In this blog, Maureen speaks about her passion for the development sector, the challenges she had to overcome in her career and what she would tell her younger self.
You were born and raised in Zambia, and now represent Crown Agents globally from the Crown Agents Zambia office, which you helped set up. Tell us more!
Growing up, in our home there were a lot of discussions around politics, patriotism and service and what the best ways were to make a positive contribution to those around us and our country. As a result, I knew from a very young age that I wanted to contribute to improving the lives of others. I didn’t fully understand how I would change the world, but all I knew was that I wanted to help people in some way.
How did you start your professional journey? Did you move straight into development?
I did not!
At university, I studied public administration and economics, and three months after finishing my degree, I got my first job as an accounting assistant for a Belgian freight forwarding company. There was just one problem- I was not a big fan of only looking at numbers, which is a bit of a challenge if you are holding an accountancy position.
I then worked for another freight forwarding company in various positions so I could consider my next move and experience a wider range of tasks. Subsequently, I travelled to the UK to study for an MBA in international business. After I finished my degree, I returned to Zambia, and it was interesting to see how people challenged me on this. Why did I not stay in the UK to make a living? I want to make a difference in this country, I kept saying to them!
So how did your journey with Crown Agents start?
Firstly, let me say that of my 21-year career in international development , I have spent 13 years with Crown Agents!
After coming back to Zambia, I worked in the private sector for several years until beginning of 2002, when I joined Crown Agents as a grant manager. In this position, I was managing the grants the Government of the Republic of Zambia got from the Government of Japan to promote private sector development. We did this through purchases of mutually agreed upon products and services to companies that could in turn contribute to the country’s socio-economic development and poverty reduction initiatives.
The role involved working closely with the Zambian Ministry of Finance, assessing applications from local organisations and deciding which beneficiaries’ projects were most suited to access this money. We would then provide them with goods and services, such as factory and borehole drilling equipment.
I loved this position, because it enabled me to see the changes made possible through these grants, and the increase in productivity of businesses, which resulted in job opportunities and better services for local communities.
I then moved from grant management into procurement- at the time, the Crown Agents Zambia office was very busy as a procurement agent for several donors interacting with the country, including DFID (now FCDO), the Global Fund- through Churches Health Association of Zambia (CHAZ)-, and the Danish Government. I enrolled to do my certification in procurement with CIPS, which was a great qualification to have for my subsequent work on the Supply Chain Management System Project, USAID’s biggest contract to procure commodities to support HIV responses in a variety of countries.
I then worked in Kenya, first in the Crown Agents’ Kenya office, supporting the health sector with health commodities and sourcing supplies for a refugee camp in Kenya to ease the lives of the refugees. After a year in the Crown Agents Kenya office, but still working with Crown Agents, I moved to be part of a team of two that set up the Kenya Supply Chain Management System Project (SCMS) office. I then went on to establish the procurement unit that I led for four years until my return to Zambia in 2012.
What was the biggest challenge in your career?
After working in procurement and project management for another employer that I joined on my return to Zambia, I returned to Crown Agents as Chief of Party (team lead) for the USAID Accountable Governance for Improved Service Delivery (AGIS) Project. I really liked what the project was aiming to achieve- improving public financial systems so the government could deliver better services for its citizens in the health and education sectors. I was also familiar with the ministries the Project was working with due to my previous assignments with them.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and it changed the entire way we were working. Yesterday, we were providing trainings for public servants, and suddenly, our training schedule and overall activity implementation were halted. I had just started in the role and was wondering how to interact with my team remotely, and continue to deliver the project, which very much relied on face-to-face interactions. In addition, not everyone we wanted to reach within the country had internet connectivity, continuous electricity, or electricity at all, which meant they could not charge their gadgets.
To train remotely, we had to come up with solutions that enabled us to communicate with each other. We hence introduced virtual trainings via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, generators, rechargeable batteries and Wifi packages for portable devices. To ensure people stayed engaged at their computers and were not just passively listening, we introduced interactive elements to the training also
What does your role as a Board Member entail?
Whilst I was helping to set up the Crown Agents office in Zambia, I was approached to join the Board as a Non-Executive Director. I had not really considered this at the time but was honoured and accepted the role.
As a Board Member, I am part of the Board of Directors who together drive the strategic direction of the business and assess where improvements are needed. Working with the Executive team, we also check whether our organisational budget provisions and forecasts are realistic and achievable. To do my job well, I have to understand the business in detail, so I can realistically assess how the different units operate independently as well as in conjunction with each other.
Knowing what you know today, what would you do differently?
I’d be more patient with my younger self. I would tell her that it takes time to build credibility in an industry and that being consistent over time will achieve this, and that everything will fall into place. There are no shortcuts, but eventually, you will get there.