CAFNR Celebrates Women’s History Month: Q&A with Wamwari Waichungo

Wamwari is a Column Award winner and CAFNR alumna

Dr. Waichungo at the CAFNR Column Awards, 2018
Wamwari Waichungo speaks at the 2018 CAFNR Column Award ceremony.

Wamwari Waichungo holds an MSc (1994) and PhD (1996) in Food Science from the University of Missouri. In 2015, she returned to campus as the CAFNR Executive-in-Residence. In 2016, Wamwari delivered the commencement address at the College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources’ May convocation.

In 2018, she was honored to be in the inaugural class of CAFNR Column Award recipients for Distinguished Alumni. This is the only award specifically for alumni presented by the college. The awardee class includes one graduate from each of CAFNR’s six divisions, reflecting the six historic columns at the University of Missouri. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Monticello Society and has established the Waichungo Study Abroad Scholarship endowment that provides travel support toward the study abroad program for CAFNR students.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked Wamwari a few questions about her distinguished career, women who have inspired her along the way, and how she is supporting the next generation of women in her field.

Tell us about your current or most recent role and what you enjoy about it

I am currently the Vice President responsible for Global Safety Assessment & Regulatory Affairs at SC Johnson. I lead a team of over 140 people responsible for ensuring the human and environmental safety, regulatory compliance and registration of insecticides, repellents, household cleaners, air care, home storage and personal care products in more than 110 countries. SC Johnson is a fifth generation, family-owned company headquartered in Racine, Wisconsin, located on the shores of Lake Michigan. I very much enjoy working on a breadth of categories and on brands that are household names including; Raid®, Glade®, OFF!®, Pledge®, Mr Muscle®, Ziploc®, Scrubbing Bubbles®, Windex®, Mrs Meyers®, Babyganics® and Method®. Leading a diverse team of highly skilled safety and regulatory individuals is also very motivating and inspiring.

Share with us a woman who has inspired you in your life/career

My late mother, Charity Muringo Waichungo, inspired me in many, many ways. The most inspiring was that she was one of the very first African girls to attend high school in Kenya. When she was born in 1934, there was no high school for African girls (European Girls High School was established in 1908 and African Boys High School was established in 1926). In 1948, an African Girls High School, today’s Alliance Girls High School, was established. Her father was extremely excited that he would be able to send his first-born child to high school and sold two of his prized dairy cows to pay for the tuition and other expenses. In early 1951, my mother walked from TumuTumu village to the nearest town, Karatina, and boarded the overnight train to Nairobi. She then proceeded to the new African Girls High School in Kikuyu, on the outskirts of the capital city Nairobi, to begin the incredible journey to be one of the first African girls to attain a high school education in Kenya. She was in a class with five other bright young girls that hailed from rural villages across Kenya. Unfortunately, Kenya was still a British colony, and the very next year the fight for independence accelerated and a state of emergency was declared. My mother and her classmates had to be evacuated for safety reasons. Sometimes when I face challenges or obstacles, I think about my mother and her classmates, and imagine the challenges they had to overcome to attend and complete high school.

How do you strive to set an example for the next generation of women leaders?

Another woman who has inspired me is Kenyan environmentalist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the late Prof. Wangarĩ Maathai. She encouraged all of us to be a hummingbird. The story of the hummingbird is about a huge forest being consumed by a fire. All the animals watched the forest burning and they all felt overwhelmed and powerless, except this little hummingbird. It flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. It puts it on the fire, and goes up and down, up and down, up and down, as fast as it can. The other animals, including much bigger animals like the elephant with a big trunk that could carry much more water, were standing helpless and saying to the hummingbird, ‘You are too little. This fire is too big. You can only bring a small drop of water at a time.’ The hummingbird responded, ‘I am doing the best I can.’

Some of the things that I am doing to be a hummingbird and setting examples for the next generation of women and minority leaders includes:

  • Speaking at Colleges and Universities to encourage and perhaps inspire the next generation. Here is a link from a 2019 session at Clayton State University:
  • Establishing the Waichungo Food Science Scholarship at Montclair State University for students who are pursuing a degree in Nutrition and Food Science, with a Food Science Concentration, and demonstrate need and outstanding leadership. The 2020 scholarship recipient, Megha Barot, is an aspiring product developer, from an immigrant family, and a very proud first-generation college graduate.
  • Leveraging coaching and mentoring as highlighted in this video filmed during my 20+ year tenure with The Coca-Cola Company:
  • Engaging and supporting initiatives and events that are geared towards women in STEM. For example, I was a keynote speaker at the 2016 Women in Manufacturing Summit, Nashville, TN and I have attended and presented at Women in STEM conferences.

What advice do you have for women entering your industry?

Any graduate with a science degree (biology, microbiology, pharmacy, biochemistry, toxicology, pharmacology, etc.) will find a career in Safety and Regulatory Affairs very rewarding. The main responsibility of the safety and regulatory affairs department is to ensure the safety, efficacy, and regulatory compliance of all manufactured products. The role involves:

  • Advising various functions and departments, particularly marketing and research & development, on regulatory requirements
  • Ensuring a company’s products comply with the relevant regulations
  • Collecting and evaluating scientific and efficacy data
  • Preparing submissions for regulatory approval and/or registration

Safety and Regulatory Affairs is a very versatile profession, that provides employment opportunity in a variety of industries, at various levels. Entry level roles usually include data entry, document creation, data collection, etc. Higher level positions require more expertise and are mostly involved in review, approvals, and engaging with trade associations and regulators.