At only the age of 30, Bogolo Joy Kenewendo became one of Africa’s few young and female government ministers. From a part of the world not used to female leadership at such a tender age, the news of her appointment as Botswana’s minister of investment, trade and industry in one of Africa’s most looked-up-to countries for its political and economic stability, garnered unprecedented headlines and commentary. How is she fairing? Ngozi Chukura caught up with the rising and able star to find out.
When Botswana gained independence in 1966, it was one of the poorest and least developed countries in the southern African region. However, the semi-arid country was also home to some of the most impressive kimberlite deposits in the world.
As Botswana took advantage of its diamond wealth under sound political leadership, it developed rapidly, and gained a reputation as the ‘shining light’ of democracy in southern Africa. Botswana’s economy remains heavily dependent on its mineral wealth, but it is a situation that is becoming increasingly precarious for the landlocked country. Hence economic diversification is imperative.
In order to achieve this, the country must create an environment that develops further its established sustainability by stimulating growth in other economic development sectors.
This is the onus that as minister of investment, trade and industry, Bogolo Kenewendo carries, while her detractors concentrate on her age and beautiful looks. It is a perception that she rightly does not take warmly to, as she tells New African Woman:
“I’ve often been asked, ‘what are the disadvantages of being a young woman leader?’. Why should I give a disadvantage of being me? It is ridiculous. Nobody has asked what the disadvantages of being an old male are. And this is asked as if to imply I do not belong in this space and I strongly beg to differ,” she says pointedly, adding: “We tend to sell ourselves short as women in general. I think we have to change the narrative around young and women leaders; we need to start driving it more actively.”
Kenewendo is a woman with big ambitions for her ministry and the country’s economy. And she is definitely able.
Her appointment followed an already illustrious career as an economist. After reading for a Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Botswana, she studied economics to Master’s level at the University of Sussex. She then developed her career to become a specialist in international trade and economics and before her current post had already served at a high level internationally including as a trade economist in the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Ghana. She has also chaired the Botswana government’s Private Public Dialogue (PPD) structure, a high level consultative council aimed at addressing the challenges of the private sector in the country.
Kenewendo entered the world of parliamentary politics when she was appointed a specially elected member of parliament (SEMP) under the administration of former president, Ian Khama, in 2016. She immediately made waves because of her youth – and because she is a woman. In Botswana, women hold only five out of 63 seats in parliament. When the current president of the country, Mokgweetsi Masisi took over from Khama in March, Kenewendo was appointed minister of investment, trade and industry.
“So far it has been an amazing experience. It’s an honour to serve Botswana in this capacity, particularly in such an important ministry,” she says.
In the recent past, the MITI has been seen as an ‘international’ ministry – particularly because of Botswana’s desire to attract foreign direct investment. Without moving away from this strategy, Kenewendo thinks it is important for the ministry to challenge and change this perception amongst the people of Botswana.
“As a leader, it is important to encourage buy-in, in alignment with ministry and government objectives,” she explains.
Under her ministership, she says the MITI has also embarked upon a number of outreach programmes; company registration has historically been centralised in the capital, Gaborone, and some larger towns. In partnering with entities such as the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency and the Local Entrepreneurship Agency, the ministry is committed to empowering rural economies. The ministry wants to heighten their local presence and ensure that more people have greater access to their services.
The ministry has also embarked upon a three-pronged ‘apex model’ of economic development so that the country can leverage its resources and work more closely with small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs ‘on the ground’.
The apexes are SMEs, investment promotion and export development. These efforts are geared towards ensuring that the prevailing environment offers opportunities for local and foreign investors to set up sustainable and competitive business enterprises which are export ready, culminating in economic growth and employment creation.
Since the beginning of her tenure at the MITI, there have been considerable efforts to ease the doing business environment, including passing eight doing business reform bills. Delegations on investor aftercare programmes have been set up and the policy environment around a number of goods has changed, including import regulations and restrictions.
There is a perception that Botswana-made products aren’t good enough and that Batswana tend not to buy local. Consequently, retailers tend not to stock local products, a mindset that the MITI under Kenewendo is looking to change. Although this has been met with some resistance, Kenewendo insists: “We need to use our purchasing power to support the local economy. We remain resolute in our decision and we are aware of the welfare generated. In the short-term, there is some discomfort that may be felt by consumers, but in the long-term, it will generate more employment, more disposable income and more production capacity locally.”
These decisions are not being made in a vacuum; Kenewendo remains committed to regional integration and building regional value chains:
“It is a balancing act of protecting our national interest and championing regional integration. A strong local economy is a building block towards creating an integrated continent. Our national interests need to remain key to that international agenda.”
The minister also seeks to strengthen the culture of supporting each other. “When I talk to my team I ask them to stop ‘thinking big’ in terms of implementation but instead, go back to basics, and think of who we are as a people,” she says. “It may sound counterintuitive but if you look at it in terms of a puzzle, we can transform our economy one piece at a time, until we end up with a better picture – but our dreams and visions remain big and scary!”
In a 2015 interview with the Phenomenal African Women blog, when asked to comment on the challenges African women face, Kenewendo said: “There is low representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions across the spectrum, which sometimes delays and limits many girls’ ability to dream. Furthermore, access to the women who are doing amazing things is quite limited… and that’s why we started Molaya Kgosi Trust. We wanted to create a space for young women to get mentored, to network and receive guidance. A space that hopefully will aid our next batch of women leaders beyond their dreams.” Kenewendo co-founded the women mentorship Trust with a focus on soft skills development to help empower women.
When asked what fuels her in all that she does and champions, Kenewendo cites humility: “It is fuel to success. When you remain humble, those who can help you open doors, break glass ceilings and break barricades. Humility gives you a big ‘shadow’ and earns you respect, [and] I really believe in the power of remaining optimistic even when it seems the deck is stacked against you. I surround myself with a thick layer of an impermeable bubble of positivity and optimism.”
While it remains a fact we can’t remove, that Kenewendo is one of Africa’s youngest female members of parliament and cabinet ministers, it is imperative to highlight that women of any age, as long as they have the ability, must be involved in Africa’s decision-making process – both political and economic, if we are to begin to address some of the glaring inequalities on our continent, if the continent is to make a real impact on gender equality, financial inclusion and economic prosperity for all. Appointments to positions of power of women like Kenewendo are welcome beacons of hope.