries in Africa, which were part of his duty stations.
My mother is also a woman of many firsts. She has been an MP for several years, serving our home area of Funyula constituency in Busia.
Have you informed your mum about your new role?
I did, immediately I got appointed
How did she react?
I think my family as a whole is very honoured and proud of the appointment. There are challenges ahead, but they see it as a great opportunity to represent my country. They’re aware of my passion for sustainable development, and are excited about the opportunity for me to practice it at a global level.
Have you interacted with your predecessor?
I have met Lise Kingo on many occasions. Because Safaricom is a member of the UNGC and a couple of other membership organisations, we would attend convenings and meetings during the UN General Assembly Week, which was generally held in New York in September.
So you leave Safaricom a very proud woman for what you’ve done?
I leave Safaricom also grateful for the lessons that I’ve learnt, mentorship and exposure.
About your educational journey
I undertook my university education abroad. I studied Economics and International Development at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. And that was my first foray into issues such as health, economics, economic policy and sustainable development.
I then proceeded to do my Master’s in public policy at the University of Minesotta in the US, where I dug into policy reform. I focused on health policy aspects.
Many women will look up to you. Say something to women and girls out there
It is important for girls and women to seize opportunities. I think this is being aware that they can, with support and mentorship, achieve their dreams. I think it is important to reach out for mentorship within the corporate world space. It is important to build your skills and knowledge.
Women as a whole, need to continue to mentor and support professional development of younger girls, to be solid role models and lift up other women as they rise.