Msuya: My style of leadership is inclusive and empathetic

Monday April 05 2021
Joyce Msuya.

Opening of UNEA Plenary Session. Joyce Msuya, Assistant Secretary General and UN Environment Acting Executive Director. PHOTO | COURTESY | UNEP | CYRIL VILLEMAIN


Joyce Msuya, a microbiologist and environmental scientist, has held several high-level jobs in global organisations.

The affable and cheerful Msuya, 53, is the deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), in Nairobi, and is an inspiration for those who aspire for international posts.

The last time she visited Tanzania was in February last year, before the outbreak of Covid-19 in March. Since then she has been confined to Nairobi, mostly working from home.

In Kenya, she has been leading the Unep programme working with indigenous communities — through the Ministry of Environment — in planting trees in remote areas as part of the mitigation against climate change.

Whenever she goes home to Kilimanjaro province in Tanzania, she mobilises communities there to plant trees and collect harmful plastics.

In Zanzibar, Msuya says that Unep has a programme in which they sponsor community-based women organisations to plant mangrove trees as part of adapting to climate change. In East Asia, Unep — through its offices in Bangkok, Thailand — has a programme that deals with pollution-related health issues that tackles biodiversity and chemical waste.


“Our office in Bangkok helps women identify symptoms associated with breathing problems connected to pollution. They have translated and published documents related to pollution in local languages,” she said.

Since joining Unep in May 2018, Msuya says she has introduced what she describes as “authentic leadership”, in which she leads in her own style.

“What drives me is that I have always looked for difficult jobs that when I retire to bed make me feel that I have made a difference. I listen to people and make decisions because my style of leadership is more inclusive and empathetic,” she said in a recent interview with The EastAfrican.

Her daily routine involves overseeing Unep’s programme delivery and operations, liaising with governments and member states, providing guidance to staff, and working with directors and managers on programme and operations delivery.

She represents Unep at meetings with governments, and in discussions with UN and non-UN partners. She also reviews and reads reports and material on critical environmental issues.

Msuya holds meetings with teams from Bangkok, Panama City, Bahrain, Geneva, Nairobi, and other offices around the world.

“On most days, if I am lucky, I may manage to go for a short walk during lunch hour. After 4pm, I typically participate in meetings with UN headquarters in New York, and in the evenings, I like to use my time to connect with family and friends,” she said.


Born in Usangi village in northern Tanzania, Msuya grew up under socialism during the reign of Julius Nyerere, and never dreamt of reaching this stage in her career.

Her parents, Cleopas and Rhoda Msuya, valued scientific education and insisted that all their six children had to take up sciences in school. “There was no option of doing arts,” she remembers.

When she joined Weru Weru Secondary School in Moshi, she met the headmistresses, Mama Kam, who inspired the girls that they could study physics, biology and chemistry, subjects that were considered the preserve of boys.

At that time, all Tanzanians before joining university had to undergo mandatory national service training, and Msuya spent one year in the forest in Iringa, central Tanzania, learning how to farm and be a soldier.

She was the first Tanzanian to receive a scholarship from Karemji Foundation that encouraged women to take up sciences.

This took her to Scotland in 1989 to study for a degree in Biochemistry and Immunology. Later on, she undertook a Master’s degree in Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Ottawa, Ontario, completing it in 1996.

“At the time, HIV/Aids was a problem in Africa. So I did deep hardcore test-tube science with the hope of getting a PhD or going into medicine. After one year of doing microbiology experiments, I found life in the laboratory was too lonely for me. I wanted to move to public health because I felt I would not make a difference by publishing papers,” she says.

In 1997, she moved to the University of British Columbia, Lui Centre for Global Studies. At the time, Hong Kong was going back to China and the Canadian government was concerned about the potential influx of immigrants from Asia to Canada.

Her job was to carry out public health research on how communicable diseases could be transmitted through movement of people and goods.

In 1998, another opportunity came knocking from the World Bank Group, where she worked for 20 years, which included a posting to Beijing as the regional co-ordinator of the World Bank Institute.

Msuya was also responsible for opening the first World Bank Group in South Korea. She later worked in the health division of the International Finance Corporation.

In May 2018, when she went back to Washington, her former bosses recommended her for the post of the Unep deputy director that had been left vacant following the exit of Ibrahim Thiaw, a Mauritania, who had served his term. She applied, went for the interview, and got the job.

As a passionate advocate of women’s leadership, she tries to use the lessons she has learned during her professional journey to guide others. In her career, which has spanned over two decades, she has mentored many people, from colleagues to students, both formally and informally.

“I believe in mentoring because I have been a beneficiary of mentorship from men and women throughout my career. Women are integrators and they think about their communities and households,” she said.

“A combination of political will and technology has helped women rise to senior positions, like in the case of Covid-19 pandemic leadership that was mostly driven by women. Opportunities for women have increased but the inequality gap is still there,” she said.

She says she is thrilled that Samia Suluhu Hassan has made history as the first female president in Tanzania, although she has assumed this role in unusual and sad times for the country and herself.

“As an international civil servant, and a champion of women’s leadership, I find it inspiring to see women rising to prominent positions in the region, as President Samia becomes the second female head of state in Africa alongside Ethiopia's President Sahle-Work Zewde,” she said.

Environmental concerns

Msuya is also concerned about how environmental degradation is causing zoonotic diseases to spread.

Last June, Unep’s research found that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they are transferred between animals and humans. These include Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and now Covid-19.

“The study on Covid-19 is still premature but there is a link that it originated from animals and crossed over to humans. As the world's population edges towards eight billion, rampant agriculture and infrastructure is putting humans and animals in closer quarters, making it easier for diseases to pass between species. As habitats of host populations disappear, those hosts become less available, creating an incentive for diseases to pass to other species like humans,” she explained.

She, however, did not want to be drawn to the situation in her country Tanzania where the authorities denied the existence of Covid-19. “I cannot comment on Tanzania because I am an international civil servant who holds a Tanzanian passport. What I can say is that science is very clear that there is a link between zoonotic diseases and environmental degradation,” she said.

Msuya is an active supporter of the green recovery plan from Covid-19 - called the African Green Stimulus Programme. The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment last December adopted several decisions to enhance co-operation on the environment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

She says that Unep supports the initiative, which is ensuring that Covid-19 recovery will maintain environmental considerations across all facets of African economies.

While she has been blessed with many achievements having opportunity to live and work in diverse cultures and contexts, including Africa, North America, the UK, China, and South Korea, Ms Msuya says she takes the low times in her career as lessons for future improvements because she is an impatient optimist.

“These experiences taught me that human beings have more in common than differences, and encouraged me to challenge my own unconscious biases. Then, there have been some ‘lows’ due to the pandemic, which has caused so much suffering in people’s lives all around the world,”

For instance, due to the pandemic, Msuya has not been able to travel and see her husband and her two children who live in the US. She says this is a reminder that people should not take togetherness for granted.

Her hobbies include cooking, and will seize any opportunity to prepare a meal for family and friends. She also enjoys reading and learning new skills, and exploring nature due to her love for mountains and forests.

Before the advent of Covid-19, she visited many countries in the region – Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. “I love the culture, nature, scenery, food, and community values in East Africa. During my travels, I’ve seen how much we have in common across the region. Our cuisine, for example. Some foods in Kenya remind me of what we eat in the Pare community, which I am from. My husband is from Kagera, and their traditional food is similar to the dishes in Uganda and Rwanda,” she explained.

As a resident in Kenya courtesy of her work, she finds many similarities with Tanzania such as sharing the Kiswahili language, landscapes, and emphasis on the values of education, family, and respect for elders.

However, she says that the two countries have followed slightly different paths on their economic and social journeys. “When I was growing up in Tanzania, for example, learning Kiswahili and its culture were mandatory for all Tanzanians. Kenya opened its economy earlier than Tanzania. In between, we have been learning from each other,” she says.