MUKUAHIMA A MAN OF DISTINCTION
IN football, a striker who scores in the early minutes thrills not only the fans but the coach and settles the nerves of his teammates as well as stirring up a sense of victory in the crowd.
That could have been the feeling that Berthold Mukuahima instilled when he played a key role in dribbling past a hurdle that surfaced during the restructuring exercise at Ohlthaver and List (O&L) Group of Companies in 2005 shortly after he joined the group.
Mukuahima is the Director Human Capital for the multifaceted organization which is Namibia’s largest employer outside government with a staff complement of 4700.
With a modest intonation that conceals his dynamism and capability, he describes the importance of his position and what it entails in the group.
In January 2005, Mukuahima was “poached” from telecommunication giant.
At the time, the company was going through a restructuring exercise, a process he today describes as “very delicate” because in some cases heads rolled.
“One has to be honest during such an exercise and one of the O&L values is to do the right thing right,” he says.
Between 2005 and 2006, when Mukuahima came on board, O&L needed to cut down its 4200 workforce to 3700. The process involved selling off some unsustainable businesses, an undertaking that called for heavy involvement with unions and relevant government ministries.
It was during that restructuring exercise at Midgard Country Estates where 30 families indicated that they had nowhere to go after being retrenched.
This became Mukuahima’s baby and his team. After consultations with relevant executives a decision was made to donate one farming unit measuring 3,000 hectares valued at over N$2 million to the 30 families. “It was a situation that required someone to think outside the box. We were applauded for that move and the Namibia Farm Workers Union (NAFWU) awarded us the Best Employer award that year,” he says.
His role forms an executive part of the overall group leadership team where he reports directly to the Group Executive Chairperson, Sven Thieme.
Mukuahima is responsible for developing the group’s human capital strategy and seats on the O&L Board as Director.
His expertise in handling human resources issues accorded him the added responsibility of seating on the Board’s Remuneration Committee as a resource person and expert advisor.
Today, the staff complement has surpassed the 2005/6 figures to 4700 and the organization is running sustainable businesses that are setting a platform for further expansion.
“My expertise benefits O&L a great deal. I brought in a different perspective to people management and building sound relationships with the unions. A company needs to continuously work for healthy relationships with the unions for industrial harmony to prevail. As relevant stakeholders in the business, the unions play an important role and we make sure that they are amongst the first to hear and share our venture strategies. There are times when conflict situations arise which requires unpopular but right decisions to be taken. So, not everybody will be happy all the times. The demand of the modern business has changed the face of HR. In the majority of modern organisations, HR has taken its rightful place at the corporate table and the function is viewed as crucial strategic partner in the business. In our company, it (HR) is now called Human Capital,” Mukuahima explains.
He further expands on the critical need to man effectively human capital investment, “A happy employee equals a happy customer. If you have a happy customer you increase profits,” he advises spelling out his winning recipe for an inspired workforce.
The O&L Group is a holding company comprising the following:
Namibia Breweries, Namibia Dairies, Pick n Pay franchise, Hangana Sea Food, Dimension Data, Kilimanjaro Trading that has under its wings the following: Ocean Basket, Mug and Bean, and Milky Lane. The group has also invested in the travel and tourism sector boasting of the Mokuti Lodge and Midgard Country Estates Lodges popular for leisure and conferencing facilities.
O&L owns a marine engineering concern called Kraatz Marine for repairing boats and to demonstrate the organization’s concern for human habitat and also owns Broll Namibia, a property company. Lastly and mainly implemented for organizational utilization is Eros Air for the company’s own travel needs although the air service can also be chartered.
Managing an organization that has such diverse business units comes with a host of challenges that Mukuahima elaborates on.
Mukuahima regards the group as a complex diverse cooperation operating in dissimilar sectors. The challenge, he says, is to apply generic and common human resource policies to all these companies.
He explains how difficult it was to bring all the companies under one group culture. “We created a value programme to unite all employees around the group’s vision, mission, and values and the program has been running for seven years now under the name Mwenyopaleka which means “rebirth or new beginning.”
Mukuahima confesses that during his high school days he never knew that there was a profession called human resources.
“My dream was to become a chartered accountant but due to limited opportunities and inadequate career guidance, I got discouraged by my teacher who said accounting is a tough profession to take.”
After completing grade 12 at Augustineum Secondary School in Windhoek in 1980, he was awarded a bursary by the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) to study for a degree in Public Administration at Fort Hare University in South Africa and was capped in 1984.
It was during his studies at Fort Hare that Mukuahima took lots of modules in human resources charting the path for his current career.
His prowess in human resource management was put to test when he joined the civil service under the then Department of Education as a personnel officer in 1985. Mukuahima jumped off the civil service bandwagon in 1987 to join the forerunner project of the University of Namibia (Unam) in the personnel department.
His capability earned him the position of head of Remuneration and Labour Relations Department and prompted him to take up part-time studies with the University of Johannesburg in labour relations management.
As part of Unam’s capacity building and staff development program, Mukuahima was chosen to go to the United States of America to study for an MBA in Business Management and Human Resources.
This was a huge milestone for someone who had spent his childhood in rural Ovitoto, in an underprivileged family whose lack of resources had seen him start first grade at the age of nine, two years older, than the rest.
On his return from the US, after two years, he was promoted to Senior Assistant Registrar Personnel in charge of Human Resources at the university.
Mukuahima beams with delight when relating the daunting but exciting task that lay before him when he was put in charge of the recruitment of academic staff from all over the globe who needed to commence work at the University of Namibia when it was ready to open its doors.
In the late 1990s Mukuahima, satisfied with his mission at UNAM, moved to Telecom Namibia as General Manager Human Resources and Training.
He regards his six-year stint at Telecom Namibia as the one that ushered him into the era of technological advancement.
“It put me into an array of fascinating technologies and I had to work hard to keep up with the pace of technological advancement. The challenge at Telecom was to supply skills suitable for the positions. The customer became more and more sophisticated and demanding world-class products so I had to look for world class skills.”
During 2001-2002 Telecom embarked on a transformation project to map out the organization’s future and equip people with skills to become change agents.
The transformation phase at Telecom Namibia was geared to prepare the company for the accelerated liberalization of the telecommunication industry to allow competition to prevail and there was an explosion of technologies that were effectively utilised by the advent of MTC.
“We had to adapt quick enough to embrace new changes in the telecommunication environment. When O&L head hunted me in 2005, I felt it was timely because so much had happened and changed in my professional approach and I had to invest it somewhere,” Mukuahima notes.
His hot seat as head of the highly delicate department that manages the workforce recruitment and its welfare is clear testimony of how well he can execute his duties in this position.
Mukuahima has been instrumental in the elevation of his employer’s profile. This year, O&L was judged second “Best Employer” in southern Africa in a Deloitte survey were international fast-food company, McDonald, came first. Some of the practices that have contributed to O&L’s outstanding worker satisfaction are various wellness initiatives, superior communication tools and intensve-leadership development.
The group cultivates the desire among its employees to see the need to go for voluntary counselling and HIV testing to know their statuses.
He describes O&L as an organisation that is strong at leadership development to sharpen leadership skills of the different operating companies’ heads through training programs.
The fact that people spend more time at work, Mukuahima notes, mandates a company to create a working environment that motivates a worker to come to work.
He reveals that when O&L participated in the regional contest when they wanted to test its HR practices in comparison with the best in the region. Getting the second prize for an HR Director is an accredited achievement, Mukuahima says with a smile lased with triumph.
He adds that O&L is aware of the critical shortage of housing and to ease the plight of its workforce, the company is taking a massive project to find a housing solution.
“In Mariental, we entered into partnership with the municipality and managed to get 54 housing units for our employees. The employees had been relocated from Windhoek to work on the Superfarm project in Mariental. We want to emulate it wherever we do business in order to provide affordable housing for our people and we are hunting for land to build more houses for employees.”
Admittedly, the group’s strong workforce is 90% black and has an empowerment component to accelerate women to management positions called TAP (Talent Attraction Programme) where vacancies recruit 50% women annually.
“The percentage for unemployment in Namibia is scary and unsustainable,” says Mukuahima adding that it is a national problem seeking a national solution with all key stakeholders concerned.
From 2011 O&L will formalise a student internship program that fit O&L disciplines to shadow different managerial roles. The move is aimed at giving young people an opening of the real working world to pave way for future considerations to join the group after completing studies.
“We have already held consultations with the University of Namibia,” Mukuahima confirms.
Far less than one percent of O&L entire workforce is foreign but like most companies, his organization encounters delays in the processing of work permits for foreign recruits and it calls for regular follow-ups to expedite the process.
He serves as Trustee and Vice-Chairperson of the Namibia Business Coalition on AIDS (NABCOA). He also serves on the Polytechnic of Namibia Human Resource Curriculum Development Committee and has recently been appointed to serve on the institution’s curriculum advisory committee for the Executive MBA programme.
“My own job is a high pressure one which involves extensive travelling,” Mukuahima observes while crediting his wife Apollonia for playing the role of an effective pressure valve and good base manager whenever he is away from home. “It gives me peace of mind when I am away because I know the base has a reliable keeper.”
A passionate farmer, Mukuahima unwinds by reading books or looking after his livestock farm in Gobabis, “In my culture it is a taboo to talk about the number of cattle one has,” he closes off, leaving a precise mark of distinction in his work. PF