Let us all agree.
Kenya officially has THE best sausages. Unmatched. Inimitable. Distinct. A flavour so unique we could all pass the taste test.
There is a team behind this, as we will come to learn. And part of that family starts with Flora Kinuthia, CIO, Farmer’s Choice. She and the rest of her IT team are early birds, settled into the office as early as 6:30 am. Unless she is working from her home where she and her husband raised their children; 27, 25, and 23. They show up on the day of the interview to rally around mum. Flora wonders what the fuss is all about. “As much as Farmer’s Choice is back office, IT is back-back-office. I admire people in advertising and sales because they are at the front, meeting people.”
How long have you been with Farmer’s Choice?
Oh! Don’t ask… Since 2006.
What? I’ve never stayed anywhere for longer than four years!
Before I started at Farmer’s Choice, I worked elsewhere for seven and a half years. When I came to Farmer’s Choice, the boss told me, “Double that!” And for sure, I did. By the way, my first job was at 19 in IT. I’ve never known anything else.
How did you get to be the CIO at Farmer’s Choice?
That has been a long journey. I was trained as an IT person. I applied to Farmer’s Choice, and got a job, something that was very new for me because it was a manufacturing company. One that functions in real-time. That was quite a challenge – which I enjoyed, and decided to stick.
How long is long?
I’ve been here since 2006. I started with very new systems. It was a matter of changing the platform, infrastructure, and systems. That kept me busy. Which is why I forgot I was on a journey. Which is why I am still here.
So, you literally built the tech that Farmer’s Choice is running on now?
Yes. The old systems were too old, so we had to start afresh.
Congratulations! You’re doing a fine job.
I know you believe that IT is a back-office job. But it is now bringing you to the forefront. What’s going on in your head right now?
Well, I think it is interesting. Rarely do we get to be at the forefront. Also, is this how the sales teams feel? It is quite a good feeling.
When you are thinking of buying tech, how do you get the team and those with a vested interest to buy in? How do you convince them?
Having said that I have started the system from scratch, that is per se, not really the procedures. This is just the newer systems that go with the times. We have experts in different departments. We do not assume the role of this expertise. What we do is look for gaps then look for technology to see where we can align it to/with the business. That way you sell the idea. We have a discussion, and when they buy in, they know you will succeed. The idea is to get executives to understand this is a tool to do the work they know best. We align the products with business operations and to improve efficiency.
Has there ever been a time when it was difficult to persuade the board or management on your point of view?
Yes. First, there is language. When my team and I are talking, we are all about IT. I have had to learn to communicate. To speak a language that can be understood by everybody and prevent the breakdown of communication. Yes, we have had serious failures when it comes to selling our systems. Probably because we misunderstood existing procedures and gaps. We have to go back and familiarise ourselves with existing procedures. Then there is the issue of budget. The solutions we are providing can be very expensive. If that is the case, it may be possible that these ideas will not see the light of day.
When you have a decrease in the budget how do you prioritise?
It is tough. Because every time you are presenting something, you need the money, and you need the solution. When there is a decrease in the budget and rightly so, such as during COVID-19, the business stands still. Everything was at a standstill. No budget or CapEx to be approved. At the same time, we had systems that were halfway done. We had to complete them. That was difficult because we did not know where the direction the business was headed. The IT team and managers had a discussion, and we tried to get systems already in place enhanced in the most affordable way possible. To enhance only that which is very necessary. As long as we could prove and support our budget.
What kind of resources do you have as CIO, and do you need more of these or could you work with less?
Our structure is pretty good. Here is what I have set up in the IT department. I have two senior people in the department; one taking care of the infrastructure, the other taking care of programming and computer science. When we have software, the latter has one person working under him. We also have partners to work with. As for the former, we have a system administrator with a network administrator and two more to assist. We also work with partners. I have to say that we do get a lot of support from management. They have adopted technology which makes my life very, very, easy. I have a team of seven. What we have is enough. What we need is to prove, with a proposal, what we need. If we don’t get it, we work around it with the team based on what we have.
What has managing your team taught you about leadership?
Leadership is about being a colleague, and not the boss.
Yes. When we are working, I keep telling my team that we are in this together. Mine is to mark the growth, what IT needs to do, our place in the company, and pick up the projects they propose. Then we discuss it and run it as a team. I give myself a role I am very sure of because I have to finish IT projects adequately and efficiently. I have to set a good example. I also appreciate that my experience has created an all-rounded person. I can say that I handle both software and hardware.
I remember once reading that CIOs need to handle software, hardware and people. Is that asking for too much?
Yes, especially when it comes to people. When it comes to software and hardware, you cannot divorce the two. You cannot work with one without the other. If I am implementing or upgrading a system, I need to look at its barest minimum, and in so doing, I am looking at the infrastructure. You cannot separate the two. For you to be effective, you need to at least have the basics of each. That is why when you go to school you are not just doing computer science or just infrastructure. You are doing a little bit of each. People might go to school thinking they are good at programming, only to discover they are good at infrastructure and technology.
What would you say are your strengths as a CIO?
That counts for a lot!
Experience and probably, and I mean that, understanding systems that have evolved with time. If I mention to you when I started doing IT, you would be surprised.
I started in the 90s. I have grown and learned with time. I have grown with technology. That gives me a very good background when it comes to what there is, and how we can align with the business. Aside from that, I have worked for various companies. There is a lot of diversity that has given me a lot of knowledge and what to expect. And, again, experience; because in IT, you don’t always do things by the book. What you learned in school might not apply. You need to have the kind of experience that speaks to this.
I recently did an interview with a CIO who believes there is no place for decades of experience as a selling point when it comes to a CIO because that makes one outdated and this only primes them for legacy tech. Do you agree with this statement?
I totally agree with that. Millennials are extremely focused, born in the age of technology, communicate on a smartphone, went to school in ‘new campuses’ and communicate well on and with technology. When I was in school, a computer or smartphone was not something you could use. Millennials, on the other hand, are hands-on. When it comes to learning something, they are better off than someone who has to learn the same thing afresh. I totally agree. We need to give them an opportunity to lead. They come up with very good ideas. It is because they are relating technology to their lifestyle. For any job to succeed, it has to be a lifestyle. It cannot be something that you struggle at. It has to be something you love, something you like, or something you enjoy and have grown up with.
Before you cancel yourself just yet, how do you stay on top of your game?
From you, as CIO Africa. Because you keep calling us to learn from partners. We learn quite a lot. I also attend similar workshops, and then there is the Internet. I know what is coming, what is there, and align myself with the growth of technology.
Watch the interview.
There must be a time when your experience came in handy, especially when the Millennials did not know what to do. Can you share an example of a scenario like that?
Yes. Old is gold. IT, as I mentioned, is sometimes not by the book. We will apply everything that we know. We will read the books. We will search the internet and we will crack it. But having gone through an experience like that in the older system gives me insight on how we need to bypass or how we need to apply some tricks to get the system going.
You sound like you enjoy your job.
I do! That’s why I am still here. One thing I know is that I don’t work because of the salary. And when I say this, I mean it. I started working in IT when I was 19. This is all I know. I love IT. I love being in the tech world. I love technology. And I enjoy my work. I enjoy what I do.
What does it take to have a successful career as a CIO?
Moving and carrying the company to where it needs to be with technology. I am a Christian, and I believe God moves with you in every direction. I also believe there is no success as a single person. There has to be teamwork. You have to build the team. Make them feel like part of the success or failure, whichever way it goes.
There is also something I have learnt as a Rotarian. We have the four-way test:
- Is it the truth?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Does it bring good friendship/relationships?
- Will it benefit all?
Applying these has worked well for me. Sometimes, there are issues that come up which do not augur well with everyone. At such a time, these questions come in very handy. I take a minute, count 1 to 5, then ask the questions. That way, I can deal with the issues as they come.
You mentioned failure. How have you handled failure when it has come up?
Oh dear…! With IT, there is no way you can run away from failure in your life whatever your role. Sometimes systems just don’t agree with what you’re telling them. We have learned the hard way and together with the team, created backup systems, some of them, manual. There are things that will go wrong, and we will go manual for five minutes. There are things that will go wrong, and we will go back to our disaster recovery site. There are things that go wrong, and then we fall back on backup and then restore.
There are things that will go wrong, and we will start afresh. When the latter happens, it is a total failure. One must always avoid that. You will never recover fully if you have to start afresh. It is always good to know that things will go wrong, so prepare for that failure. Since we once did fail and had to start from scratch, we always make sure this site is tested on a quarterly basis. It is like driving and presuming you have a spare wheel only to find out it too, is flat. We try very hard not to have a flat spare wheel.
On the one hand, you have your current existing skills as a modern-day CIO. Then on the other, your job as a CIO requires that you have a measure of forecasting. How do you get from here to there by bridging that gap?
The main thing is to understand the language to use and the format to sell the idea. The good thing is, no part of life remains untouched by technology. It becomes quite easy now when we start selling whatever we are introducing to the company as part of a normal lifestyle. One time, I actually discovered one of our senior managers is fond of photography and he would have photographs printed out. I mentioned to him that he could have uploaded them on a computer. That way, wherever he is, he sees them. This is how I work my way in and sell whatever system I need to sell. I use normal lifestyle things to sell technology.
One thing about CIOs is that your careers are very demanding. Are you on call 24/7?
When it fails, sleep in the office! It is a life I started before I got married. And I got children, by the way, with the same 24/7 on-call lifestyle. And I am still doing this at my almost retirement age. Yes, I will admit that it disappears with your social life and personal life at times. The best thing is to know how to reach that. When you are alone, it is a tall order. Which is why I involve my department. As a team, we decided that we needed a life. A life that is outside of work. We give ourselves schedules and work duties.
There is this thing CIOs like to say. Keeping the lights on. What does it mean?
Those core systems are working at all times. Very impossible, but we work at trying to achieve this.
How do you balance keeping the lights on with risk?
That is something I personally struggle with. The unknown will always strike. You cannot prepare for everything. Especially when you have a new system or update. The risks are there, and you know that you are risking. But once it happens, just know how to deal with it and reduce your response time to the best the company can take.
How do you keep Farmer’s Choice on top of its game?
We are sales-driven. We try to keep up with how the brand is positioned both in-house and out there. I do appreciate that Farmer’s Choice is a well-known brand. I do my part to try hard to maintain that standard.
This is perfect. It brings me to a very simple question. What is the Farmer’s Choice recipe for sausages?
We have good people. We always say Mum’s food is the best because it is made with love and joy and happiness. We are happy people. We are a fraternity. It is the real thing – the family. The recipes are of course in the production business. What there is, is consistency, a lot of teamwork, a lot of efficiencies. That is what keeps the brand up there. I also must thank our directors. They have managed to keep us that way.
What do you do when you are not working?
I am a Rotarian, a Christian, so social services and selfless service. I also take care of my big family. I am looking forward to grandchildren. They haven’t started coming in yet… I have three children, two daughters and a son. I also have two other daughters. Not my own, but I care for them.
What do you think being in a career has taught your children?
I think they have learned to blend motherhood and careers. One of the hardest things, but also the most enjoyable. The responsibility that comes with it has to be well-rounded. What you are at home should be what you are at work and vice versa. If you start separating parts of your life, it will be difficult. The whole cloud has to move with you. I know my children have borrowed nice things from me. If nothing else, they learned from the many areas of my life as a parent.
If any of your children approach you and say they would like to be a CIO, what would be your response?
I would encourage them! None of them has taken that route. So far.
This article was first published in the August 2021 edition of CIO Africa magazine.