When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Kenya in early 2020, Sicily Kariuki was initially relieved the President just weeks before had switched her from leading the health ministry to take charge of water and sanitation. Her sense of relief was short-lived as she realized that hand washing, long recognized as a basic public health measure, was now of life and death importance in helping combat COVID. Her challenge on the one hand was increasing public awareness of the importance of hand washing in avoiding COVID-infection, on the other hand the much larger challenge was ensuring access to clean water and soap for routine hand washing in all institutional settings across Kenya.
Reflecting on these development, Sicily Kariuki mused that one can often more easily connect the dots looking backwards that one cannot connect going forward. Kariuki’s experience prior to being appointed Cabinet Secretary for Water, Irrigation and Sanitation included four years as Cabinet Secretary for Health, as well as earlier terms as the Cabinet Secretary for Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs, preceded by a host of leadership roles across the business sector. With such diverse a range of leadership experience, private and public sector knowledge, and subject matter expertise under her belt, the dots of Kariuki’s career are now becoming more and more connected.
After attending the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Forum in 2018 as CS for Health, Kariuki noted that the program was “invaluable.” She was keen to share learnings with her ministry officials as she felt that, “…bringing my team along will breathe more meaning into my ministry.” In her current role, Kariuki has set a target to achieve 80% access to safe water and 40% access to sanitation services across Kenya by the end of 2022.
In recognition of Secretary Kariuki’s leadership accomplishments in expanding health access, strengthening the Kenyan health system and helping guide Kenya through the COVID-19 pandemic in two pivotal government leadership posts, the Ministerial Program has awarded Secretary Kariuki its annual Harvard Ministerial Medal of Achievement. Reflecting on her storied journey of effective leadership, Kariuki says, “In my life, I have learned that when you want to do something, just do it.”