Were it up to some headhunters, Edward Mwasi was an unlikely candidate for the corner office that he has occupied for almost a decade.
The institution – Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board (KYEB) - was technically insolvent, strangled by a Sh34 million debt, and about to be dissolved into a department of a bigger State agency.
KYEB’s budget then was at S42 million, just enough to cater for personnel emolument and rent. Mr Mwasi, a career Graphic Designer, was then working as KYEB’s production manager, overseeing designers, writers, editors and photographers to ensure quality publications.
On paper, he was no turnaround expert. However, he was efficient in his job and understood the business.
So, when the term of the sitting CEO ended, he was appointed to act in the position, riding on his experience. He was two years later confirmed as CEO.
“It took 30 minutes for the board to convince me to take up the job… I was resisting as I was comfortable in my previous position. The CEO title came with tough responsibilities,” he recalls on the day he was approached for the job.
Before that, he had worked for 16 years at the Nation Media Group - rising to the position of chief graphics designer and was instrumental in guiding its newspaper to a modern era by improving aesthetics and graphical interpretation of editorial content.
The publishing expert, who would smoothly manoeuvre the corporate world, was all aware of the frustrations and sleepless nights that he might encounter at the top government office.
There was bureaucracy and rigid structures such as the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) when requesting the exchequer for money and extensive lobbying.
This was any CEO’s nightmare. This is a contrast to when he was at a private firm where new ideas and corporate decisions were quickly welcomed and cash taps easily opened. “Here, you have to wait for a whole financial year so that what you want is budgeted for… you also have to wait for board approvals. This can hold back great ideas,” he notes.
Mr Mwasi, however, is not a man to whine but believes in rolling up his sleeves and making up with the resources available. He spoke to Enterprise in an exclusive exit interview after formally notifying the KYEB board and the parent ministry of the end of his second-term contract in July.
“My drive came from this organisation. It was about to be ‘swallowed’ at some point and I realised that had I given up and walked away, it would have sunk. I had a calling to turn it around and save jobs,” he says.
Mr Mwasi is credited with getting KYEB out of the red and turning it into an institution capable of supporting 50 per cent of its budget through partnerships and collaboration as opposed to depending on the exchequer.
This was through introducing strategic measures such as creating an alternative revenue stream, custom publishing under Appropriation in Aid (A-in-A) to supplement the institution’s limited budget allocation, insourcing and outsourcing of expertise to optimise human resources, and forging partnerships with other State agencies.
He underpins his success in understanding the “business” and KYEB’s positioning in terms of information dissemination, visibility, and service provision. “Government needs strategic communication to help shape a narrative and change the mindset of its energetic youth, especially now with the digital super highway”. Mr Mwasi points out that when he was taking over KYEB’s helm, the organisation’s orientation covered historical activities, primarily chronicling what had happened in a particular year through its flagship Yearbook publication. “After some time, some of these initial ideas and orientation become more or less irrelevant,” he says.
Between 2013 and 2014, the government was mulling scrapping KYEB as a sole entity and making it a department at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), owing to its historical positioning then.
Then, Mwasi was serving in an acting capacity and KYEB had done publications such as ‘Kenya at 50’ - a historical publication documenting the country’s milestones in different sectors from independence. They had also done ‘Kenyatta Cabinets’, another history publication.
“The merger stopped after convincing the government we have bigger roles. KYEB was starting to evolve courtesy of the discussions and brainstorming sessions we had.”
After two years, which he calls a ‘serious internship,’ Mwasi was confirmed as CEO after proving his credentials as a transformative chief executive out to reposition KYEB. “This came at a time there were many challenges because of that poor misinterpretation of the role of KYEB. The budget had also been taken away owing to the looming merger.” “I realised we can’t survive. We had to be innovative and see how this institution should align with government priorities as the country expanded,” says Mr Mwasi.
Some of his key initiatives include the signing of a partnership deal with The Standard Group and Nation Media Group which earned KYEB advertisement space valued at about Sh50 million.
KYEB has also been editing and designing the MyGov newspaper pull-out. It also produced the Central Bank of Kenya’s 50th Anniversary set of three books and the State of the Judiciary and the Administration of Justice Annual Report.
Mwasi explains that KYEB’s mandate remains crucial with the agency playing an integral role in promoting public awareness, ensuring citizens and the international community understand and appreciate the government’s efforts in boosting development.
It also seeks to enlighten Kenyans on opportunities, especially for the youth, created by the government so that they can leverage them and benefit.
To save KYEB, Mr Mwasi’s first order of business was to adopt a lean but efficient structure. The organisation engages writers, editors, and creatives on a need basis. This helped to reduce idle time and optimised resources. “There was some discomfort because, in restructuring, you may have to send people home, you have to make hard decisions and would make people uncomfortable.”
This was not his first rodeo in streamlining an organisation’s process.
Mr Mwasi joined the media in 1994 when technology in newspaper packaging was basic and manual and then referred to as page paste-up.
He was part of the team that ushered in technology to the newsroom and how journalism is presented using creative graphics, news design, and illustrations. This technological disruption would see many newsroom jobs scrapped.
At KYEB, Mwasi explains that he executed Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), putting in place effective and efficient systems that fully optimised productivity.
KYEB was ranked number 43 out of over 400 State corporations and took 15th place in service delivery, and first position in its parent ministry under the Performance Contracting (PC) evaluation.
“I don’t believe in the creation of empires, having a crowd in the office to look like you are a big institution. The modern workplace isn’t defined by the number of people but output,” he says.
Looking back at his career of over a 30-years which began at an advertising agency, Mr Mwasi says there are no regrets and is quick to offer advice to business leaders. “Before you sit down to run an institution, understand the business, and once you’ve understood it, treat it like your own business and say that if I was to deliver for myself how would I do it?”
His work mantra has been to focus on continuous daily improvement. And when something becomes monotonous, they change. This has seen the former newsman introduce innovative products such as Infobytes and Agenda Kenya designed to support KYEB’s flagship, Yearbook, and sector-specific publications.
This also kept the institution, strategically, in conversation.
Mr Mwasi also stepped up the use of digital platforms for information dissemination in response to changing information consumption trends.
KYEB is currently working on a digital knowledge management system and editorial workflow platforms.
The institution is a non-commercial entity, more of a government publishing house, and is now commercially driven, which is rare for State agencies. “Budgets have never been enough you can only be given so much and if your dream is big, you also must come up with a way of generating your income so that the big dream can be accommodated,” says Mr Mwasi.
The institution has continuously produced its flagship, The Kenya Yearbook, and other publications under the sector-specific yearbooks, biography series, indigenous knowledge series, education series, and presidents’ cabinets biographies.
KYEB has also partnered with other institutions in customised publishing. The commercial angle began after KYEB clinched the job to compile a publication commemorating CBK’s 50 years in existence.
“When we approached CBK to make our pitch, we did so as a matter of life and death for the organisation. We had so many debts ... when I came in as CEO, we were operating at negative Sh34 million, for an organisation whose annual budget was about 42 million then, we were a going concern.”
“This was an institution that could have been closed anytime had we not convinced the government of its important role, so we employed a recovery strategy and repositioning,” he reflects. The CBK job, he says, helped clear most of their debts and set them on a thriving path.
They competed with giant private agencies with international credentials and winning the bid was a coming-of-age moment for KYEB. For the job, Mwasi had to drop his CEO hat and return to his design and creative roots. They wasted no time, returning to CBK with complete samples after teaming up with a rival.
Their quotation was low, chuckles Mr Mwasi as compared to the others, and even CBK officials wondered whether it would be enough. “We knew all the costs and just put a small margin which was everything to us because it was going to get the institution out of the red.”