FROM Ballincollig to Boston and now Kenya, one Cork woman is working hard to forge ties between Ireland and Africa.
Fionnuala Quinlan, a former journalist with The Echo and Irish Examiner, has recently been appointed Irish Ambassador in Kenya and in particular is working to help its female entrepreneurs and to promote STEM in its youngsters.
Based in Nairobi, which is the main hub in east Africa, she covers Kenya, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.
It’s a prestigious appointment as Africa is widely recognised as the continent of the future and Kenya is the economic powerhouse of East Africa.
Fionnuala joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2008 as press adviser to Irish Aid, and prior to her new role, was the Consul General to Boston.
Consul Generals head up a Consulate, which is essentially a representative office of the Irish government. There are consulates in countries where there are particularly large Irish communities and diaspora and significant interests, which might not be so easily served by a single Embassy.
Fionnuala lived in Boston for four years and it’s where she gave birth to her son Caelan, who is now 20 months old. She describes it as a wonderful city.
“Almost one in four residents of Massachusetts, the state where Boston is located, claims Irish heritage. Mayor Marty Walsh is the son of two Irish immigrants who met in the dance halls in Boston. In politics, business, the police, culture, every sphere of life there are people who feel a deep affinity for Ireland, so that makes it a very special place to work, and particularly to represent Ireland,” she said.
It was a busy role which saw her doing everything from working with organisations to support Irish emigrants to supporting Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, Bord Bia, Science Foundation Ireland to increase trade, investment and partnerships between the US and Ireland.
“Given the strategic importance of the U.S and the very deep ties with Boston, we had regular high-level political and other visits, including by the Taoiseach and Tanaiste of the day, so our office also worked closely with their teams to organise the visits to ensure that they yielded the best results for Ireland,” she recalled.
Kenya is obviously vastly different to Boston but Fionnuala was excited, and honoured, to make the move with her husband Ravi and son and take up the challenge.
“The move wasn’t a huge culture shock as I had travelled throughout east Africa quite a bit and had been to Nairobi previously.”
Describing it as a ‘lower middle-income country, with a vibrant business culture’, she says there’s many opportunities there for Irish companies.
“Just last month, Minister for Business Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphries led a trade mission of 40 Irish companies and eight universities/higher education institutes to Kenya. Many of the companies signed deals and partnerships while the universities see great potential for academic and research partnerships with Kenyan universities as well as scope to attract many more Kenyan students to study in Ireland.”
Fionnuala is keen to highlight the work done by Irish NGOs and missionaries, who she says are doing absolutely sterling work to provide education, healthcare, training and other services to the poor and vulnerable.
“I’m always very proud to visit their programmes and see the impact of their work. They are highly regarded in Kenya and flew the Irish flag long before people like myself arrived, so we are lucky to benefit from the reputation they established.”
Supporting the agriculture sector, which accounts for almost one-third of GDP and two-thirds of employment is another priority.
The embassy has also introduced Young Scientists Kenya, which is very closely modelled on Young Scientists Ireland.
“The competition is designed to increase interest in science, technology engineering and maths. The quality of the projects these young Kenyans are inventing to respond to challenges in their communities are inspiring: inventions to improve irrigation in arid areas; provide energy to underserved communities, improve security in slums and improve healthcare.
“The winners of the 2019 competition will be in Dublin in January to compete in Young Scientists Ireland.”
Supporting women entrepreneurs is another key area, and Fionnuala says she greatly admires Kenyan women.
“They are very strong and resilient. While gender inequality certainly exists here, as indeed it does in most places, they are determined to overcome it and participate fully in Kenyan society,” she said.
With such a hectic schedule, getting back to Cork, where lots of her family and friends are based, isn’t always easy, although she hopes to get back before too long.
But she hasn’t found the move to Nairobi a massive culture shock: “Everyone complains about the traffic, which can be pretty bad. It’s not at all a pedestrian-friendly city, so I miss walking to work or just walking around freely. But Nairobi National Park is only 20 minutes’ drive from the city, so it’s pretty special to be able to go and see lions, giraffes, zebras, hippos, etc, on a Saturday morning!” she said.