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50 Influential women in business

By Oheneba Ama Nti Ose
Posted on Monday, 6 August 2018 11:18

When Snowy Khoza was appointed executive chair of infrastructure company Bigen Africa Group in July 2016, nothing could have prepared her for what happened next. “The day I took office, 70% of the men resigned,” she recalled during the Women Initiative Panel at the Africa CEO Forum in Abidjan in March. Even though she had earned her stripes as a leader, her skills were still questioned. “They had never been led by a woman, and a black woman for that matter,” she added.

Leading female business executives from across the continent gathered at the Groupe Jeune Afrique event to share strategies to bridge the gender leadership gap. Khoza’s experience is not unique; most female business leaders have encountered their share of gender-based prejudices in the workplace, not to mention the uphill battle required to get to the top.

From a low base, Africa has made considerable progress in recent years. Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa ranked in the top 10 worldwide for parliamentary gender equality on a 2017 United Nations (UN) list. Rwanda, which topped the list, has been praised globally for its decision to make female empowerment one of its keys to development. In 2008, the East African country became the first government in the world to have a majority of women in the legislature.

But while these strides cannot be overlooked, there is still a long way to go. According to the 2016 ‘Women Matter Africa’ report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., ‘approximately half of women cabinet ministers hold social welfare portfolios, with arguably limited political influence, that do not open doors to top leadership roles.’

More women, More profit

The picture is not much brighter in the private sector. The number of female chief executives in Africa is above the 4% global average. But at only 5%, it is nothing to boast about. Companies need a strong pipeline of female talent – from the entry level to the highest ranks – and now just 29% of senior management roles in Africa are held by women.

Ibukun Awosika, chair of Nigeria’s First Bank and one of the 50 women influencers on our list, spoke of the loneliness at the top. “In my experience, the higher you get, the more alone you are. Lower down, there are more of us but not many of us will advance,” she shared at the 2017 Africa CEO Forum. This fact influenced her decision to join a group to address gender inequality in the workplace.

As studies have shown, most companies are missing out on the positive effect gender parity in leadership can have on their performance. There is a direct correlation between equal gender representation on corporate boards and better financial performance. And according to McKinsey’s report, the top 25% most gender-diverse African companies have earnings over 20% higher than their industry averages before interest and taxes.

In an International Finance Corporation (IFC) report entitled ‘Gender Diversity in Ghanaian Boardrooms’, Ronke-Amoni Ogunsulire, IFC’s Ghana country manager, concurs. She wrote that it is important to promote gender parity and increase participation of women on boards because it “adds value socially and economically and has the capacity to play a significant role in institutional capacity building and private-sector development”.

The UN estimates that gender inequality costs sub-Saharan Africa an average of $95bn annually and that equal participation of men and women in the economy could add as much as $28trn to the global annual gross domestic product by 2025. With these staggering figures, African leaders can no longer afford to put gender equality anywhere but at the top of their agendas.

Men spread the message

In April 2018 the UN Economic Commission on Africa, UN Women, the African Union Commission and the African Women Leaders Network launched a $500m fund that will invest in women-led companies over the next decade. This fund comes at a crucial time, as a global study of entrepreneurs has shown there is a significant funding gap, with female-led businesses receiving less than 3% of venture-capital funding.

And in all of this, men cannot be left out. Tonye Cole, co-founder of Nigeria’s Sahara Group, said that the other half of the population have an important role to play in advancing gender equality in the workplace. Speaking at the 2017 Africa CEO Forum, Cole announced his company’s commitment to hit a 40-60 female-male ratio on its board. Cole said women have “a sense of loyalty, a sense of dedication and a sense of trying to bring stability into the business”.

He also pledged to encourage other men to participate in the inaugural Women in Business Annual Leadership meeting, organised by the Africa CEO Forum in Paris on 2 and 3 July. The event will gather more than 200 women decision-­makers from the African public and private sectors.

Men can take concrete actions, too. Nigeria’s Sola David-Borha, now running Africa operations of the continent’s largest bank (see profile, page 60), recalled how, back in the 1990s, her then boss Atedo Peterside insisted he wanted women in senior leadership positions.

Developed in collaboration with sister magazine Jeune Afrique and the Africa CEO Forum, this year’s list of top 50 businesswomen in Africa puts a spotlight on icons, trailblazers and game-changers who are boldly scaling the heights of the corporate world. From young CEOs of multinationals to tycoons and seasoned executives, this year’s honorees are making their mark in different industries and continue to prove that talent and success have no gender.

This article first appeared in the July-August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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