John Mwazemba:From a watchman to a general manager

John Mwazemba,General Manager,Oxford University Press,East Africa during the interview at his office in Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina.Standard]

I normally wake up at 5am, hit the road 30 minutes later and at 6.30am, sometimes earlier, I’m at the office.  My favourite part of the day is the morning. I do my most difficult assignments then. I have breakfast in the office and it usually constitutes a few slices of bread and black tea.

As general manager, I oversee all the company’s operations – from publishing to sales and marketing to finance and operations; my job is to ensure everything runs smoothly. It means that I spend lots of time in strategy meetings.  

I’m happy during the day when I see things running smoothly because part of my job is to foresee challenges, and handle crises and any challenges that arise. So when things run well, or even if a challenge is thrown to us and we’re able to navigate it or find a way out, I feel good.

Publishing is changing. We’ve moved from the open market where we used to sell books to schools through bookshops. Now the government is buying centrally from us, so this means that we, publishers, have to compete on price. The challenge then is figuring out how to price to win. Navigating this requires gut instincts and commercial acumen.

My belief that education changes lives motivates me to go to work every day. They say that education is a three-legged stool supported by the teacher, the book and the curriculum, and we are supporting the curriculum by providing learning materials.

We have lunch at the staff cafeteria at 12.30pm although I rarely eat lunch and when I do, it’s usually a small portion. Food is not my favourite thing. People who know me joke that I don’t live to eat, I eat to live.

I’m usually out of the office by 4pm. I get home about an hour later and unwind by listening to music and then read.  

Outside work, I spend a lot of time reading and stimulating my mind. Occasionally I’ll watch a movie. I also love spending time with my children — aged 6, 10 and 13 — on Saturdays. Sundays are for church. Once in a while I will go out with friends.


Best advice? I’ve received lots of career advice, but I love what Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers about the 10,000-hour rule. He says that if you give your heart to something and do it consistently and work very hard at it, in 10,000 hours, about seven years, you’ll become an expert at it. I’ve found that the emphasis should be on “giving all your heart and effort” because there are people, especially the youth, who want things easy, but it is never that way.

The career advice I’d give is know where your natural strengths are and then up your game in that area. In my case, there’s something that books do for me. Many years ago, even when I didn’t have money, I’d go to the bookshop to just be around books; I’d feel right at home. I was also good in languages in school. A career that involved working with words made sense.

I’m currently reading Blue Nights by Joan Didion. It’s a memoir about her adopted child who died, where Didion relieves the experience from the time she picked her from the hospital to the time she died. It is a very moving memoir.

The last great thing I watched was Designated Survivor – a low-level cabinet member is promoted to president and there’s no easy way out to the challenges thrown at him. I could relate to that – unscripted challenges being thrown at you and you have to find a way out.  

The last great thing I listened to was the Audible audio edition of the book Mastery by Robert Green. It’s about great historical figures and how they became masters.

Life is not a straight line. I look at my life and can’t believe that I was once a watchman. I worked as a watchman after high school, having scored an A minus, trying to make ends meets. That taught me humility. And also, no situation is permanent. There’s nothing you can’t get out of.

John Mwazemba, General Manager at Oxford University Press East Africa.

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John MwazembaOxford University Press East AfricaWatchmanGeneral Manager