Esther Ngari: The Visionary Leader Shaping the Future of Kenya

Esther Ngari is the Managing Director at Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), responsible for leadership, strategic planning, stakeholder engagement, policy development, oversight of quality assurance, public relations, and building strategic partnerships. “Visionary” is the word that describes her the best. It reflects her forward-thinking approach that enables her to steer KEBS towards innovation, excellence, and positive impact in the realm of standards and quality.

KEBS is not just a government agency. It is the heart of Kenya’s quality infrastructure – a national trust, a guardian of quality, and a cornerstone of economic progress. So, for Esther, the decision to join KEBS was more than a career move. “It was a calling,” she says. It offered her a platform to champion quality on a national scale.

Esther sees her current leadership position as an opportunity to contribute to national and international standardization efforts, influence industry best practices, drive innovation, and ensure the safety and quality of products and services. She can also collaborate with diverse stakeholders, influence policy, and contribute to Kenya’s economic development and global competitiveness.

“It’s an opportunity to not just shape an industry, but to shape the future of Kenya, ensuring prosperity is built on a foundation of trust and excellence,” Esther says.

Life before KEBS

Esther’s journey toward KEBS was not paved with a singular, momentous “Aha!” moment. It was a “gradual sprouting of seeds” planted early in her life, nurtured by experiences, and fueled by a burning passion for quality and excellence. “My upbringing played a crucial role,” she says.

As she grew up in a farming community, she witnessed first-hand the dedication of farmers, the intricate dance of nature, and the importance of safe and healthy food. Esther says this ingrained in her a deep respect for the land, the value of quality, and the responsibility they have towards consumers. “My fascination with them bloomed in the fertile ground of education,” she says.

Esther has a Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree in dairy science and food technology from Egerton University. Her time at the University was not just about formulas and lab analysis. For her, it was a thrilling exploration of food science, the intricate interplay of technology and quality, and the critical role standards play in safeguarding both producers and consumers. “This wasn’t just knowledge; it was a calling,” she says.

And she says that her experience served as the “real” crucible. She learned the nitty-gritty of quality control, the art of navigating diverse opinions, and the pressure of enforcing standards. She also understood the power of collaboration.

“My career journey took the conventional path,” Esther points out. “I climbed the career ladder through all the staircases; I never took the escalator.” This has enabled her to become a leader who has a very clear understanding of the industry and the intricacies of implementing and adhering to the standards as set by the National Standards Body.

About KEBS, Vision, and Future

KEBS operates an integrated quality infrastructure that encompasses Standards, Metrology, and Conformity Assessment (SMCA). It is entrusted with developing, enforcing, and monitoring Kenya’s standards across an array of industries. As the Managing Director, Esther aims to position KEBS as the central hub of quality infrastructure in Kenya, serving as a catalyst for national prosperity and empowerment for all citizens.

She sees KEBS becoming a dynamic force in three key areas. First, it is poised to become a catalyst for economic growth by establishing world-class testing and certification facilities that actively promote Kenyan exports. Esther explains that this strategic initiative is geared towards enhancing the global competitiveness of Kenyan products and driving economic development.

Second, she envisions KEBS as a guardian of public safety, instilling trust and confidence in the Kenyan market. By upholding stringent standards, KEBS will play a pivotal role in ensuring the quality and safety of products circulating in the market, thereby safeguarding consumer interests and maintaining market integrity, according to Esther.

Third, she sees KEBS championing inclusivity by engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders, from small businesses to major corporations. This approach seeks to ensure that the voices of all sectors are heard in the standards development process.

KEBS’s transformative vision rests on three fundamental pillars: strategic partnerships, technological innovation, and human capital development. Esther underscores that through actively seeking and cultivating partnerships, embracing cutting-edge technology to modernize operations, and prioritizing the development of a skilled workforce, KEBS aims to be at the forefront of shaping Kenya’s quality landscape.

Contribution to Growth and Success 

Esther’s expertise has significantly contributed to the growth and success of KEBS. She has propelled its growth by strategically aligning the organization with global best practices, fostering innovation in their processes, and cultivating collaborative partnerships with industry stakeholders.

Under her leadership, KEBS has integrated internationally recognized standards, adopted cutting-edge technologies, and built a synergistic ecosystem that promotes shared goals.

Esther has also enhanced the organization’s ability to adapt to the dynamic landscape of quality assurance by focusing on developing a skilled and motivated workforce.

“These efforts collectively position KEBS as a forward-thinking and credible institution, actively contributing to the economic development and safety landscape of Kenya,” she says.

In line with KEBS’s vision of becoming a global leader in standards-based solutions for trade and sustainable development, the organization has taken a leadership role at the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO), with Esther serving on the governing council.

Kenya is the Chair of the ISO Committee on Conformity Assessment (CASCO) as well as a participant in the Technical Management Board of ISO. Esther points out that KEBS is the Codex Contact Point (CCP) for Kenya, and she has made certain that her organization plays an instrumental role in ensuring the active participation of Kenya at the global body, responsible for setting international food standards.

And Kenya is also the host for the African Organization for Standardization (ARSO), a body responsible for harmonization of African standards, conformity assessment and procedures in order to reduce technical barriers to trade and promote intra-African and international trade as well as enhance the industrialization of Africa. KEBS plays a critical role at the governing council for ARSO, where Esther serves as a council member.

For her, as the Managing Director of KEBS, success means “effectively guiding and inspiring my team to achieve the KEBS mandate which translates to building a robust ecosystem where quality and safety are not just aspirational ideals, but the very foundation of Kenyan industry.”

Challenges and True Rewards

As a woman of color, Esther has faced moments where navigating established systems built on different perspectives or foundations felt like climbing a steeper mountain. She, however, has never allowed such moments to dampen her spirit, because, according to her, it has also been a    journey of immense experience, personal growth, and a chance to break the ceiling and pave new paths for others like her.

Over the years, Esther has received numerous trophies and accolades. But what she values the most is the collective realization that her presence, voice, and perspective enrich the conversation around quality and safety. “Every time I contribute to a policy that empowers many small and medium enterprises in Kenya, every time I challenge existing norms to champion inclusivity in technical committees, every time I see a young generation, persons who are abled differently step into this field with a spark in their eyes – that’s my true reward,” she says.

Now, there is a greater recognition that diversity is not just a box to tick; it is a source of strength, a wellspring of fresh ideas, and a vital step towards building a more just and equitable world where quality standards serve everyone, not just a select few, according to Esther. But, despite all that, challenges remain.

“Unconscious bias lingers, and sometimes, the climb feels steeper than usual,” Esther says. “But the victories, the progress made, the lives touched – these are the fuel that keeps me going.”

“I believe that by sharing my experiences, advocating for inclusivity, and mentoring others like me, we can create a future where the industry reflects the vibrant mix of humanity it serves,” she adds.

Message to Aspiring Leaders

In a message to aspiring corporate leaders, Esther says, “Lead with passionnot just position. Let your purpose be your compass, your integrity your shield, and your empathy your guiding light.”

She also encourages them to challenge the status quo, champion diversity, and embrace the responsibility that comes with leadership. “Remember, the true measure of success isn’t the climb to the top, but the positive impact you create along the way,” she says.