The underwriter

March 9th, 2010

ceciliaBILLY MUIRURI Posted Friday, October 2 2009 at 19:00
In Summary

She has seen, first hand, how politics and recession have brought many traders to their knees. Now, Cecilia Rague-Kaisha's concern is how well insured you are in case your property goes up in smoke in a political conflict.

The people she talks to have devastating renditions to tell, most of them the rags-to-riches-then to rags type. They were once struggling to make a living, then lady luck smiled on them and their door to riches sprang open.

But just when they thought the worst was over, a political whirlwind blew, and all their possessions were either looted, destroyed or burnt to ashes.

Some were well performing business owners before civil war erupted in  Rwanda and Burundi in the mid 1990s. Others were caught in the line of fire in the  endless  rebel wars in Uganda while a big number were recently brought to the ground by the post-election violence in Kenya.

There is yet another class of clients---Those at risk of losing their money because their debtors  were caught up in the global meltdown and are thus unable to pay them.

All these risks have been a  hot potato for many insurance companies to pick up, but not for the African Trade Insurance Agency(ATI) where Cecilia works as an underwriter.

She explains what her job entails. "This is basically to evaluate the basis under which one can accept a risk.
For example, what a bank may require a client to fulfill before they give out a loan," she expounds. She has been  involved  in underwriting several standards for financial institutions.

ATI is a re-insurance firm that is working in partnership with insurance companies to insure investors against political and credit risks. Already, over 100 companies have benefited from this product, according to official data seen by Saturday Magazine.

In her three years at the Re-Insurance  firm, Cecilia's mind and energy have been  directed to ensure risks linked to political upheavals and global economic trends are insured. She is in charge of Rwanda, Burundi, Madagascar and Kenya.

"We have broken new ground. Losing business and property  due to politically-instigated reasons is now a very real possibility for most countries. We are out to protect people against such occurrences," says Cecilia.
When we visited her last week at her office in Upper Hill, Cecilia came out as a soft spoken career woman, her motherly demeanour evident only a few minutes into our chat.

She is compassionate and her ears keen to listen. She readily explains this, "I have been speaking to  people who have lost all they had and want to bounce back to business," she says.

When she is not helping the devastated, she is speaking to those with investments. " I am telling them that they need to be cushioned from total loss of property should anything happen," she says explaining what her every day job entails. 

Her job has been slow, she admits, but a glaring probability that we live in an environment  where political violence can easily break out has made her schedules busier in the last two  years.

"Nobody knew property worth millions could be lost after the 2007 elections. Now people know it can happen, and they need to cushion themselves against the huge losses, " she says.

She says today, many business people fail to pay debts due to the effects of recession. "Many suppliers will tell you that theirdebtors have never paid them because they cannot raise the required money," she points out. 
"If such a supplier was our client, we would work out and pay them what they are owed," Cecilia explains.
Seemingly satisfied with the virgin ground her firm has broken, Cecilia's road thus far has been chequered, with career choice being one of the issues she spent many years mulling over.

 Born and bred in Nairobi 37 years ago, Cecilia attended Hill School in Eldoret.
"At this age I wanted to be a diplomat," she says and adds, "I had an uncle who was a diplomat whom I admired. He was a cool person and wanted all issues  solved amicably."

This dream, however, shifted to medicine once at Loreto High School, Matunda. But then, it was a bad beginning for her.

She had not made it to a national school as she expected, and even when she qualified for University, her points were lower than was required to study medicine.

" Instead, I was admitted for a Bachelor of Arts degree. I was totally disappointed," she says of the admission letter from Egerton University in 1991.

She turned it down and applied to various foreign universities. In 1992, she joined Keele University in the UK  and during her first year foundation course, one of her  paternal uncles prevailed upon her to consider law.
" I easily embraced the idea. The following year, I was in the law class and combined it with German."
But when she temporarily moved to Germany during her second year as part of the course, life was hard back home and she had to drop out of university  for lack of fees.

"My parents were straining to pay the fees. The only option was to come back home and try to get a job," she says of her premature comeback in 1996.

Once  back, she joined a local law firm as a legal assistant. And when she got some money to finish her course, she was again disappointed.

All universities in East Africa refused to absorb her and insisted she starts from year one. She was distraught and it was the uncle who had encouraged her to study law who came to her rescue.

"He offered to pay my fees and I resumed studies at Keele," she says paying glowing tribute to a man she says shaped her life most.

That was in 1998. One year later, she was back. Due to immigration restrictions, it was hard to get a job in the UK.

She however did not give up but applied and was recruited as a management trainee by the Standard Chartered Bank.

"I  love talking about my experiences at the  bank because I was given a chance to discover more about what I am doing today," she says.

On the premise of her legal background, she was deployed to the Credit analysis department where she became an assistant credit analyst. Within two years, she was promoted to be a credit analyst, a position that exposed her  to the nitty gritty of underwriting skills.

In fact, ATI was one of the accounts she was handling at the bank. "I was given room to be the best I could and interact with clients. This was a very fulfilling time career-wise," she says.

The result of this interaction with clients was her departure from the bank in 2006 to occupy her current position. A major challenge she faces is to awaken investors to the fact that they need to be insured against non- traditional risks.

She has also had to travel widely to unfamiliar countries with unique problems, with Rwanda posing the greatest challenge.

A mother of four, Cecilia is married to John Kaisha, an accountant. When she is free, she is comfortable playing cards or swimming with her children, Benaya, 8 and Abby, 6. The others are Jemimmah, 3 and Rebecca, 2.

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