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  • Tami Odunaiya

Beyond Gender: Innovation in Diversity

Developing initiatives to support diversity isn't just about gender equality. Tami Odunaiya sat down with HR leaders from two companies in Kenya to find out how they are exploring innovative solutions to the diversity challenge beyond gender. In the first of two interviews, we met with John Mwenda, Head of HR for Nairobi Bottling Company.

John is the Head of HR for Nairobi Bottling Company, a subsidiary of Coca Cola Beverages Africa. Inspired by the need to have a larger impact on diversity beyond the organisation, John and his team set up a recruitment initiative targeted at increasing the number of differently-abled staff in the organisation. Working in collaboration with Deaf Empowerment Kenya they have hired more than 20 hearing-impaired people in their organisation and hope to expand to 39 this year.

Tell me more about this initiative and how it works?

After deciding to introduce this initiative, we looked back at our company and identified a group of roles, where differently-abled people could contribute. We partnered with Deaf Empowerment Kenya and through this partnership created a shortlist where we identified suitable skilled and semi-skilled people in the deaf community that were interested in employment. This shortlist then entered the normal recruitment processes under our current performance management framework.

The next phase was to engage with sign language. We hired sign language experts and translators and trained over 100 managers and colleagues in sign language.

Through the programme, we have hired 18 people so far. But the goal this year is to hire 21 more so the number goes up to 39.

What was the motivation powering this initiative?

When you look at most diversity programmes, their impact is limited to the boundaries of the workplace but we wanted something to break down these barriers. Aside from our normal corporate diversity programmes, we felt that we needed an initiative where the impact would be felt beyond the four walls of the organisation.

The high unemployment rates of people with disabilities in Kenya is something we can be a part of changing so we wanted to contribute in our way to finding a solution to this issue.

What impact had the initiative had on your organisation?

It's still in its early days but I would say the first effect was to achieve a genuine change towards a diverse and inclusive culture and show that with simple changes, we can have a big impact. There is a feeling that we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves. We focused on how we as a business can be a bastion of social change, and how we could support our communities. We can quantify this in different ways but above all, we have given people opportunities to work and contribute further to their communities.

How did your leaders get behind the project and support in driving it forward?

The leadership was involved in the project from the beginning and we made sure to constantly keep them involved. As we didn’t want this initiative to be looked at simply HR initiative, we made it a business function and therefore decisions were made at the business level.

What has been the impact on the wider team, and do you see it impacting the employee experience of your workforce?

We’ve seen a massive change in the mindset of our team. There is a lot of appreciation from the team on what the company is doing. But most importantly, there’s understanding and acceptance. There’s a better understanding that people who are hearing impaired aren't different from us are integral to our communities. We also see a shift in mindset where people are not viewing them as disabled but differently abled and appreciating that they can contribute. That change of attitude itself is a great result.

What are the biggest difficulties you faced when introducing the initiative?

The single biggest challenge we faced was the misconception that manufacturing as an industry could only work with people with full hearing and putting deaf staff at the site was placing them at risk.

Our solution to this issue was ensuring the involvement of line managers in developing job responsibilities and keeping employees and managers involved in every step of the process. We asked line managers to design roles for each individual, whilst integrating them through the same process as the rest of the team.

Where will the project go from here?

We want to scale the project into other areas of the business, particularly getting more hearing-impaired people working in different functions. Our challenge is to explore how we can take this project out to our various departments.


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