THE National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) is one of the few institutions that have heeded the call to appoint women to positions of power. So unique is NACOSEC that it is led by a female chief executive officer Malitaba Litaba who is also deputised by another woman, Catherine Lephoto. The Lesotho Times’ (LT) senior reporter ‘Marafaele Mohloboli recently spoke to Dr Lephoto about her career, achievements and new experiences in NACOSEC. Below are excerpts of the interview.

LT: Can you tell us more about Dr Catherine Lephoto?

Dr Lephoto: I am a proud Mosotho from Maphotong, Roma. My primary qualification is a Doctorate in Molecular Biology with a specialisation in microbial genetics. My research topic was on cloning the gene(s) responsible for antibiotic resistance in TB-causing bacteria.

I chose this topic because TB is a leading cause of death among my people; my mother was once diagnosed with it and thankfully; she was cured. Beyond Molecular Biology, I have qualifications in Brewing Science and Process as well as Business Management. Further to these, I have completed courses as an assessor and a director and serve on the board of directors of companies in South Africa and the UK.

I am driven by my own development and the empowerment of others, especially women. I believe in lifelong learning and the need to continuously improve myself. In the workplace, I believe in the open sharing of ideas as a way of empowering others and to get the most out of the organisation. I am a results-driven professional and service orientated.

When I lead teams, I have an open-door policy and believe in giving everyone, no matter how low their position might be, an opportunity to contribute to discussions. In my personal capacity, I am involved in a number of community-upliftment projects and contribute to my church. Over the years, I have contributed to the education of many children in my hometown, some of whom (notably girls) have even gone on to graduate from university. Seeing them succeed is a source of great pride and personal gratification.

I am also driven by the need to see the African continent developing. I believe that we must promote the responsibility to be productive while embracing the latest technologies and allowing the youth to assume leadership positions to change the prospects of our continent. It is through embracing each other as Africans, exchanging our skills and knowledge freely, and demanding better of ourselves that we can truly get the most out of our continent for the sake of future generations.

LT: You hold some demanding posts and you are also family oriented. How do you balance these demanding tasks?

Dr Lephoto: Balancing between career and family obligations is one of the greatest challenges for career-driven women like myself. As a mother of two small boys, one aged 13 and another aged seven, I have often found myself dealing with this dilemma. On one hand, one must go out and build a successful career to give the children a better future and on another one has personal fulfilment aspirations. However, social pressures often place unnecessary burden.

In my case, I have always relied on my strong support system – from a great nanny who steps into my shoes whenever work takes me away; which is often – to a reliable transport operator who takes the kids to school and other extra-mural activities. I also have my family and friends who always step in as and when the need arises.

The boys’ father, being a specialist anaesthetist, is often in the hospital handling life-saving operations, so even though he chips in as a parent, his own career makes it difficult and the bulk of the load falls on me. Thankfully, I have been blessed with two brilliant, self-assured, and independent kids who are thriving even with a working mom like me.

LT: Do you think women are adequately appreciated in the workplace?

Dr Lephoto: The workplace can be tough place for women. In progressive companies, where the unique challenges facing working women are appreciated by leadership, I have seen supportive environments being created to ensure women succeed. These are companies that tend to thrive. I am and thankful to have benefited from such environments.

Sadly, there are too many places where women still face unnecessary pressures be it of a sexist, ageist, or other nature. The situation becomes far worse when such undue pressures are piled upon women by other women. In my recent experience in Lesotho, I have noted that the country is still lagging behind in terms of advancing women and equity in the workplace.

Furthermore, a culture of shaming successful women is pervasive, and the success of women is often linked with seedy behaviour where they are accused of sleeping their way to the top. This is regrettable. The impact of such allegations can have a lasting impact the target herself and also on younger women who are also starting out and might be looking up to such women as role models. Such behaviour must be rooted out wherever and whenever it occurs by society as a whole.

LT: Would you please give us a glimpse of some of the several posts that you have held in your working career.

Dr Lephoto: Apart from jobs that I worked while I was still in college in the United State of America (USA), my first official job was as Junior Lecturer in the then Department of Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1999 while I was a PhD student. After graduating with my doctorate in 2002, I was then appointed lecturer in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology at the same University. In May 2003, I was head-hunted by SABMiller to serve as a Senior Research Scientist in the R&D Department of the company.

I later progressed to join the operations side of the business where I served in various roles including Management Trainee, Filtration Manager and Brand Brewer based at Chamdor Brewery in Johannesburg. In 2009, I left the corporate world and started my own training and consulting business offering a variety of services to the food and beverage manufacturing industry in southern Africa. It was a bold move because at the time I had a 14-month baby. But it worked out to be the best decision of my life.

During this time, I had big clients like Heineken, where I trained their brewing operators and Lobels Bread (Zimbabwe). In 2013 I was head-hunted by Krones AG, a German company that is a leading manufacturer of food and beverage manufacturing equipment into a role as Sales Manager & Key Account Manager (Heineken) based in Johannesburg where I had a successful stint and further strengthened my position as a sales professional in the industry.

I was again head-hunted by an American company called Filtec LLC into a position of Key Account Manager – Africa. This saw me travelling extensively all-over sub-Saharan Africa, Germany (where my boss was based) and the company’s headquarters in California, USA. My time at Filtec allowed me to build extensive networks across Africa and solidified my love for the continent, its people and the potential that resides in it.

I later decided to leave the world of industrial equipment sales behind and was again head-hunted into the role of Sales and Marketing Director for Kevali Chemicals; a black-owned South African company that was doing exciting things in the chemicals space.

Thereafter, I went back into my own business again as a CEO; this time I had companies from Italy, Switzerland, USA and South-Africa all of which were trying to establish and extend their footprint in Africa as my clients. In this role, I was travelling to Europe and all-over sub-Saharan Africa once again. The Covid-19 pandemic found me doing this work which was being billed in hard currencies – US dollar and Euro.

LT: There are obviously several others who are doing wonders in the Diaspora. How can people like you help change the country’s fortunes?

Dr Lephoto: There is no doubt that Lesotho stands to benefit massively from its citizens in the Diaspora. It is no secret that there are Basotho who are highly accomplished professionals and are doing amazing things in the diaspora. The country can benefit not only from the remittances that we send home to support our families and other courses but also from our skills. It is fascinating to me to see the number of foreign skilled workers and professionals that are working in the country when I know for a fact that some of the very skills reside with Basotho in the Diaspora.

It is important for our leaders to recognise that the skills must to be tapped to help the country develop at a more respectable pace. It is also important to understand that once a citizen is established in a more developed country, such professionals start to command a certain market value that might not be aligned to the pay scales at home. It would be totally unreasonable to expect such a person to want to come back home on local pay scales which are significantly lower than the global scale.

It is also important to address the unconscious bias that seems to exist against Basotho in the Diaspora. There are many roles locally where pay rates paid to non-Basotho are competitive on the global scale but do not raise eyebrows. Yet for some reason, when a Mosotho; especially a woman commands the same pay, it becomes a problem to some.

These are the kind of issues that the country must address consciously to start deriving real value out of its citizens in the diaspora, many of whom would love nothing more than to come back home to help develop the country.

LT: Do you, at any point in the future, think that you are going to leave everything and come back home to help develop the country?

Dr Lephoto: I did exactly that in July 2020 when I heeded the call to join the NACOSEC. Having left in 1991 after my O-levels to further my studies in the USA, I always felt a sense of guilt that I never worked in Lesotho. While I was giving back in other ways like educating children in my hometown, I always felt that I could do more by being physically present and sharing my skills and networks. So, when I was head-hunted for the position in the NACOSEC, I figured out that the opportunity had finally come for me to serve my country and my people, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

The nature of the pandemic itself was such that I could use the knowledge and skills I had received in my training as a scientist to help policymakers make evidence-based decisions that would steer the country in the right direction during very uncertain times. This was also the right time to tap into my extensive network of professionals; in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the western world, to derive benefits for my people.

LT: Tell us about your experience in the NACOSEC since July 2020.

Dr Lephoto: My experience since joining the NACOSEC has been a mixed bag. Working with the original CEO, Thabo Khasipe, was an exciting experience as we built the operational plans to implement the national strategy. I was not involved in the strategy document itself.

The operational plans were further translated into business plans for the specific units of the organisation. This was exciting work and I was able to bring my extensive business management skills combined with my training as a scientist to help develop what has been described as world-class plans for the organisation. The disappointment settled in when we were unable to acquire the required resources to implement the plans.

This is something that left me extremely confused as I was totally lost to the politics of the situation having come here purely as a professional. It became obvious that I had landed myself in an untenable situation when months went by as one continued to work without getting paid, yet weekly basis we kept appearing in front of the Covid-19 taskforce of ministers where the CEO would give updates of progress and challenges encountered.

As you know, the situation did not improve and eventually the CEO resigned in complete disappointment. When he left, I was instructed to assume the position of acting CEO until such a time that cabinet would select a new candidate for the role. It was again an odd situation for me because up until then, three months into my tenure, neither myself nor any other member of the NACOSEC had received appointment letters confirming our status in the organisation.

And yet, we continued working and for the next three or four weeks, I had to be the one assuming the role of reporting at the weekly taskforce meetings. Eventually, the new CEO was appointed, and it was a woman. I was genuinely pleased at such a move as I am a fierce proponent of women empowerment in the workplace.

Sadly, things did not turn out as I had anticipated. It is common cause that the working relationship between us has not been desirable; some of the details have been peddled in the official media and social media pages in recent days. An unfortunate situation that has also led us to the courts of law as well.

LT: Do you think Basotho have been adequately educated on Covid-19 and its impact on their livelihoods?

Dr Lephoto: I think they have but given the dynamic nature of the disease, it goes without saying that the country must adopt a stance of empowering the people with the latest information all the time. It is particularly important at a time where there is so much misinformation and disinformation that is going around concerning the pandemic. Failure to counter these with facts, can have deadly consequences.

When it comes to livelihoods, I think Basotho are feeling the impact in their households daily. There is lasting negative impact on the children who have stayed out of school for over a year. Many of them, especially the girls, may never return to the classroom as they may have become teenage mothers or fallen victim to the practice of child marriages, trafficking, etc.

The boys may have fallen into drug abuse and or trafficking. Many breadwinners have lost their income and food insecurity has increased in many households. The socio-economic impact mitigation work programme, which is the work programme that I currently lead in the NACOSEC, must be championed in earnest.

All stakeholders must come to the table and innovative thought-leaders must be given the space to help us figure out how to steer the country through this lasting storm. These stakeholders include all government ministries, including but not limited to, Gender, Youth, Sport and Recreation; Small Business Development, Agriculture and Food Security, Tourism, Environment and Culture; Police and Public Safety. They also include development partners such as International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), civic society; the youth, the private sector; academia and faith-based organisations.

The pandemic of hunger and poverty brought on by Covid-19 is arguably more dangerous and longer lasting than the health pandemic. Now that at least the country has started vaccinating its citizens, it is high time that the socio-economic impact mitigation agenda takes centre stage. Failure to do so in a comprehensive and convincing manner will have deadly consequences for the country.

LT: Some are of the view that NACOSEC is just an extravagant but useless institution spending tax payers’ resources. What is your take on this?

Dr Lephoto: I was not privy to discussions that led to the formation of the NACOSEC therefore, I really cannot speak on the perceived extravagance and/or whether or not Lesotho needed an institution of its nature. What I can address is the assertion that the organisation is a “useless institution”. I suspect what most people might not know is that the NACOSEC does not have direct control over the funds that are meant to run the organisation and deliver its mandate.

These funds are exclusively controlled by the officials in the Disaster Management Authority (DMA). From the first time I joined the organisation under the former CEO, Mr Khasipe and as an experienced business professional, I have always found this to be a very peculiar situation that could only spell failure. There is no leadership of any organisation that can deliver anything worthwhile when the same leadership has no control over the OPEX (operating expenses) of the organisation.

The NACOSEC is accountable to lead a credible response against the pandemic, and also to ensure that the public is kept abreast of developments in terms of Covid-19 in the country and globally. It is also supposed to be the think-tank to collect data and come up with innovative ideas to advise the decision-makers in government on the best policies (based on scientific and other evidence) that can help the country deal with the pandemic. When the organisation is starved of resources, delivering on its mandate becomes an untenable situation indeed.

One would recall that in October 2020, the testing programme for Covid-19 came to an abrupt stop because the National Reference Laboratory had run out of testing consumables. This is but one example of the unfortunate situation that arose because those that had the power to sign off on purchase orders for the required materials simply refused to do so despite constant requests by the NACOSEC leadership.

There have been many occasions where one would get the sense that the NACOSEC had become a tool to settle scores. Individuals in NACOSEC became the targets of a narrative that for me; as a new-comer to the operations of the Lesotho public service, has always been difficult to wrap my head around, that everyone forgot that the institution was not set up for the benefit of the professionals assigned to it as individuals, but rather to benefit the nation as a whole.

Another function of the NACOSEC is to raise funds and mobilise resources to assist the country to deliver a credible response against Covid-19. This is one of the areas in which professionals with extensive global networks such as myself would be highly valuable and could raise significant funds from private funders on the global market in an enabling environment. This is one of the areas where a website, simple and/or frivolous as it might sound to some, becomes an extremely powerful tool.

I specifically remember getting a phone call from one of my former colleagues based in New York City, who just happens to work for a major philanthropic organisation. He was seeking information about the Covid-19 response in various African countries and was lamenting the fact that Lesotho did not have any presence on the internet in this regard. As you know, the NACOSEC website has been cut off by the service provider over unpaid hosting fees; a situation that has not been rectified till today. Because of this, the country continues to lose out on valuable donor funds that could have benefitted the most vulnerable in our population.