“Sorry for getting you here so early. It is during such hours that I am a bit free.” These are the words that welcome me at 7.30 am, when I enter Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo’s office, the acting chief executive officer of Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).
I was struck by her beauty, humility and her warm welcome. Opening up about her childhood, she says she came from a financially comfortable family but was always pushed to work hard.
Push harder, you can do better than that, why not the first position instead of second, are some of the common phrases that characterized Sewankambo’s childhood.
Despite the fact that she was the last born, she was never spoilt by her parents, a lot was expected of her.
“Even when I scored 98 per cent in any subject, daddy was never content. He would ask why I did not score 100. This irritated me about my father,” she recalls.
But this push to excel has always fueled Sewankambo and she believes it will see her succeed as acting executive director of UCC, an institution that had courted its fair share of controversy, under predecessor Godfrey Mutabazi.
Following the announcement by the Electoral Commission that candidates in the 2021 general elections will depend on the internet, newspapers, radio and television to reach voters, UCC will be among the institutions in the limelight for either succeeding or failing to guarantee fairness.
UCC regulates broadcast media houses, telecommunications companies and pay television. Under Mutabazi, UCC was accused of favouring President Museveni in the political arena.
For example, UCC in 2019, ordered 13 media outlets to suspend staff for broadcasting protests by opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi. Two years earlier, in a move that was condemned by media and human rights organisations worldwide, UCC ordered television and radio stations in Uganda not to broadcast proceedings when Parliament was amending the constitution to allow Yoweri Museveni run for president after he had turned 75.
UCC has also been accused of being soft on telecommunications companies, with President Museveni even going so far as to take over the licensing process of MTN Uganda. Over several meetings with the President, it emerged that state house didn’t feel like UCC was doing enough to safeguard Uganda’s national interests before renewing the license of MTN Uganda.
Consumers of internet and voice services have also variously expressed their displeasure, with UCC. The complaints are common on social media, and a number of telecommunications companies have trended, with some users threatening to sue, in the belief that UCC which is the regulator wasn’t doing enough.
But Sewankambo who is now executive director says regulation is a job she will do well thanks to her education and a career spanning over 20 years.
Path to engineering
Sewankambo went to Mt St Mary’s Namagunga for her six year secondary school education. She worked hard to score good grades in all subjects, but mathematics was her favourite.
She says during her Senior Five, a disagreement ensued concerning her career options, with her headmistress Sr Cephas, teachers and brother all suggesting different suject combinations.
“I wanted to do physics, economics and mathematics. But the headmistress insisted I pursue physics, chemistry and mathematics. There were teachers who also expected me in the MEG class (Mathematics, Economics and Geography). My brother on the other hand wanted me to do History, Economics and Literature. His augment was the family did not have any lawyer and he wanted me to become one,” she says
In the end, her head teacher’s combination won, as Sewankambo’s dream was to become an engineer.
She admired pilots and their dress code and hoped that someday, she would sit in the cockpit. However, when she shared her career dream with people she considered intellectually mature, she was disappointed to learn that there were not many opportunities that field. One of her uncles, an electronic engineer, advised her to sign up for electronic engineering, which she did.
Joining the hustle
At Makerere University, Sewankambo did a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. For industrial training, she went to Uganda Posts and Telecommunication Cooperation and later Uganda Electricity Board (UEB).
At UEB, Sewankambo met the first female engineer in Irene Muloni, who until recently was Uganda’s minister of energy.
After her four years at Makerere University, Sewankambo was first recruited to work on a campaign that was intended to ensure computer programmes were not disrupted by the change in the numbering of years from the 1990s to 2000s.
“I was part of the Y2K taskforce that checked all computers and registered them. After that campaign, I was employed by a firm called the Dehezi International, as a service manager,” she says.
She had missed an opportunity to work with MTN Uganda, a dream job in the late 1990s.
“During my fourth year, MTN was launching in Uganda. Many of us wanted to join MTN. But when they came at the faculty to register names of students who would join them, I was sitting for my last paper and I missed out,” she says.
When UCC advertised jobs, Sewankambo did not think twice about applying. This was a golden opportunity for her to work with a telecommunication company.
Dream come true
Although the process took some time, one day, Sewankambo received a call, inviting her to prepare for an interview.
“This is one of my most memorable interviews because it was the first time I went before such a big panel. I was nervous, but I knew I had to give it my best,” she recalls.
Sewankambo started working the day she learnt she had passed the interview. At the time of joining UCC in 1999, she was hired as an assistant technical officer in the licensing and standards department.
“I remember weeks after I had been employed, I was asked to write a proposal worth $80,000 to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) for funding. If I wrote a bad proposal, UCC would not to receive the grant. I remember spending sleepless night trying to figure out the best way to pull off this proposal,” she says.
After winning the grant, she was sent to represent UCC in Benin, West Africa in a meeting where she was the only English speaking participant. She was also the youngest and only woman at the conference.
Since then, Sewankambo has never looked back. This has seen her rise through different ranks over the last 20 years.
Among her achievements, Sewankambo highlights the development of the UCC regulatory framework.
“I have put in place the guidelines for curbing unsolicited messages,” she says.
She also says she designed the national numbering plan and the system for telecom licensing, monitoring quality of service measurement, among others.
According to officials at UCC, these frameworks are used to measure the waiting time before call connection, and the number of successful and dropped calls.
All through the years, with the help of an atlas and her teammates, she has traversed different parts of Uganda, been to hills and valleys to ensure that communication networks had the right signals. Sewankambo had no problem climbing masts to resolve a signal challenge.
One of the things her work in telecommunications has taught her is that she has to earn her place because no one is going to feel sorry simply because she is a woman.
Unlike before, today Sewankambo has a number of women on her team. Out of the eight directors at UCC, five are women and many female engineers are also in the process of climbing the career ladder. This makes her proud.
“Women have to step forward and show that they are worth that position both in the technical world and in leadership. I did not get a red carpet because I am a woman. I worked hard for everything,” she says.
She highlights a case of when she was heavily pregnant and there was this field work that needed to be done.
“I carried my emergency bag and went with the driver. My workmates kept calling the driver asking if I was fine. From Mukono we went Jinja, but everyone seemed scared” she says.
But because she had shown over the years that she was willing to work, and wouldn’t create unnecessary excuses, Sewakambo says her colleagues were usually willing to cover for her on those occasions, when things like childbirth stopped her from doing her job. “If you have been working to your employer’s expectations, when that time comes, your team is more than willing to step in because they know you are committed,” she says of her experience with creating time for childbirth.
Juggling family and work
Although juggling family, career and work are a challenge to every working woman, Sewankambo says women are cognitively endowed to pull this off because of their ability to multitask.
“We tend to bring the typical woman approach of the house to our work places. A woman can be washing, cleaning and cooking at the same time. There was a time I was having an online examination, yet I had just given birth to my first child. My house help was away and the baby kept crying. I was forced to carry her as I attempted the exam,” she recalls.
She says her motto would be, you can and you have it in you to succeed.
“You just need to aspire and keep working hard with focus on your personal goals. Always give what you do your best effort. Network to improve your knowledge, competence and access to opportunities,” adding “never let the hot, rocky and thorny path put you off. Remember, life is all about choices and attitude is key.”
Whether this attitude will be enough for her to hold onto the job of UCC executive director remains to be seen, as her appointment in February by Judith Nabakooba the Minister of Information Communication Technology and National Guidance comes at a time when President Museveni is increasingly looking to former state house employees to steward different government agencies.
Since February, Museveni has appointed a former Presidential advisor to head Uganda Revenue Authority and another to head Kampala Capital City Authority. There are also reports that a former state house employee is coming to replace the current Dairy Development Authority (DDA) executive director whose contractor ends this month. Sewankambo also has the record of acting female executive directors at UCC working against her. Sewankambo isn’t the first woman to become the acting UCC executive director position. Before her there was Mary Ssozi.
Ssozi, was acting executive director, when UCC first opened its doors in 1998, serving for a year and half, before a substantive replacement was named.
But Sewankambo, believes through her hard work, not taking opportunity for granted and trusting in God, she can break this particular glass ceiling that has kept the executive directorship of UCC in the hands of men. “In everything, call on God to guide and protect you,” she says.
August - September 1999, Service manager. From 1999 – 2002, she served as assistant technical officer in licensing and dtandards.
2002 – 2007, Technical Officer in Licensing & Standards responsible for Licensing. Fom 2008 – 2012, Manager- Licensing and Standards (L&S).
2012 – 2016, Head- Research and Coordinator, Office of the Executive Director (OED). February, 1 2016 – Present, Director - Engineering and Communications Infrastructure
February, 7 2020 , Acting Executive Director.
“Be yourself, understand who you are. Find one person who gives you feedback. That person should be true to you ,” she says.