One on One with Commissioner Dr Irene Koech Asienga

By Staff Writer

How have you been able to become the leader you are today? Where did your finance journey begin? What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) to succeed in your career?

I was born and raised in a rural setting in the larger Kericho County at a place called Londiani. I started my early education in a school called Tegunot Primary before joining Londiani Girls Boarding School at the tender age of 9. Both my parents were teachers (May they rest in peace) and this should explain why I went to boarding school at such a young age. They were disciplinarians and we had to follow what they said. If it were today, perhaps I would have negotiated that decision of going to boarding school. Nevertheless, I don’t regret it because I strongly believe I am who I am because of the strong foundation they gave me.

I also became a leader of my siblings as a firstborn. It is also worth mentioning that all my five siblings went to boarding school when they were young. I guess though tough, our parents meant well and they wanted the best for us. After standard eight, I joined Kipsigis Girls High School in Kericho for my high school Education. I thereafter proceeded to the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and this is where my career began. Immediately after graduating from the University of Nairobi, I won a scholarship from the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) to go and pursue a Master of Arts in Economics at the University of Malawi. After my masters, I joined the world of academia.

All the institutions I studied and worked in helped in improving my leadership skills because I was involved in various leadership positions. My parents were also leaders in the education sector and I learnt quite a lot from them as far as leadership is concerned. I have sacrificed so much both personally and professionally in order to be successful. I may not name them all here but one major sacrifice I have ever made in my life was to leave our two young girls with my husband to pursue a PhD in Economics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.  Some thought I was crazy, people talked all manner of things but that did not distract me at all. With the help of God, support of my family and supervisors, I finished my PhD in record time and I came back home. Here I am today with my family and building the nation.

The lesson I learnt from this is that, in life, never be distracted by what others say. After all, we all know the famous American quote” Damned if you Do And Damned If You Don’t’’ So why not just do what your heart tells you so long as you know you are doing the right thing and that your conscience is clear. That said, I know it wasn’t an easy decision and I will forever be grateful to my husband for supporting me in this journey.

What is the most interesting and amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was your take-home/lesson learned from that story?

I am not sure if this is an interesting or sad story. The terror attack. Most of you remember what happened on Tuesday, 15th January 2019 at about 3.00 pm. The date interestingly still lingers on my mind. That was a wake-up call for me that life is indeed very short. I learnt that we should cherish every moment that God gives us and that we should use every opportunity that we have been given to serve wisely.

You have been in academia for a long time, how would you compare being a leader in the academic sector to being a commissioner in CRA?

Principles of leadership apply everywhere and it doesn’t matter whether you are in academia or at the CRA. I was privileged to be at leadership positions in my former place of work, Kabarak University. I served as Head of Department, Dean of School of Business and Economics. My last position before joining the CRA was Director, Nairobi Campus.

At the CRA, besides being a Commissioner, we work through committees and I chair the Committee of Revenue Enhancement whose main mandate is to recommend to the national government and counties ways in which revenue can be enhanced. I am proud of what we have achieved so far and it is my hope that in the near future, county governments will reduce their dependence on the exchequer.

My philosophy in leadership is servant leadership in which my goal is to serve everyone irrespective of whether they are my colleagues or students.

Finance used to be considered a male-dominated club. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion what has caused this change?

What we see now is more women in the former male-dominated fields not just finance but all other STEM courses. In my view, this is attributed to more emphasis being put on the girl child education. The objective of getting the girl child to school has almost been met. From the data we see, girl- boy child enrolment ratio in primary and secondary schools is almost at par. We should therefore be careful not to forget the boy child.

What advice would you give to the younger generation of female leaders?

Female leaders possess the same traits as their male counterparts. However, the young generation of female leaders should be at the forefront of creating women-empowered workplaces. For example, women with children who are breastfeeding should have space for that in the office. That way, the mother, child and employer will be happy and in my view, this will translate to productivity in the long run.

I appreciate our Chairperson, Dr Jane Kiringai for leading on that front. In addition, I would advise the younger generation of female leaders to take risks, find mentors, play to their strengths and stop focusing on weaknesses, take criticisms kindly, always picture success no matter how things seem to be going at the moment and finally which is very important to me, they need to love and take care of themselves.

How do you balance responsibilities as a wife and mother and that of being a CRA commissioner?

Good question!

Time with family is as important as time at work. However, we must learn to balance the two. We know with COVID 19 life has changed and we have been working from home. That, therefore, means that the responsibilities of the Commissioner have to be done from home. Balancing has been possible because we still got work done. Otherwise under normal circumstances before COVID 19, when I get home every evening, the moment the door is opened, I remove the hat of Commissioner and I now become a mother to my children and wife to my husband. I also avoid as much as possible carrying work home.

Family time should be respected. I like this quote by Gary Keller that says, work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls- family, health, friends and integrity are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.

This has worked well and I have always seen results. One major difference between being a leader in academia and the CRA is that in academia, the main customers are the students while at the CRA, we serve a larger spectrum of stakeholders.

How is it like being in a mixed marriage? Have you faced any challenges? Any advice for those in one?

Yes, this is true, I am in a mixed marriage. As indicated earlier, I was born in Kericho and by God’s design I crossed over to Vihiga County. Despite some few challenges like my husband and I not being able to speak each other’s mother tongue fluently,   I believe marriage is a marriage, be it inter-tribal, same tribe, different races, different religions…we are all human beings and I personally don’t see a problem with mixed marriages.

In our country, tribalism is deeply rooted in almost everything. I believe this is one way amongst many that we can fight tribalism in Kenya.  In fact, studies have shown that mixed marriages promote better relationships. I remember during our wedding, the officiating Bishop told the congregation that ours was a crossbreed marriage. “Those who did biology, when you cross-breed you produce high yields (high breed).”

I think his analogy was true but probably more research needs to be done on that. Through this crossbreed marriage, God has blessed us with two high breed girls of which we thank God for. For those in one? My advice is to enjoy and guard your marriage jealously. Above all, let God be the head of the family.

What is your favourite life lesson quote and how has it been relevant to you in your life?

‘A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work,’ a powerful quote stated by Colin Powell. When I was young, I used to dream and build castles in the air as they told us at that time. But I knew those dreams will only come to fruition if I work hard.

What are your future plans post CRA?

God willing, I may go back to academia and also probably give a try to consultancy.

What is the legacy you want to leave behind?

Broadly, I wish to build meaningful relationships and accomplish something memorable that will help CRA move forward long after our term as Commissioners ends. That said, given the work we do in our different mandates in the Commission, I will be happy to see a strengthened devolution and more specifically, it will be a joy to see counties enhancing their own source revenues and reducing dependence on the exchequer.

Any parting shot?

Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me”

To young people, it is possible with hard work and perseverance to aim for the best. But above all, trust in God. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain”.  Psalm 127:1

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