“People haven’t believed that I am a government minister”
Bogolo Kenewendo, the Botswanan government’s youngest minister at the age of 32, and a Sussex alumna, had some vital advice for students who came to hear her speak on campus during October.
“Lose your insecurities.They will not benefit you.”
Bogolo, who studied for a Masters in International Economics at Sussex as a Chevening Scholar in 2013, has been Botswana’s Minister for Trade since 2018. She was in the UK to conclude and sign on the trade agreement between the UK and Southern African Customs Union (SACU) & Mozambique. The trade agreement would be one of the first continuation agreements by the UK and Bogolo is the chair and coordinator of the negotiation process. She took time out from her busy schedule to meet students as part of Black History Month.
In response to questions put to her by current Chevening Scholar Su’ur Agema and other students, Bogolo described her memories of Sussex, her career ascent, and some of the challenges she had faced as a young female in a predominantly male, middle-aged work environment.
“I would meet some of my colleagues in the first months and I’d get, ‘So you’re the young, pretty minister I heard about?’ One of my colleagues, who has now retired, would always correct people and say, ’No she is the young capable minister you heard about’. He always kept a balanced perspective of it.”
She also related a story about how security officers who had been instructed to “meet Minister Kenewendo” off a plane initially refused to believe that she was the minister.
“Being young and female – I call it the ‘double trouble’ in female leadership roles,” she said. “I’ve had several interactions with people who haven’t believed that I am a government minister.”
Bogolo came to study at Sussex after working as an economist and realising that there were few people in Botswana with the knowledge and experience to handle international trade negotiations.
She had already gained a degree in Economics from Botswana University, but when she applied for Masters programmes in International Economics at universities around the world, she experienced multiple rejections.
“One university told me that my degree from Botswana was the equivalent of a certificate in the UK. But when I contacted [Professor] Alan Winters, who was the Head of Economics at Sussex at the time, he replied immediately and said would I would qualify.”
She was also encouraged by former president of Botswana and another Sussex alum, Festus Mogae. “He said it was the warmest part of the UK. But when I arrived it was freezing, rainy and windy – exactly the opposite of what he said it would be. Those from the African continent know that when it rains at home, you sleep. So it was quite hard for me to get out of bed.”
Within a month, however, she had acclimatised, and had thrown herself into studying. “The main challenge was that it was really hard. Alan gave homework every week and it was always very taxing.”
She reminded her audience, many of whom were Chevening Scholars – a programme that identifies leadership potential – that they should take advantage of opportunities the scholarship afforded them, including the chance to meet world leaders.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “I was invited to the House of Commons, and the House of Lords, and I became well acquainted with the Lords’ Speaker at the time, Frances D’Souza. We communicated very two weeks because she wanted to know how I was getting along.”
After Sussex, Bogolo returned to her former job, but, even though she was able to negotiate a better package for herself to become a partner, her postgraduate study had given her more than just a qualification.
“I had evolved as a person, I had more clarity of what I wanted to do as a professional and my network had become so broad. I knew there was a lot more in the world than what I was allowing myself to go back into.”
After taking an opportunity to work as a trade economist in the Ghanaian Ministry of Trade and Industry, in 2016 she was appointed as a Specially Elected Member of Parliament in Botswana by former president Ian Khama, before being appointed as the Cabinet Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry on April 4, 2018 by the incoming president, Mokgweetsi Masisi.
Her success, she said, is down to standing her ground, being prepared, and being firm with herself.
“I realised I should always keep moving, always rise and do better. Instead of externalities determining what I should do with my life, I am my own biggest critic, but also my biggest competition.”
And in response to a question from a student about how to handle insecurities, she was unequivocal. “Lose them,” she said. “They will not benefit you. I know it takes quite a lot because I was quite a shy child and I’m an introvert – you will not believe it – but every day you have to remind yourself why you are getting up. You will not have a reason to get out of bed if you allow your insecurities to take over.”