Kevin Oyiwa – Food Safety System Leader, Uniliver Ethiopia Speaks to Food Safety Africa about his Career journey.

Describe your current role, key responsibilities and the most critical deliverables.

As the Quality Manager/Support for Unilever Ethiopia, my responsibilities include:

  • Site Quality Management – Coaching a team of quality specialists and laboratory analysts to drive the quality agenda via embedding a bottom-up quality culture throughout the entire make supply chain.
  • Go-To-Market Quality Management – Ensuring successful interface between Unilever customers, consumers, and the manufacturing sites, while maintaining consumer relevant quality standards in the marketplace.
  • Regulatory Affairs Management – Managing the interface with country regulators for Unilever FMCG products and ensuring right first-time product registration and sustenance of product licenses.

My most critical deliverables are to drive and ensure a robust system is in place that ensures all our consumers get to experience finished products that can cause absolutely no harm to them while in use and surpasses their expectations.

I also provide/foster and enable an environment where my team grows organically as they proceed in their career journeys.

What are some of the most important skill sets in achieving success in your role?

Resilience, clarity of communication, tenacity, and the ability to quickly learn, unlearn and relearn are some of the key skill sets in my role.

I would also really like to put across the blank canvas approach, whereby one should always be open to learning and be willing to embrace data actively and new technologies, with a caveat as to understanding the technologies from a first principles element.

Bruce Lee said it best, ‘be like water – formless, with the ability to take shape and adapt with the changing nature around you.’

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?

My journey into the current role has been quite an unorthodox one – given the kick-off point where I started my career journey was as a matatu/taxi tout or referred to as “msee wa squad.” I got into this after graduating from University to create revenue so as to cater to my needs at the time and contribute to the needs of my family.

As for my childhood and how it influenced my choice into my current role, I would paint it as one where curiosity – the constant fascination of trying to understand how things work and taking it a notch further to ensure that after understanding how things work, I could then replicate the same occurrence over and over. I would probably connect the dots from the inquisitive nature that was supported in my upbringing as well as being influenced to take care of those around me and how better to do that than by ensuring whatever leaves a production line is fit for use, cannot cause harm, and designed for purpose.

What are some of the quality, food safety and compliance certifications your company has? How would you say these certifications have shaped up your company to achieve its goals?

In my previous role in the company, we were able to attain certification in line with ISO FSMS 22000:2005, and we are currently on the journey to attain FSSC 22000 Version 5.1 certification and accreditation. We have successfully completed and passed Stage One of the audit criteria and have just undergone the Stage Two full site audit, awaiting review by the audit body as of the time of this interview, and shall be the first food manufacturer in Ethiopia to implement the system.

These certifications go a long way in embedding a culture of food safety and awareness as to what and how individual roles contribute to making the products that we manufacture safe for consumption. They also position the organization to  ensure consumer expectations are always surpassed.

Unilever is consumer obsessed organisation – all decisions are made with consumer safety and satisfaction top of mind, ensuring that the organization’s purpose and vision are always clear and met throughout the chain. These certifications form the anchor for the company to deliver on its ambitious goals every day.

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?

Unilever Ethiopia has committed to ensure food safety is ingrained within the fabric/DNA throughout its manufacturing operations.

The senior leadership team has not only allocated resources to ensure that food safety and compliance is never compromised at all levels but has demonstrated visible leadership to ensure that any decisions that may have an impact on food safety are well understood and mitigated against.

We, however, are not immune to a myriad of challenges – the approach taken to overcome these challenges by the company is to ensure that gains brought in by a robust food safety culture are not eroded, but rather encouraged.

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?

Ensuring that our supply partners are adhering to the agreed upon parameters is a challenge that we work together to overcome every day.

We have employed a partnership/collaborative approach whereby we work with our suppliers to build up their internal capability while ensuring that at our incoming inspections gate, we have deployed robust measures and set up precision equipment that are supported by qualified personnel to ensure that before any material is brought onto our manufacturing operations, they have been well assessed and qualified as fit for use or purpose.

We have also invested and deployed further controls in process that provide further mitigation points and eliminate any hazards that are present within our upstream supply chain.

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?

Unilever is a great organization to work in, as it has provided myself and others with the necessary opportunities to live and follow our purpose in our daily roles.

I get up at around 0430 hours, where I start off by reading a few pages of my newest addition to my growing library going by the title Mastery by Robert Greene. Depending on the day of the week, I would then go for a 10 kilometer run as a minimum or head to the gym, from where I leave by around 0650 hrs and head to the factory site, which is about 49 kilometers from the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Abeba (which means new flower).

At the factory, my day starts off with reviewing the previous day’s performance in line with my responsibilities, to catch up with my partners and team members. We then have an operational meeting with the Supply Chain Leadership team to align on the priorities and challenges for the day.

The bulk of the day is spent engaged on the production floor, troubleshooting as needed in different capacities within the different categories that are manufactured on site.

Through various experiences, my belief is that for one to experience more in their career journeys, they should be open to embracing different opportunities/ challenges that had previously not been available

Kevin Oyiwa – Food Safety System Leader, Uniliver Ethiopia


What have been some of the previous roles before the current one? How important were those roles in shaping your current role?

In my career journey, I have had various roles such as Environmental Impact Assessment Auditor, Casual Daily Rated Laborer, Quality Control Analyst, Incoming Raw and Packaging Material Analyst, Microbiologist, Warehouse Quality Controller, Manufacturing Team Leader, Quality Assurance Manager, Quality Specialist Systems, Quality Specialist Measurement And Testing, Production Manager Beauty and Personal Care Category, Acting Regulatory Affairs Manager, Quality Support Ethiopia.

My journey have been quite unorthodox, which kicked off with me being a matatu tout after which I joined an environment auditing firm working on two railway line projects: the Makadara terminal point and the Imara Daima railway terminus in Nairobi. When that contract ended, I went back to being a tout for a period, during which I sort out an opportunity to join Coca-Cola Beverages Africa (CCBA) as a casual daily rated laborer.

At CCBA, I really got to appreciate the actual meaning of teamwork, paying it forward and especially being your sisters/brother’s keeper. I say this because working as a daily rated casual laborer my role was primarily to crate filled beverages that were getting off the line as well as palletize finished crates. We would also maintain the orderliness around the production area. This fostered an appreciation for the fundamentals for cleanliness and fanned my passion for manufacturing as a whole – the conversion of ordinary raw and packaging materials into value added finished goods that delight consumers regardless of the sector you are playing in was born during this time.

Describing this experience as hard work, for lack of a better term, is an understatement, given the nature of the activities – we had to support each other, be able to pick up when a colleague was fatigued, know when and how to ask for support as well as taking breaks to recharge, while not hindering the production output. I credit this experience as the clearest example that we are not to be defined by our given “titles” but rather, we are so much more.

I was in this role for approximately nine months thereabouts after which I met my first coach, who gave me the opportunity to interview for a position of Quality Controller, which I am always grateful for and indebted given the fact that she took a chance on me without prior experience. After a successful interview, I joined the quality assurance department, where I got to delve into the full spectrum of what quality is all about – from frontline quality control to quality assurance. By the time I left the organization, I had transitioned into production management as a Manufacturing Team Leader.

On leaving CCBA,  I joined Tropical Heat Limited as the Quality Assurance Manager and Food Safety Team Leader, which provided me with the much needed experience to successfully implement ISO 22000:2005 (First Version), go through a recertification audit as well and embed the necessary systems to ensure food safety was paramount and viewed as a culture and a catalyst for operational improvement, rather than the traditional and at times archaic perspective of an audit entity whose value is not well understood and appreciated.

During my tenure we moved to a larger site and though quite the intimidating project, we were successfully able to move all operations into the new site and setup in line with the necessary food safety considerations, with great gains in terms of operational efficiency.

This experience greatly influenced my views and allowed me to form a deeper understanding and appreciation of how to build up a robust system capable of providing adequate measures and controls to ensure a thriving food safety culture.

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 have had several pivot changes in my career and when I think about it, they all influenced me in different ways. Through various experiences, my belief is that for one to experience more in their career journeys, they should be open to embracing different opportunities/challenges that had previously not been available.

I would have to say the biggest lessons derived from change is to be malleable and open.

“Stay committed to your decisions but stay flexible in your approach.” – Tony Robbins

“Leaders honor their core values, but they are flexible in how they execute them.” – General Colin Powell

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?

What makes my role interesting is the fact that no single day is similar, regardless of the sector one is operating in. Every day presents a new opportunity to grow, stretch yourself and impact your world, I relish the opportunity that I get to experience this aspect every day.

My mentors have been the lighthouse/north star that have really helped me judge whether I am on the right path towards my personal goals. I have several mentors, both professional and personal, who provide guidance and the necessary sounding boards when called upon.

What challenges do you face in delivering on your current role and how do you overcome them?

My biggest challenge has been in embedding first principles in regard to food safety to everyone, at all the levels in the business.

This is being worked on through continuous engagement sessions with the Leadership team on site and more so the teams that deliver on the production floor. However, it does help that I am working on my Amharic and Oromifa dialect, as these are the languages that are predominately in use at the plant.

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?

After a hard day, I tend to try and ease into the evening by either preparing a decent cup of tea and then would disassemble and reassemble my bike, get a few pages of my current read done – Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter – play some games on my PlayStation, catchup on my podcasts and review restaurants/ eateries.

The hobby that resonate fully with me is my love for the outdoors: mountain climbing, cycling and triathlons. Just this past month of February 2022, I have been able to run 215 kilometers at the time of this interview.

These hobbies have helped me build resilience that is very necessary for my personal and professional well-being. The hobbies I have taken on require a lot of inner belief in my own abilities and stretches my capabilities to the limit, but then again there is nothing as serene as the sunrise on the peak of Mount Kenya as well as the realization that we are inherently quite small and miniscule beings when you sky dive off a plane! They bring to the forefront the humility required to stay hungry for more knowledge and experiences.

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?

For all those starting off in their career or would like to pursue one within the food safety space, I would advise that you keep on reading and updating yourself on the latest information around food safety.

Personally, I have just enrolled in a course on food safety that has been developed by the International Food Protection Training Institute, which is an initiative of the Global Food Protection Institute,  driving the adoption of food protection policies and practices for a safer global food supply. Developed in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the training meets established U.S. federal food safety standards.

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?

When it comes to accomplishments, it would be great to leave a lasting imprint regarding the food safety culture throughout the continent, whereby it becomes commonplace and robust throughout all manufacturing processes especially within the African continent.

As for my future aspirations that I am working on, I shall be a Life Coach in future.

This feature appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE