Ms Sekai Kuvarika is not your regular corporate executive.
She exudes an inexplicable easy-going aura whenever she speaks.
Even when engaged on critical issues under her purview, industry, she takes her time to explain complex concepts in the simplest of terms — a reminder that institutional leaders are human too.
As Zimbabwe seeks to heighten its industrialisation drive, Ms Kuvarika is at the centre of mustering this momentous push as chief executive of the Confederation for Zimbabwe Industries (CZI).
In an interview with The Sunday Mail, she took us back to Highfield, where her life journey began 47 years ago.
“There are things I believe define me and a lot of that has contributed to what I consider important. A lot of that has shaped me as a person,” she said.
Born in Highfield in 1974, Ms Kuvarika’s mother moved to her rural home in Nyanga, leaving her father behind.
During those days, it was the norm for fathers to work in the big city while mothers were stationed in rural areas, and this was what fate bequeathed Sekai, who was a first born child.
Growing up, she was highly precocious and duly enrolled at school a year earlier than her peers.
“I was six and people were starting school at seven years. I would write on ash after fires had died down. Seeing my enthusiasm, my grandmother would say, ‘why don’t you let this child go to school?’” she recounted.
On this advice, she was enrolled at Nyabeze Primary School in Nyanga.
She was to attend six different schools between Grade One and Seven.
“I was always on the move. My mother secured land during the resettlement period and we had to move a year after I had started at Nyabeze. We went to a resettlement area in another area of Nyanga, but there was no school there.”
This saw her enrolling at Mount Melleray Mission near Marist High School.
“I used to walk — I think by my estimation — about 6 to 7km on foot. Despite this experience, I do not consider my upbringing as difficult, but I think I managed to experience life in a way that made long-lasting impressions on me,” said Ms Kuvarika.
Those long walks to school, which she enjoyed, had impressions on her as a person.
“I remember we used to leave our house, we used to cross a river and we had to go through Gomo rematsanza, which had small gravel pebbles.
“To get through the hill, you had to remove your shoes to ensure they would last long. The choice would mean you had to endure discomfort on your feet to save your shoes. I still apply the same philosophy to date.”
After another year, she was on the move again after a school was built in the resettlement area she was staying with her mother.
But she was not to stay long at the school, as she moved to the city to rejoin her father.
“I left Tendanai School in Nyanga and I went to Chitungwiza to stay with our father. My father was a quantity surveyor in the Ministry of Local Government.”
It was at Seke 11 Primary School where Grade Four Sekai experienced a culture shock.
“At Seke 11 Primary School I was hit by a big surprise. I went there and I came out 26th in class. I could not stomach it, I tried to erase one digit, but I was caught,” she said with a chuckle.
Her family moved to Kuwadzana, but there were no schools in the area at the time.
“I had to go to Dzivaresekwa, at Gillingham Primary. However, a school was later built in Kuwadzana and again I had to transfer to the nearer school.”
By some miracle, all the movements did not have any negative effects on her aptitude.
“My high school was comparatively stable. I went to St Johns Chikwaka and went to St David’s Bonda for A-Level studies.
“At Bonda, we were raised in an environment where achievement was the core of our culture.”
In 1993, Kuvarika enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe where she read psychology.
This was when life dealt her a bad hand.
“My father died when I was in my first year. This meant that as the first born in the family I had to assume responsibility and help out my mother raise the family.”
Stepping up meant she had to make tough choices.
“I remember smuggling my brother into a hostel at UZ because he had surgery the next morning. I had to spend the night with him, so we could be on time,” she reflected.
After graduating in 1995, Ms Kuvarika came face-to-face with the realities of life after school.
“Initially, I wanted to go into human resources management. I tried to pursue industrial psychology then, but there was something complicated about the process.
“I tried to apply for a masters degree programme in South Africa and again that did not materialise.”
She then joined a local electrical company, which marked her first steps in the world of employment.
But disaster was never far behind.
“I joined one of the subsidiaries of TA Holdings, MK Electric, in HR (human resources) and just three days into my new job, my mother died. So I had to assume responsibility. At 21, I had to take care of my younger brother.”
She got an opportunity to join a local non-profit organisation which was doing the groundwork for the establishment of the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (zinwa).
“I became project assistant for an NGO which was doing a pilot project for catchment management.
“They hired me and I went to work in Glendale, Concession, because the pilot catchment management was in the Mazowe River catchment area,” she explained.
Her job was to collect stakeholder input for the revision of the Water Act and the establishment of catchment councils that became Zinwa.
This involved a lot of advocacy and engaging with white commercial farmers, traditional leaders and community members in conversations around converting water rights to water permits.
At the end of the project in 1999, she proceeded to further her studies, reading for a postgraduate in Water Supply and Sanitation Management at the Institute of Water and Sanitation. After the course, she started a human resources agency.
Things did not go according to plan and she found herself job hunting again.
“Life happened and I went back on the job market and joined the Red Cross. They had just decided that they needed a national strategic planning officer. I worked for the Red Cross for two and half years and was responsible for strategy, donor funding application and coordinating programmes design,” she said.
After two years she left the Red Cross for SNV Netherlands Development Organisation as an advisor on development responses to HIV and Aids.
The role was, however, short-lived as complications made it difficult for the mission to be cleared to operate in Zimbabwe.
The anxiety from this abortive undertaking and circumstances set her up for her breakthrough.
“In my panic, I explored the internet; I applied for a job with Oxfam in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). They were trying to assess the impact of HIV on the economy and recruited me as an advisor.”
She was to stay at Oxfam for two years and was part of the Ethiopian coffee negotiations which grabbed headlines around 2007.
“After the assignment, I felt homesick. I wanted to come back home so bad. I told my bosses then I wanted to leave and they asked me to stay for a transformation process they were going through. Immediately after that I left.”
She found her way back to Zimbabwe and this is when she ventured into the private sector.
“My life sounds nomadic and it could be because I have a very short attention span. I don’t watch movies or read books as a result.
“I seem to thrive on small doses of information and knowledge,” said Ms Kuvarika.
Her next assignment, in 2008, was regional advocacy officer for Save The Children Trust servicing six countries in the region.
“At the end of my contract, I came across an advert which wanted a national co-ordinator for a private sector development project. I sent my CV, went for an interview and got the job; that is how I got into the private sector.
“I had no clue what it was about, but my strength is in processes and systems so I found my feet quickly,” said Ms Kuvarika, explaining how she joined the International Council for Swedish Industry (NIR).
“This is how I started working with business member organisations in the country. I was working with the Government and policy institutions.
“Since that time I have made private sector development and business member organisations my occupation. I found the work to be a departure from traditional development work to a place where you are creating the economic capability for a country to take care of itself.”
She used the stint to study the Swedish private sector and business member organisations, and felt the need to replicate the model.
After her contract ended, she continued to consult for business member organisations in Zimbabwe.
It was through this effort that the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) established the economists’ round table.
“I wanted to see a situation where business member organisations had their own productive discourse and did their own research.”
In 2019, CZI reached out to her with a proposition to take over as chief executive officer, a role which aligned with her new-found passion.
“I had gone through a self-reflection process with them and questioned a few things about where they were. We agreed on an institutional level strategy and I joined them.”
Ms Kuvarika envisions a future for Zimbabwean industry whose institutions are strong and business member organisations are vibrant to the point of producing credible research which can inform policy.
Will she succeed?
Time will tell, but the evidence is there that she is a prisoner of passion, committed to make her mark in every role she assumes.