PROFILE: Yvonne Okwara – Matole, authentic and unafraid, a trailblazer in Kenya’s media industry

PROFILE: Yvonne Okwara – Matole, authentic and unafraid, a trailblazer in Kenya’s media industry

By Patience Nyange and Esther Kiragu

Yvonne Okwara – Matole is a household name in Kenya, having been in the media industry for over 15 years now.

Her passion and agility to make the most of every opportunity that comes her way have seen her become one of Kenya’s most respected news anchors.

A holder of a Bsc. in Microbiology and a graduate of the Bloomberg/ Africa Leadership Initiative Media Fellowship that grounded her in business journalism, Yvonne was the pioneer of the Bottomline Africa show, as well as the Big Story on KTN News.

“I graduated in 2006, and in the same year, I joined Hot96 as a Presenter when the radio station was newly launched by Royal Media Services (RMS). My first show was World Music on Saturday mornings, after which I started co-hosting the mid-morning radio show before finally hosting the breakfast show,” she says.

Her desire to advance her career saw her move from Hot 96 to the Nation Media Group as a radio talk show producer at QFM.

“I worked on Rashid Abdalla’s talk show Maskani: a four-hour talk show that discussed political and socio-economic issues. It was citizen-targeted and citizen-driven. While producing this show, I began to shadow the host of NTV’s This Morning for about eight months before I was given the green light to co-hosting the TV show,” she says.

Yvonne was not settled yet and the search for growth saw her make another move, away from NTV to QTV, a Kiswahili TV station where she worked as a producer and news director.

“I produced I-Seme, whose concept remains unique to this day. It was a news show with stories shot by ordinary citizens; citizen journalism where people told stories about their locale in their own words and perspective.

“We had stories from some of the remotest parts of Kenya, and it was refreshing to see Kenyans tell their own stories. My role was to assist them with scripting, give guidance on shooting, and edit their scripts and final production of the story. This is one of my proudest projects.

“Citizens who submitted their pieces were not trained journalists, and most stories had a reflection of their mother-tongue influence, which made the show special. It was the true face of Kenya, a beautiful blend of who we are, a true representation of our diversity. Most of all, it was authentic!” she says.

She continues: “While at QTV, I was also the news director, sub-editor and produced other talk shows like Longalonga on Friday afternoons and a Thursday night political talk show that Prof. PLO Lumumba hosted. I was producer, chief researcher, booked guests, on-set show director and floor manager.”

As her career development kept leading, Yvonne Okwara left NMG in November 2012 and joined the Standard Group, this time round in front of the camera as host and producer of the TV breakfast show Sunrise Live.

“In about a year, I was bumped up to the 9pm news slot, and in less than five months, added the biggest show; Sunday’s Checkpoint. About a year later, I kept rising, and we launched Kenya’s first 24-hour news channel KTN News, also one of my proudest moments to date.

“We changed the industry and put news, locally and regionally, at the top of Kenyans minds. It required long working hours and more understanding of the world around us as we broadcast in over ten countries regionally.

“I also experienced the biggest growth in my career here, rising from the junior news anchor to senior news anchor to Head of News Anchors, Editor in charge of Research and Planning and eventually Head of News Strategy for the channel,” she says.

Five and half years later, Yvonne made another move to Citizen TV, as an Editor for Research as well as Senior News Anchor and host of the Thursday show.

“I present The Explainer on Tonight with Yvonne Okwara, breaking down the news events to viewers. I also co-host News Gang, a no-holds-barred assessment of the week’s biggest stories by some of the top journalists in the country today. I recently started hosting Business Now on Monday afternoons,” she says.

In yet another recent highlight, Yvonne Okwara was featured in the book LeadHers: Life Lessons from African Women, in partnership with Facebook that celebrates 19 leading women from across the continent.

With such great accomplishments please share some ways that women can best position themselves for opportunities. How do we rise up the ranks?

I believe women need to do a few things:

• Remain authentic. One of the best pieces of advice Pamela Sittoni, Executive Director at NMG, told me was never to stop being feminine. Show up. Look good and appreciate the strengths and qualities that women bring to the table, including empathy.

• Speak about your goals to your bosses and supervisors more often. Tell them what you want and declare your interest in certain positions, stating clearly what you are willing to do to get there and what assistance you require, be it training, fellowships. It keeps you top of mind when they are making decisions.

• Step up more, offer yourself to go the extra mile with new tasks to show what you are capable of.

• Speak up about your achievements. I believe the phrase “be humble” has often been misunderstood. It has been interpreted as sit quietly in the corner, don’t speak about your achievements, don’t tell anyone about a project you did well and how you did it because that would be seen as boastful or proud.

This is not the case. How else will your superiors know what you you are capable of? Remember, there are so many employees in an organization jostling for visibility, and one needs to stand out.

Simply stating what you have done and reminding them that you are a valuable asset is key to having yourself being top of mind, for promotions, for training. After all, they are your achievements; you worked hard for them, put in the effort, a reminder to those that matter will certainly not hurt.

• Once you get to a position of leadership, the best way to lead is by example. Do you keep time for meetings, are you organized in how you prepare your work? Are you professional? Do you separate work from personal stuff? Do you practice what you expect of your team?

These are the words from Pauline Kiraithe, who was Group HR Director at Standard Group, when I was promoted to Head of Anchors. Also, be sure to either ask your employer for some training to help you settle in the new leadership role or find some free online courses on the same.

No one was born knowing these things, so invest in some knowledge for yourself. Just because you are in a leadership position does not mean you know everything. Learning never ends.

What role has the following played in your career life?

• Passion for what you do
It will keep you interested in your career. Help you to keep discovering new trends and approaches in your industry. It maintains that fire burning in your soul, when things get mundane.

• Maintaining a great attitude
It keeps you grounded, both when things are tough and when you continue to soar. It reminds you of what is important everyday.

• Taking new challenges
This helps you grow. I took many challenges that some thought were career suicide. Moving to QFM, a Kiswahili radio station, to go behind the scenes was a challenge in so many ways.

People wondered why would I move from being on-air to a behind-the-scenes role? Why would I move from an English station to producing a show in Kiswahili? Why would I move to new stations like QFM and QTV? Why would I stop doing political interviews that are seen as the Holy Grail in my business to doing explainers?

All of these helped me get a 360 degree understanding of the business, in front of the camera and behind it, producing and presenting, Radio and television, Scripting and editing, booking guests, and conducting research.

These made me a better journalist and gave me a greater appreciation of the entire team’s responsibilities to put out just one show or just one 3-minute story.

This media business demands for a team effort, beyond the (seemingly glamourous) end-product that everyone sees. It also helped me chart my own path. I am the only one doing explainers on television countywide, and this unique way of story-telling stands out and sets me apart from the pack.

• Forging networks
Both within the industry and outside of it is vital. It enables one to get story tips, support from networks and ideas of keeping your career alive.

• Mentorship
Helping others grow keeps the industry alive. The more it thrives, the better for us all. It is a win-win to have many more young men and women thrive.

There are plenty of opportunities for everyone in the business, and there is an important role to help others not repeat the mistakes I made, not suffer the same things I did. I don’t believe that anyone should go through what I went through to get to where I did. The age-old mistakes, pitfalls, stereotypes should not be used as a right of passage.

Yvonne shares some key lessons on life and career

• Do not be defined by your career and your titles. It would be easy for me to let it get to my head that I am a news anchor on television and lord it over others. I am not a celebrity. I am a journalist. The difference between me and every other person working out there is that you get to watch me work. Put your head down and get to work! The results will show, and you will be rewarded in due time.

• Do not forget family and friends. Build that as you grow in your career. That is what will keep you grounded, make you feel loved, give you good mental health, and will last long after you retire.

• Be authentic. Be you. Do not live up to anyone’s expectations of who they think you should be. There’s been pressure on me to look prettier (whatever this means, haha), to smile more so that I can attract a certain type of audience (to which I say, I will smile when there is need to smile) to not be as tough with my interviews (I should be nice, easy, like so and so), but I know what role I play on behalf of Kenyans watching, who expect answers from the duty bearers. I am doing my job as best as I can, so help me God. I don’t imitate anyone. I don’t compete with anyone. I am trying to better than I was yesterday!

Yvonne Okwara during a past interview with Safaricom's founding CEOMichael Joseph.
Yvonne Okwara during a past interview with Safaricom’s founding CEO Michael Joseph.

 

We asked Yvonne what values are most important to her that she lives by.

• Integrity. My values and principle will stand the test of time and last well beyond looks and appearances, which fade with time. These will keep one in good stead throughout their life and career
• Authenticity. I am who I am, and proud of it. There is no one else like me, and that is my magic!

So how do you describe yourself, and how do others describe you?

I am a woman, wife, lover, sister, daughter, friend, top journalist, fiercely loyal, all or nothing, driven, God-fearing, detailed and process-oriented with a great sense of empathy for those who face injustice, those living on the fringes of society. I think my friends and family would say the same.

Any Parting shot

Live your life. Live life and live it abundantly. Hold nothing back, love completely, give yourself to your work wholeheartedly. We will all die one day, but before then, WE LIVE and LIVE ABUNDANTLY!

 

About the writers: Esther Kiragu is a writer, editor, and communication professional in Kenya while Patience Nyange is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters Degree in International Public Relations and Global Communication Management from Cardiff University. Prior to joining Cardiff University, Patience served as an Assistant Director at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).