Being agile and helping people within the organisation: Meet KFC Africa Chief People Officer, Akhona Qengqe

Written by Editor



By Koketso Mamabolo


Please tell us a bit about your background – how did you get to this point?

Strangely enough, my background is not in HR at all. I started out my career as a strategy analyst graduate in petroleum, at Shell, and moved up into operations. I went on to work in various sectors such as real estate and convenience retailing. My move to HR was purely out of interest, as I felt I had done everything within the retail space and believed where I could make a difference was around people.

In 2017, I accepted an opportunity to lead KFC’s diversity and inclusion agenda, which is a function that fell within HR, and this was my introduction into this larger role.


What does your role as KFC Africa’s Chief People Officer entail?

My role is twofold. Firstly, I search for new talent and work on retaining great talent within our organisation. This involves identifying what the organisation’s needs are and where the gaps lie. 

I also work with the leadership team of our organisation to ensure they have the right skills, in the right places, at the right time. This includes partnering with our GM, as a thought partner, to support the running of the organisation in a way that stays true to one of our goals – developing unrivalled talent and culture. As a result, I am also the culture lead for our organisation – making sure that our employee value proposition is felt and understood by everyone.

The second part of my role focuses on transformation. I lead the transformation agenda for our Africa business, ensuring we are a representative of our customer base and that the way we do business speaks to the heart of this continent, the heart of our people. We ensure that we are not just responsible corporate citizens but that, in everything we do, we acknowledge the role that our people play, and we become an enabler for them to thrive. My goal is to ensure people who work in our restaurants feel that they are part of a bigger brand and that there is a bigger purpose; that they’re not just selling chicken. And given the communities that we operate in, we need to remain relevant in all aspects of our business, while reassuring our stakeholders, suppliers or anyone who we interact with, that we’re doing so in a manner that makes sense to them.


What excites you most about working in your field?

Our business is about people – I get to impact the lives of people who work for us. I also get to affect the lives of people who don’t necessarily work for us but are touched by our brand, in one way or another, and that excites me. I believe that the opportunity to really support our team, through one of the most challenging times, has been a testament to the focus and care required in this role. Just being able to support our teams, through the various programs and processes put into place to help them, has been incredibly rewarding for me. For example, we set up a KFC Trust Fund or KFC Care Trust, which is a mechanism to support our team members and the employees in our restaurants to gain access to COVID tests, which were unaffordable. We also supported team members who found themselves out of work, given the impact of the pandemic, with food parcels etc. 

Being able to impact people at a time they really need it the most is what is exciting about working in this role. As long as we are continuing to speak to the needs of the people – we can morph into whoever we want to be.


How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work and how have you adapted?

In addition to the above points, I think we’ve had an amazing opportunity, as an organisation, to truly show our heart throughout the pandemic. I am happy with the way that we have supported our teams, implementing work-from-home protocols and ensuring we are cognisant of the challenges they are going through. We’ve constantly had to think of ways to connect with our teams and make sure they are well placed to continue to deliver, whilst working away from the office.


What do you think can be done to accelerate transformation in South Africa?

Transformation is a national imperative, and I believe all corporations have a role to play in how we accelerate transformation, in what we do, and how quickly we can achieve the goals. The best way to accelerate this is by exploring an ‘inside out’ approach. This means studying core targets set by the government, and exploring what we need to do to reach them and then get it done.

However, I don’t feel that this is the most impactful approach. If we are going to ensure that not only do we accelerate how we transform, but examine how to change people’s hearts and minds. Getting people to understand why transformation is so important for the growth of our economy, and why inclusion needs to happen for the acceleration of our economic growth in this county – is critical. 

As an example, we implemented a ‘I am more than what you see’ programme to help facilitate conversations around our differences and examine how we should be leveraging these differences to achieve results together. This programme allowed people to share their values, who they are and what they believe in – as well as why they are who they are. We noticed that the more we talk about our differences the more we realise we are similar. Furthermore, our people connected at a deeper level, and tended to work better, together. If transformation is driven by people, the sooner it can be achieved.

If we build a stronger economy, if we get more people employed, the better off we all are, and the larger the customer base we will have, because it’s about fostering sustainability for our businesses as well.


How are you empowering women within your organisation?

Something that I am committed to, and passionate about, is just having women adequately represented across all different levels within organisations. 

This means that women must have access to defined mechanisms for them to continue to grow. Internally, we developed the KFC Africa Women on the Move programme because representation at the leadership level did not reflect the number of women in our organisation.

We identify talented women that we really believe have what it takes to grow within the organisation. We then partner with them through a twelve month programme where these high performing women are trained through blended learning.  This includes typical peer learning cycles, mentorship, networking sessions, and opportunities to hear from various speakers. Of the 21 women within the programme last year, two-thirds were promoted within the year and some of them took on larger roles. 


What trends in HR have you noticed in the world and on the continent – where is HR heading?

HR is becoming less of a ‘let’s write down policies and drive them down through the businesses while getting people to comply’ approach. Which is a good thing. We’ve become less focused on compliance and are now stronger and more agile. As a result, HR practitioners have been able to understand the direction that business is moving, and are able to get ahead of it.

For example, in the past an HR practitioner would have waited for someone to resign, then go back into the market to look for a backfill. What we are now finding is that today we examine the business and identify the areas we believe we will be looking for talent going forward. This also means understanding how we start developing our internal talent, as well as where to source talent. For example, digital is becoming a big growth area generally, so, if we know there is a lack of digital talent internally, not only do we need to examine where to start looking, but how to future-proof the business through this talent search.

With the current rate of change, co-powered by technology, only skills can ‘future-proof’ our growth. As a result, it is about being credible business partners, understanding where business is moving and not being reactive to the requirements of future opportunities. HR has a seat at the table, a prime example is with COVID. This is not just a global crisis, but a people crisis. HR has been called on to advise businesses on how to best treat people throughout the pandemic, and to ensure we continue to retain critical programmes and interventions within our organisations to keep our people engaged. It’s about advising the business, not just managing its people requests. 


What advice would you give to young women looking to get into HR?

HR is key to how a business operates. Therefore, to be a successful HR practitioner, you need to understand how business works, the type of business it does and understand how it makes money. 

I truly believe that you should ‘work backwards’. Examine how the business survives, how it truly operates, to ensure you deliver value. This might mean working in operations, to get a true feel for an organisation. Ensure that, by the time you move into an HR role, you are not just an HR practitioner who’s got policies up their sleeves, but that you know how the business makes money to ensure you become a strong commercial partner who helps the business.

In a nutshell, don’t just look at yourself as an HR practitioner, look at yourself as a business partner who wades in on matters where people are concerned.


What books would you recommend to our readers?

Lean in by Sheryl Sandberg

Untamed by Glennon Doyle


What are your plans for the future?

I would love to get back into the “business”. I see myself as a business leader and when there are opportunities that speak to my skills set I will explore them. continues to impact our organisation regardless of the function I am performing.

Also to continue having an impact on the organisation, regardless of the function I am performing, and continuing on my journey of creating an organisation that is inclusive for all, where people feel that they can come to work and be their best selves every day.



*Check out the latest edition of the Top Performing Companies publication here:

Regarding being profiled or showcased in the next edition of the Top Performing Companies publication, please contact National Project Manager, Twaambo Chileshe:

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