Propelling African women is essential to African business
Dr Nkiru Balonwu, Founder & Managing Partner of RDF Strategies, discusess the importance of women for the globalisation of African Businesses.
Around the world, movements like #MeToo, Time’s Up, and others have provided a powerful driving force in advancing the conversation around gender equality. Yet while these movements have taken root strongly in the West, all too often African female voices are absent from the conversation. By improving the narratives and changing the realities of African women, we can empower a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders to meet the socio-economic challenges of the new global economy.
In September, African Women on Board (AWB) was launched at the Ford Foundation, New York, to coincide with the 2019 United Nations (UN) General Assembly. This new organisation, which I am proud to Chair, is designed to help more African women into leadership roles within their workplaces, communities and governments. At the event, which was attended by speakers such as the Executive Vice President, Ford Foundation, the CEO of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the Managing Director of HP Africa, and the UN Women Regional Director for Central and West Africa, I told the French press:
“If you google images of African women, you see females carrying things on their heads with a baby on their back… but when you see America, you see greatness – though perhaps not today. Can women in Africa stand up and be counted? Not only is it possible, they must. This is the whole point of African Women on Board to say to women, ‘you have to speak up for yourself’. We are the ones raising these men, what if we believed in ourselves more?”
And all of these points are important. If women, and particularly women of African heritage, do not have a seat at the highest tables of global business and government, then how can we ever expect to receive equal representation in these areas?
But what really struck me throughout the UN General Assembly from a business point of view, is how badly broken the traditional model of business has become, and how few new ideas are coming through from the old guard as to how it might be fixed. This is where fresh perspectives, particularly those of African women, play a valuable role in transforming the business culture.
The world wants increasingly to move towards a model of community driven capitalism. This means building success and expanding wealth with the goal of feeding profits back into society as a whole, and redefining capitalism and globalisation as forces that can improve the lives of the entire global community, and reshape the global ecosystem. But again, in order to be truly understanding and representative of this community at large, our businesses need to be a beacon of diversity and inclusion. New ideas will not be able to flourish in organisations weighed down by narrow and outdated forms of thinking.
In Africa we face a unique set of challenges. The Goalkeepers Report, produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shows that by 2050, if our current global social and economic practices are not changed, 85% of all those living in extreme poverty in the world will be situated on the African continent. Half of them will be distributed in two countries: The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria.
What if a key solution to Africa’s challenges was in fully engaging and mobilising its women? After all, you cannot win by playing only half your team. And as Mao Zedong once said, women hold up half the sky. As Africans, we need to understand that this is not a zero sum game. Promoting the careers of women does not hinder the careers of men. On the contrary, by doubling the number of people in our countries that we truly invest in, we double the productivity pool upon which we are able to draw and create greater prosperity for all. Women are leaders, entrepreneurs, consumers, yet at the moment our economy is turning its back on this hugely important demographic.
That being said, the African continent also has the opportunity to demonstrate real leadership in this area. A report recently produced by the McKinsey Global Institute and published by Bloomberg, shows that Africa leads the world in its proportion of female board members, at 25%. This is followed by Europe with 23%, the US (22%), Asia-Pacific (13%), Middle East (11%), and Latin America (7%).
Of course, ‘1 in 4’ is still nowhere near 50/50, and dig a little deeper into that report and you’ll find huge disparities by country as well as the types of roles that women in senior positions occupy. We must also not be blind to the huge amount of work that most African countries still need to do, both inside and outside of the business environment, in terms of improving the rights and protections of women at large. Nonetheless, we do see green shoots of potential emanating from what is slowly, though increasingly, viewed on the world stage as a continent of innovation and investment.
Ultimately, when it comes to women in business – and particularly African women – the narrative needs to change. If businesses and indeed the communities in which they operate want to succeed going forward, they will require greater levels of inclusivity, diversity, and overall representation. So in speaking up in the modern business environment, African women are not solely seeking to improve their own realities - although this is essential – but also to challenge outdated modes of thinking and help shape more effective economic approaches for the future.
For more information on business topics in the Middle East and Africa, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief MEA.
5 minutes with... Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, CEO, Tapoly
Founder and CEO of award-winning insurtech firm Tapoly, Janthana Kaenprakhamroy heads up Europe’s first on-demand insurance platform for the gig economy, winning industry awards, innovating in the digital insurance space, and leading with inclusivity.
Here, Business Chief talks to Janthana about her leadership style and skills.
What do you do, in a nutshell?
I’m founder and CEO of Tapoly, a digital MGA providing a full stack of commercial lines insurance specifically for SMEs and freelancers, as well as a SaaS solution to connect insurers with their distribution partners. We build bespoke, end-to-end platforms encompassing the whole customer journey, but can also integrate our APIs within existing systems. We were proud to win Insurance Provider of the Year at the British Small Business Awards 2018 and receive silver in the Insurtech category at the Efma & Accenture Innovation in Insurance Awards 2019.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to be as inclusive a leader as possible. I’m committed to creating space for everyone to shine. Many of the roles at Tapoly are performed by women and I speak at industry events to encourage more people to get involved in insurance/insurtech. Similarly, I always try to maintain a growth mindset. I think it’s important to retain values to support learning and development, like reliability, working hard and punctuality.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
Build your network and seek advice. As a leader, you need smart people around you to help you grow your business. It’s not about personally being the best, but being able to find resources and get help where needed.
How do you see leadership changing in a COVID world?
I think the pandemic has proven the importance of inclusive leadership so that everyone feels supported and valued. It’s also shown the importance of being flexible as a leader. We’ve had to remain adaptable to continue delivering high levels of customer service. This flexibility has also been important when supporting employees as everyone has had individual pressures to deal with during this time. Leaders should continue to embed this flexibility within their organisations moving forward.
They say ‘from every crisis comes opportunity’, what opportunities do you see?
The past year has been challenging, but it has also proven the importance of digital transformation in insurance. When working from home was required, it was much harder for insurers to adjust who had not embedded technology within their operating processes because they did not have data stored in the cloud and it caused communication delays with concerned customers at a time when this communication should have been a priority, which ultimately impacts the level of customer satisfaction. This demonstrates the importance of what we are trying to achieve at Tapoly in driving digitalisation in insurance and making communication between insurers and distribution partners seamless.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
Start sooner, don’t be afraid to take (calculated) risks and make sure you raise enough money to get you through the initial seed stage.