MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMEN 2014/15

THE LEADING EDGE | ​Development Zone

 

Meet SA's Public Protector

by Valdi Pereira

 

Thuli Madonsela is a human rights lawyer, equality expert and South Africa’s third Public Protector. She is one of eleven technical experts who assisted the Constitutional Assembly to draft South Africa’s final constitution. Time magazine recently voted Madonsela as one of the world’s most influential women. .

 

You were nominated for the position by the Women in Dialogue of South Africa. Why did you decide to accept the nomination and accept everything that went with it?

I was convinced that I could continue some of the work I was already doing to help people. I was a member of the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA). The association was handling a lot of cases that were brought to the Master’s Office and Home Affairs, among others. These individuals had been treated unjustly by government. The new position offered 

power to remedy the injustices. When I took this position I thought I could do better than what was currently being done. I would have the power to impress on government to do the right thing.

 

Has the role turned out as you expected?

It has in so far as I have managed to help ordinary people. It brings a lot of joy to my heart and to the team I lead when we unlock those issues, where, for example, someone’s RDP house was given to someone else, and we are able to give it back. However, I did not expect the politics. I knew that the job would include the enforcement of ethics and that I would participate in the enforcement of the prevention and conduct of corrupt detectives. I did not expect this to be as bad as it is.

 

It must be very difficult finding yourself in the eye of the storm – the only way to go is forward. How did you cope with that and what have you learnt in this space? 

I actually like that idea of the eye of the storm. It typifies the approach of the only way available is to go forward. 

Over the years, I have learnt to accept that some investigations will not be conducted easily.  I never know what the twists and turns of each report is going to be, but I do expect there will be some twists and turns. My approach is always to find a way to communicate why I made the findings I made, why the right thing to do is to implement the remedial action.

 

Your role has clearly tested your leadership acumen. What is one of the biggest leadership lessons you have learnt along the way?

I have always known that leadership involves influencing people, but the main lesson I have learnt is the power of communication and also the impact of miscommunication. The latter, may undermine my ability to influence situations.

 

In this position I have learnt that I, together with the team, have power to push through with investigations and tell entities what to do to rectify their mistakes. This is constitutional power and legal power; we still need social power to get to people’s hearts; this is a lesson that I am learning every day. We need to enhance our ability to persuade and get people to buy-into the decisions we make.

 

If we turn our attention to the rest of the continent, governance is clearly a very big issue because it constitutes one of the cornerstones for attracting foreign direct investment. If you look across the continent today, many governments are keen to buy into this and they understand the value of it in terms of investment - the social impact that it has.

 

What is your take on where governance is going in Africa, broadly speaking?

The will is great. African leaders used the 50th anniversary of the African Union (AU) in 2013 to reconnect themselves to governance. They also understand that a functional economy requires functional systems. 

 

Where the AU meets as an association, it is to get governments to really understand how to merge intention with actions. The road is paved with good intentions. Often people don’t know that taking a particular step is not in line with their programmes. The capacity building that we have agreed to do with the AU is what we called the institutionalisation of the shareholders. If you succeed you will support democratic institutions. 

 

Even in South Africa our entire stakeholder conversation process, we go and talk to the people. We have spoken to the people for the last five years. We need a common understanding of what is good governance; what is corruption, what is ethical policy, what conduct is required for ethical governance, institutional governance and fiscal discipline. 

 

Very few people can see the transactions that would constitute great governance. People do not see an unethical transaction; they see it as a systems problem. If it is one instance, it is not always easy to see. It takes a series of ethically poor incidents to convince people.

 

If we look at the role that women are playing on the continent, where they are getting increasing prominence, you referred to the AU earlier; there are also one or two examples where women have picked up bad habits from men in terms of the things that they have done. Do you think that the rise of women on the continent, and the growing prominence that they enjoy, is also an opportunity to establish better corporate governance practices at the same time?

Women tend to comply - whether they do so, because they are scared, or whether they do so because they are newcomers, and therefore do not want to be the ‘new ones’ who are seen to violate  rules, the reality is they do tend to follow rules.   

 

If you look across Africa there are some relatively new democracies, including our own, some well-established democracies like Ghana and Kenya, do you think governance is where it should be, or that it could be more advanced than it is right now?

We could certainly do better. Coming from a women’s rights perspective, we have always said that in the advancement of women’s rights, the first step forward is to get someone to sign some sort of convention because it becomes easier to rely on the basis of that convention, which is from the leaders themselves, and then trickle it down to all. 

 

In Africa itself, a critical fact when we talk about good governance is the AU Charter on democracy,  governance and elections, as the AU’s commitment to good governance as a precondition for development.   

 

What from your perspective are the key obstacles to the growth of good governance - good behaviour in the private and public sector. I ask this within the context that Africa is the last frontier now for opportunities. People want to get in; they want to make the most of those opportunities.

The first is the issue of skills. The turnaround time is high. Staff turnover, particularly in critical areas such as finance, management and so on; and the senior officials who only come in for five years or three years, compromises institutional memory. Then there is also, the brain drain. This poses a challenge to the continuity of good governance.

 

Do you have a message in terms of what everyone can do across the continent to contribute to better governance?

If you are in charge an organisation, you need to send a message and consistently so through word and action announce that you are pro good governance and anti-corruption. Organisations also need to be able to understand there are people who come close to power and support leaders in these positions because they see it as their duty to do so.  However, there are others who come to the centre of power as a way of being insulated from scrutiny.  In return, for supporting leaders they expect that they will not be touched.  There should not be untouchables because then the system is not consistent. 

 

 

Against All Odds

by Richard Webb 

 

Farida Bedwei is co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of Accra; Ghana based Logiciel (French for software), the company behind the successful gKudi and its range of products. A software architect with over 15 years’ experience in the development and implementation of mobile and enterprise software, she has developed payroll, human resource and other information management systems for a number of clients within Ghana and the West African sub-region as well as developed value added services and mobile applications for the major cellular network providers within Africa.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Lagos Nigeria, in 1979. (Straight away, her face beams with a bright smile as she interrupts herself “I am not one of those women who worry about my age. I have no qualms about revealing it.”) I was born with a neurological condition - notably cerebral palsy - that affects my movement and co-ordination. So much of my life has been punctuated with medical therapies around my condition. I spent 18 months in Yugoslavia - when it was still Yugoslavia – for some intensive physiotherapy before my family moved to the Caribbean. My father was offered a post with the United Nations Development Programme as a housing consultant on the Island of Dominica.

 

“We stayed there for three and half years, after which we relocated to Britain for just a year until we were posted to the Commores for six months. On from there, we went back to Britain for another year before we decamped to Granada for five years. Finally, we moved to Ghana in 1998, and that’s where I have remained ever since. I have spent a good deal of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood in Ghana.I went back to university in England in 2004 at the University of Hertfordshire and already had two diplomas in IT plus five years’ worth of work experience as a software engineer since I was 17, so I was exempted for the first year of study there. 

 

What influence did your mother have over your life?

My mother, Lydia, had a huge influence on me. She made a lot of sacrifices for me to be who I am today. When I was born, she was told to send me away to a ‘home’, so severe were my physical difficulties. She declined to do so, and decided to home school me for 12 years. When we lived in the Caribbean, every three months we would go to Miami for physiotherapy and she’d take pictures of me and placed them all around the house to help me realise what progress I was making.

 

It helped me realise that progress is a long term commitment and doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a daily effort. She still lives in Ghana and we are still very close.

 

What did your British education mean for you?

We have a very good educational system, but I felt that the special needs that I had would best be served in the United Kingdom, as that country has the best infrastructure for those with special needs. They go out of their way to ensure you have the necessary logistics so I was fully independent and didn’t have to ask anyone else for support. I had a motorised wheelchair and was fully independent for the first time in my life. It was such a great two years for me. I could go to the shopping mall, buy my groceries, and get back home without asking for help. It was empowering.

 

How are we doing in Africa in respect of making it easier for those with special needs to learn, to get about and become entrepreneurial?

We are not doing that well. I am also a disability advocate in Ghana, and I talk about this. The terrain is not conducive. Everywhere, there are steps; the pavement is difficult to walk on. It’s a big problem. Apart from that, the government is not interested in the needs of the physically challenged. But Ghana does seem to have made some progress. I can’t really speak of South Africa, but I know that disabled people are not going to go away. We need the same access to education, the same access to buildings and opportunities that everybody else gets.

 

Let’s talk about your product, your brand. What’s your current business model?

I realised there is a certain group of people who form a large economic sector, and that’s the informal sector. There are mostly semi-literate, they don’t have collateral to get funding from financial institutions, they feel intimidated in going to the bank because of the way they are dressed, or the way they talk, or their lack of command of the English language. So there are many micro-finance companies that act as a bank to these people. They are the bankers to the informal sector.

 

Do these micro-lenders form the functions of a conventional bank for small business?

These micro-lenders offer finance, and investment services and they collect the money from the informal businesspeople. Most of the micro lenders collapse because they do not understand how to run their business properly. They just have a bit of money as seed capital, but they don’t have a clue on how to run a successful business. Given they also collect money from people in return for investment opportunities, any collapse is problematic. Often, they use the income from these investments to buy assets and they are not liquid enough to be able to return their customers investment. They probably bought a car, or a building with their investors’ money. You can’t take them to court to get your money, so that is the background to the situation.

 

What we did was to consider what software there was on the market. We realised there was not any software on the market that was affordable, that was responsive to the needs of the micro-finance companies, and that was simple enough for them to understand. Some of them do not have anything more than basic education. They’ve not been to banking school, they have just got enough money to start up the micro-finance business. 

 

How long did it take to develop this system?

It took us two or three years to build the first system. Last year, we released it to the market and we have over 100 micro-financiers using our system, which works on a subscription model. We use SAP software, which we customise for the banking industry. Apart from the prohibitive cost, most of the traditional banking software systems do not have the special functions required by the micro-finance industry.

 

What’s the name of your system?

It’s called gKudi.

 

How easy is it to ‘re-skin’ the product for other African markets?

It’s generalised for the whole industry. I read a lot about what’s happening in the market in other parts of Africa and in Asia, and I try to adapt the system accordingly. 

 

Do you have any mobile applications for your service?

We have an app, yes. Because of how the micro-finance companies work, their customers do not come to them. They go to where their customers are. Often times, their customers are busy, in their workshop, garage or shop and agents of the micro-lender come to collect the cash. There had been high levels of fraud in the past. So, what we did was to create an App on a mobile phone, which connects to a Bluetooth mobile printer. Basically, when the agent goes to the customer, they enter the customers details on the mobile phone and it prints out a receipt for the cash that the customer has paid the agent. That payment is reflected in real-time on the system. 

 

Systems development must have taken a lot of your time. Are you now spending more time on the marketing development of your business?

Yes, I am, definitely. I am gradually getting out of the geeky backroom coding stage and spending time developing the brand.

 

What do you do for relaxation out of the work environment?

I read a lot of all kinds of books.

 

What have you found to be women’s challenges in terms of them manifesting their business ideas? 

When I was 18, I had decided to specialise in IT. I’d gained my first diploma by age 16. I looked around the country and found a software company that I wanted to work for. I didn’t write an application for a job. I simply walked into the office and I met with the owner. I explained very frankly that I did not have work experience in software development, I just had what I had learned through my education, but if I was given the opportunity, I would make sure he would not regret it. 

 

I believe a lot of women’s greatest weaknesses are a fear of rejection. There is nothing to be afraid of, nothing that you cannot achieve if you give it your best. At a very early age, I was told by my mother to take the words ‘I cannot’ from my vocabulary, and replace them with the words ‘I will try’. I have been guided by that wisdom all of my life. My view of failure is also different. It’s an opportunity to learn how to do things a different way next time and it’s a great motivator to get things right next time.

 

 

A Life of Learning

by Valdi Pereira

 

Professor Carolina Koornhof, Executive Director: Finance and Business Initiatives at the University of Pretoria, has dedicated most of her working career to preparing young South African aspiring accountants for a future career in the financial field. She shares some perspectives on her career and working with the youth.

 

By the time you decided to take the opportunity to turn to academia, you were already a chartered accountant and a senior manager at an accounting firm, what prompted this move?

When I started out as an articled clerk there were very few women who were entering the field and it was both a challenging and exciting time. Once I qualified as a chartered accountant, I started to progress through the ranks and the possibility of opportunities in the corporate sector was certainly there.

 

However, along the way I realised I possess a passion for working with young people and helping them to grow and develop. I believed, correctly as it turned out, that a career in academia would allow me to make the most of this passion and I started my academic career at UCT lecturing in the field of financial accounting, which is my field of specialisation.

 

Later on, my husband was transferred to Johannesburg to and I took up a position at Wits where I spent close to a decade training chartered accountants. The University of Pretoria made me an offer to join them as a Professor in Accounting; it was a pretty rare thing for a woman to be a full professor in those days and I decided to take the offer.

 

Looking back are you happy with the decision you made to enter the academic world?

Most definitely, working with students and seeing them grow has been very gratifying. I also enjoyed the research component of my work. The University of Pretoria has also provided me with great opportunities to develop my business and leadership acumen. Whenever I was presented with an opportunity to take on a leadership role, whether as the Head of Department of Accounting or later as Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, I always viewed it as a chance to give back to the institution and the people who believed in my ability. Looking back now I realise that much of what I was doing at the time was pioneering, in the sense that I was the first woman to take on some of these roles at the University, although it was not a primary motivating factor at the time.

 

About three years ago you assumed the role as Executive Director responsible for Finance and Business Initiatives, which is effectively the chief financial officer of the university. Are you enjoying the role?

I am certainly enjoying it – there are a number of unique elements to my role. Much of this stems from the fact that the university is a large and complex entity that impacts society on many levels. There is also an added responsibility when you are part of a higher education institution that has to produce the future leaders of the country.

 

I must confess that whilst I still have the opportunity to publish books, the fact that I do not work with students as often as I previously did in a teaching capacity is something I miss. 

 

During your time as Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences a number of women started moving into leadership positions. Did you set yourself specific goals in this regard?

My point of departure was that I would mentor and coach women, where I believed the need existed. My view was that if someone could benefit from my experience in order to grow professionally and personally, I would help them. The fact that we saw a number of women leaders coming to the fore during this period is in many respects a by-product of focusing on developing individual strengths.

 

The question of giving our youth the best possible start in life is pre-occupying a lot of business and societal leaders presently. What is your perspective on this?

I don’t think people are always aware of the important role the demographic composition of a country plays in its future development. The census conducted in 2011 revealed that we have a young population, with an average age of 25. This holds potentially a huge benefit for us.

 

How do we make the most of this opportunity? We do so by offering our youth a world-class education, both at school and post-school level. What is also very important is that when they are in employment, we should ensure that there are ongoing opportunities for training and development. Providing support to our young entrepreneurs in terms of finance, training and mentorship is also important for the development of our country.

 

Whilst I believe most leaders understand that the provision of education and training is  crucial to the future success of our youth, we need to give careful consideration to the context in which we deliver it and the ways in which we make it accessible to them.

 

The young generation of today is for obvious reasons very different to their predecessors – technologically empowered and highly mobile, they perceive the world very differently to us and it is our collective responsibility to adapt our approaches to teaching and training to ensure it resonates with our youth.

 

Away from you professional endeavours how do you spend your time?

My husband and I enjoy the outdoors and both appreciate art and good wine, so there is always a fair amount that we do together. I always look forward to spending time with our daughters, the one is in the field of industrial psychology and the other is a lawyer – both are currently busy with master’s degrees and I am immensely proud of them. They are both my biggest supporters and I would probably never have accepted the nomination for Africa’s Most Influential Women, was it  not for them urging me to do so.

 

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?

That I am constantly on a journey of learning and that one can learn from everyone. I have learnt from my students, co-workers, superiors, friends and family. Everyone has a story to tell, if only you are willing to listen.

 

 

annelizew@ceomag.co.za 

 

 

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