One on one with Vivian Ochieng’ -QA Manager Artcaffe Cofee & Bakery.
Describe your current role, key responsibilities and the most critical deliverables.
My role primarily is to ensure that when a guest indulges in our food, it is safe and meets their expectations. This involves rigorous safe practices at the back office – all the way from sourcing of raw materials, receiving, processing/production, storage and dispatch. My key responsibilities are summarized into three functions:
- To ensure the raw materials received meet our set standards
- To ensure staff handling the food are competent and are proactive in safe food handling practices. This is achieved by continuous capacity building and in-house food safety audits.
- To ensure the final products are verified against set standards to guarantee safety and quality.
At the end of it all, the efficiency in my role is evaluated based on customer feedback/or complaints, Food Safety Management System (FSMS) audit performance (both in-house and 3rd party), Prerequisite Program (PRP) audits performance, compliance audits performance and staff assessment feedback.
What are some of the most important skill sets in achieving success in your role?
To be successful in this role, one needs to have in-depth knowledge on food safety requirements and be able interpret standards/specifications, both local and international, regarding the products handled at the facility/organization. Secondly, you need to be able to communicate and disseminate information to different levels of staff and other relevant stakeholders to ensure they are competent and are capable to proactively produce safe food and ensure the food handling environment is maintained as required.
You also need to be competent enough to objectively conduct an audit, determine root cause for non-conformities, follow up on corrective actions closure and monitor effectiveness of the corrective actions raised.
One also needs to to effectively manage different priorities and maintain detail through all tasks. And since this role covers multiple disciplines one must be able to build, lead and win through teams. From the large data generated while monitoring the processes, it is imperative for one to have knowledge of statistical analysis and interpretation and to translate this data to gauge the performance of the food safety management system.
How would you describe your journey to the role you are currently having? How has your childhood and growing up guided your choice for this career option?
Growing up, I wanted to be a journalist and later, the dream changed into being an engineer. The latter came to be.
I started off in machine maintenance in the non-food industry as an intern. My first experience in food processing exposed me to the quality assurance department. At first, it must have been exciting to sample the products, but later my interest into understanding how important this role was, grew.
Slight deviation would result in rework, downgrading or disposal which is not sustainable in any organization. This led me to grow my skills in problem solving. I got to know the importance of determining the root cause of any problem, getting the most appropriate corrective action to ensure no recurrence of the non-conformity.
I have come to realize that quality assurance is a culture and in food manufacture/handling, if all food handlers are competent and proactive, the world is a safer place. I feel that by being in this profession I will make a positive impact through my contribution as a food safety specialist.
What are some of the quality, food safety and compliance certifications your company has achieved? How would you say these certifications have shaped up your company to achieve its goals?
Currently, we are certified locally in Kenya on product quality for all pre-packed products by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and internationally against Food Safety Management Systems – ISO 22000:2018. What has gone into place prior to our company achieving these certifications has formed the foundation to achieving a sustainable food safety culture at our workplace.
By the time we get audited, proper documentation and awareness at all levels within the organization was key and as much as compliance was realized, the greater win has been having in place a food safety culture that will be sustainable in the long run in the company.
With food safety objectives aligned to the company’s strategic plan, we have ensured ownership of the process in all departments leading to continuous improvement over time.
How does your company ensure that food safety culture is inculcated within the teams? What are some of the challenges your team and company face in ensuring compliance throughout the business?
In setting up any system, acceptance of a new way to handle issues takes a toll on the implementation team. It is worse when these systems affect external parties like suppliers who were in existence and now must comply with additional sets of requirements.
There is a lot of learning and unlearning, which could be cumbersome to some parties. Documentation and records maintenance were also key challenges for us, since most certifications require proof of compliance to set standards.
To create food safety culture in our business, we have embraced the top-down approach where the department heads champion for food safety practices. Top management commitment has been very instrumental in cascading most of the policies, procedures and then through leading by example, we have set the pace for staff, thereby affirming that the right culture is attainable.
Aside from that, continuous trainings and reviews have ensured that our staff is competent. During training, emphasis is on the staff to understand the need to have a functional system and their contribution to its success and sustainability. We also benchmark with industries that have functional food safety culture, where we take staff on field trips for them to have firsthand experience.
Further, in instances where we get non-conformities, we use the team approach so that we get input from all staff/3rd party concerned. Time to time, we get feedback from staff on any issues which affect the system and use that to improve on the implementation.
The needs and expectations of interested parties are normally identified by the staff and top management occasionally reviews these needs and actions as appropriate. Proper communication to all expected parties helps iron out any lapses. Lastly, we reward consistency and good performance which motivates the staff even further to sustain the culture already in existence.
What are some of the quality, food safety and compliance your company challenges on a regular basis? What are some of the processes you have put in place to ensure that raw materials, in-process and end products meet your requirements?
Regulatory bodies have proper outlines/specifications to govern food safety and quality. However, the implementation is a challenge with most local manufacturers.
KEBS, for instance, has detailed specifications for most products but still we encounter raw materials that are missing very key information on their labels. Also, some of the products being developed lack a particular specification and we are forced to use a product close to it, which could have distinct features in it. Classic example is on artisanal breads that are sour; the Kenyan standard for bread does not give provision for sour bread.
Further, our company has in place stringent measures to ensure compliance to our in-house quality and food safety standards. All suppliers are pre-approved and prior to that they are audited on a set schedule to verify their compliance. Where applicable, a Certificate of Analysis (COA) must accompany the product being supplied. At receiving the raw materials, they are further subjected to quality checks for acceptance or rejection. Every product delivered to our facilities must go through this process. In-house, we monitor the handling, storage conditions, hot holding and cold handling temperatures to ensure they are as per requirements.
We also build the capacity of our staff (process owners) and hold them accountable for their actions. Supervision is crucial to serve as a third eye as we could not miss one or two cases of non-conformity. There is complete traceability for all finished products. We submit our products (raw material and final products) to accredited third party laboratories to verify the efficacy of our in-house processes. We equally conduct environmental and hand swabs as part of our verification activities. We have functional prerequisite programs (PRPs) in place, which is the foundation for all our activities. Our PRPs are aligned to the technical standard ISO/TS 22002-2. We regularly conduct in-house audits to verify compliance to the set policies and procedures.
I have come to realize that quality assurance is a culture and in food manufacture/handling, if all food handlers are competent and proactive, the world is a safer place.
Vivian Ochieng’ – QA Manager Artcaffe Cofee & Bakery
Tell us about your company and how it fits in with career goals. Briefly, what is the typical day like in your role and at your company?
Artcaffe Coffee and Bakery Limited has set out to bring to life a series of high-quality restaurants that offer not only delicious food and exceptional service, but unparalleled ambience too. All these would make no sense if the food on offer was not safe.
When I got on board, getting a functional food safety management system was top of my priority. The company’s top management and staff provided an enabling environment to kick-start the process and sustain it to completion of the first cycle of the food safety management system certification.
On most days I start off with a site tour – following the process flow from receiving of raw materials, storage, production and dispatch. In the tour I get to verify the checks done, identify any unattended deviations and for the ones attended to, I check the efficacy of the corrections and corrective actions. At this time, I also get to engage with the different process owners on any issues that may have come up – both positive and negative.
During the day I make impromptu checks on the different departments, check the quality of the finished products (we have a batch production system) and get to address any non-conformities. My day ends normally in the office where I get to handle paperwork, prepare for training and respond to mails.
Since most of our monitoring is online, it is easy to keep track of the Critical Control Points for our operational prerequisites. Occasionally, I get to liaise with 3rd party suppliers, laboratories, compliance/regulatory bodies, top management and the food safety team. I also conduct trainings and audits on set schedules. Often, I liaise with the product development team on product labeling requirements and product approval by the regulatory bodies.
What have been some of the previous roles before the current one? How important were those roles in shaping your current role?
I started off as machine maintenance intern and later on I moved to production management. This role was diverse and entailed production planning, people management, work place safety & environment management and quality assurance. It was shift work and I was in charge during the shift.
I must say this greatly shaped my path. I was able to get exposure on people management, built my public speaking skills and was able to spearhead projects, identify gaps and address them. I also learnt budgeting and how critical proper planning was, to ensure closure of projects for day to day running of a department.
While in this role I inclined towards quality assurance and was the site quality champion. I recall doing a project in liaison with the R&D department that streamlined a critical stage in the production line. I needed such challenges to help me grow and that gave me the push to move to a very new line of work – the hospitality industry.
There were huge differences, especially moving from semi automation to human intensive type of product handling, but since I had considerable exposure in people management and systems implementation, the transition was a little smoother. Also having dealt with different skill set of employees, my capacity building strategy was diverse to capture that and within one year of inception the company had attained certification of ISO 22000:2015 and was among the first restaurants to attain this international food safety certification in Kenya.
What have been the key turning points in your career? Have you ever had a change in career direction? If so, how did you handle the change? What lessons did you derive from this change?
I think most of us go into tertiary education with very little knowledge of our capabilities and aspirations; ending up studying something because that is what they qualified for or because the course is marketable.
I felt like studying engineering would give me an edge in the job market, and it did at the start of my career. I got good exposure while working for multinational companies. Challenge is when you are at a place where systems are in place, your mind kind of settles and if you do not take action, you might not grow. This is what prompted my move.
I wanted to start up a system, get it running and sustain it. I shifted from engineering to production management and finally to food safety management. There are constants with all these fields: people management, teamwork, training and capacity building, budgeting, planning, data management and problem solving. These skills set the foundation during my transition. The rest, however, depended on my ability to quickly learn and be able to adapt to the change.
Moving from tea processing to the hospitality sector had me shifting from dealing with one product all year round to more than 100 different products per day. I also moved from handling one supplier to more than 100 suppliers, from dry goods handling to hot holding/handling and cold handling/storage of products. The processes are completely different and it involved a lot of observation, on job engagements, research and benchmarking. Willingness to learn has been key for my growth and coping with change.
What makes your role interesting? What do you enjoy most about your role? What has been the role of mentors and family in the achievement of your professional goals?
The fact that as a food safety professional, I get to liaise with different departments makes the role exciting. Different departments have different issues and from the interactions I have learnt and appreciated their contributions to a safe food supply chain.
My greatest joy comes when our staff can point out non-conformities and deal with them without the need to be prompted. This way, customer complaints are reduced, as everything is done right the first time. Also, having feedback sessions with staff and they genuinely express notable positive impact from implementing a functional system is enough motivation to keep doing this. I happen to conduct a lot of trainings and in some of the refresher trainings, a member of staff can volunteer to conduct the training. It is elating when they highlight details and use practical examples to train others as it shows our training sessions are effective.
Starting off this journey and having major shifts in my career at some point left me thinking, ‘what am I?’ I was still finding my path. I remember enrolling for my master’s degree in environmental science then later after completion, I realized it was a great mismatch with my passion. I still use the knowledge, though I’m not actively engaged in it. I think if I had mentors at an earlier stage in my career, I would have done my masters in a completely different field. But now, my path is clear. I am thinking of taking my studies at doctorate level to gain in-depth knowledge of food safety, especially in equipment design and how to optimize them for food safety. This has been influenced by mentors that I mostly interact with on the LinkedIn platform.
My husband is my number one cheerleader; I remember when we passed the first external audit and he was the first to congratulate me as he understood the amount of work that went into achieving it. He encouraged me to open up my consulting firm and he co-sponsored my lead auditor course fee. I have a group of peers; we call each other ‘boss girls’ and they are breaking barriers in different fields. They motivate me a great deal, as I feel I can equally excel in what I do, if I put my mind to it.
What challenges do you face in delivering on your current role and how do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge in my role is that for it to be successful, you need the people to achieve it. You have to win through teams. And since it involves change and breaking the norm, there is always a hard start to the process especially if processes are deemed to run smoothly already. Getting everyone on board to accept the new way of handling issues is not an easy task. Also there is the issue of a functional food safety system not directly translating to profits/cost saving in the short run, and therefore not very lucrative to any investor who wants to optimize operations. This is where top management commitment to the process is critical. Getting them on board to understand the bigger picture is instrumental and it is easier to cascade it down the organization. Same concept is applicable with the rest of the staff, for them not to find it as a bother but rather an efficient and safer way to handle processes. Having a functional system involves a lot of paper work that is cumbersome to most staff. We transitioned to a paperless system which made this easier to input/monitor, retrieve and maintain. It lessens the burden. Bench marking exercises enable the staff to appreciate areas where the system is functional and reckon that it is achievable. And the most common issue is when you have to reject/downgrade/rework an item, you brush shoulders with the different departments. In such circumstances you have to firmly but factually explain the reasons for that and make them understand the repercussions of taking no action. Over time they get to understand the appropriate way of doing it to avoid such scenarios.
How do you wind down after a hard day at work? What are your personal hobbies? How do these hobbies contribute to your personnel and professional development?
I find reggae music to be therapeutic and after a tough day, I turn up the volume a little and sing along and at times even dance. My two boys join in the party always and they certainly make it merrier. I love to travel and sample food.
I get to appreciate the diversity and I’m keen on policies in place regarding food safety, workplace safety and for establishments with open kitchens – I’m always observing their way of work and I never fail to give feedback.
Lately, with food markets trending in most supermarkets, I love to observe their food displays and food handling practices. It’s interesting that some grocery stores in these supermarkets have evident food safety management systems in place and I get to learn a lot from the way they attend to me. Whenever I have the chance, I pass on this knowledge even to parties not necessarily involved in food handling. Most recent is where an acquaintance invited me to give a talk to high school students and create awareness on what to look out for as a consumer. There is a huge knowledge gap with most consumers and if more awareness is created, food manufactures will be on toes to ensure they exceed the bare minimum requirements.
How can young people who may aspire to a career choice like yours plan their journey? What advice would you give them to succeed in their careers and life?
Well, one must be passionate in what they want to pursue; that way you are able to overcome any challenges that come along your way. Going into college, my career options were limited as I lacked knowledge on the diverse fields in the market.
I think it is important for students starting from the lower level (primary school) to get exposure earlier on what they aspire to be or on what they can be later in life. That way, their ambition will be deep rooted and more defined as they journey through their education. Let them attend career fairs, appreciate what it takes to be in their intended profession and check if it aligns with their goals. Passion fuels energy.
What would you want to accomplish in your career before you step away from the industry? What else would you want to do in the future?
I would like to be work as an international auditor. I have already done my application with the International Register of Certified Auditor (IRCA) at Lead Auditor level.
I would like to do more of consulting and 3rd party audits and to build capacity for local restaurants and small & medium food handling establishments by setting up systems that will guarantee food safety in their everyday activities.
I would like to inform them that they do not have to attain internationally recognized certification as a result – rather we should create a culture that will make our country safer by giving people access to safe food and food products. I would like to clear that mentality that having a functional food safety culture is an expensive and unsustainable process. I want them to have the bigger picture and that will be my contribution to a safer nation, now and in the long run.