A conversation with Gwen Mwaba Executive Director, Afrixembank (Zambia)

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LM:

My dear Sister, it’s been a while, thank you so much for being part of this conversation 

GM:

It has indeed been a very long while and I’m really pleased to be able to speak with you today.

LM:

Tell us a bit about your early years growing up and who were your biggest influences? 

GM:

I grew up in Zambia and in my early years right through to my teens I was very sporty.  I played tennis and swam competitively for Mashonaland, as well as running cross country.  One of my proudest early moments was being featured in The Herald newspaper at age 13, in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia back then), which is where I went to boarding school.  So, for me, sport probably had the biggest influence on me and taught me about the importance of discipline, commitment and perseverance. So, in terms of people, I looked up to sporting champions and two of my early favorites were Billie Jean King and Chris Evert Lloyd. Getrude Ederle who became the first woman to swim across the English Chanel also quite heavily influenced me.  I was so in awe of how she could have possibly accomplished such a feat.

LM:

What are your personal values and how have they shaped you in your personal and professional career? 

GM:  

Authenticity, loyalty, honesty, kindness, respect, responsibility and spirituality are my core personal values.  

I think these values have shaped my personal and professional career because each one of these values actually describes who I am as a person.  I never pretend to be something or someone I am not so I always bring my true self to any situation, this attribute I believe makes people comfortable around me and has attracted great people into my personal and professional life.  I am loyal (to a fault) and I have always given 100% in both my personal and professional relationships, which has enabled me to grow as an individual and through that growth, I have been able to contribute even more. Honesty of course is key in my line of work and even when I have to say no to a client, I will tell them the truth about why the answer is no, because by giving them the true information, it ultimately helps them to go out and improve whatever shortcomings exist in their proposal or business plan and this approach has led to me gaining and retaining very long-term relationships even in my professional capacity.

I’m kind hearted and respectful by nature which has developed an empathetic leadership style in me.  I take my responsibilities very seriously both personally and professionally and finally I am one of those people who believes that nothing occurs by happenstance. There’s a universal power greater than all of us, that has a hand in all we do and experience.

So when I put all this together, I would say that these values have shaped who I am as an individual and play a huge role in how I react to situations both good and bad.

LM:

When we first met in 2002, in Zambia, we were still quiet young, but were fighting dominant corporate cultures against women and young people, how much of these practices persist in corporates in Africa? 

GM:

Yes, we were quite young back then and actually that meeting in 2002 was probably one of the most defining turning points in my life.  You met me, believed in me and gave me the opportunity to contribute as a young, woman in a corporate environment that was dominated by not so young men.  Whilst things have improved, a lot more needs to be done to embrace women and young people.  I also acknowledge that like most things its a progression but the positive is that things are progressing in the right direction, we are just not where we need to be particularly in the world of banking, so more needs to be done.

LM:

Some of the reasons used to frustrate women in corporates are deeply rooted in long held cultural and religious beliefs, how can we overcome these? 

GM:  

That is so true but whilst culture is important, I don’t believe culture should be brought into the corporate environment and used as an excuse to suppress women.  Both men and women should recognize that in the work place men and women are equal, there is no reason to differentiate two people (one male and the other female) performing the same job who have similar education or training and similar experience, on the basis of gender. They should be given equal opportunity to excel in the work environment.  One of the ways to overcome this challenge is to start assessing people as people not based on gender.  This way only the relevant attributes will be taken into account i.e. skills, performance, qualifications for the role etc.  We need to stop taking the approach of ‘the woman being deemed to be the weaker candidate’ even before anything else has been taken into account.

LM:

You have worked and led in diverse markets such as Zambia, England, South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt – what does it take for a professional to succeed in such diverse environments? 

GM:

Resilience, self-belief and doing what you do well at all times.  Let the results do the talking.  Anyone can brag about what they are good at (even when they are not great at it), but if you consistently bring your best to any situation and deliver, then your work will speak for you.  It is also important to be able to adapt your style to fit different situations and dealing with diverse individuals.

LM:

A key part of leadership is lifelong learning, how have you kept abreast with the latest thinking and focused on your own learning and development needs through the years ? 

GM:  

Personal learning is absolutely key.  On my part I have of course had the privilege of my employers providing learning opportunities but I have not just left it to my employer, I have invested time and money in seeking out personal development opportunities privately and what I have learnt I have brought back into the work place.  Learning is not always about learning technical skills, sometimes we need to learn things like how to find your purpose, getting to know who you are, self love and self acceptance, how to quiet the mind through meditation etc. etc. these are lessons we do not learn in school or on technical training provided by the workplace however these learnings complement what we bring to the work place and in our personal lives.  I have embarked on a deliberate journey of learning different things in order to make myself more rounded.  Also, finding mentors or people who have travelled a certain path before you.  I have mentors for different things in my life e.g. investing, career management, life problems.  I choose to learn from the best!

Part 2 

LM:

We are both passionate about Africa’s rebirth – what are the key things that African leaders have to do to ensure that Africa reaches its true potential?

GM:

African leaders need to develop and believe in their own.  In many situations Africans prefer that which is foreign.  I understand that we can learn a lot from the west, they have travelled the path that Africa is on, however, we should leverage their skills and knowledge by exposing Africans to these skills and knowledge but once we have gained those skills and knowledge, allow the Africans to take over and lead.  We live in a fast-evolving global community so African leaders should help create opportunities e.g. exchange programs which will enable young Africans to go out into the world and pick up knowledge and skills that they can bring back to Africa.  I have seen many examples where the opportunities have been granted, however, when its time for the individual to return home the organization then expects that individual to go back to the same job that they left.  What the leaders need to realize is that they person they sent to Europe or America is not the same person they will get back. The individual would have grown and therefore, they should be given a new opportunity that will challenge them because in all likelihood they have outgrown the role they were in before they went away to be exposed to new skills and experiences.  When individuals are not challenged they leave.  Its part of growth so leaders should pre-empt this and provide the opportunities within the organization.

Generally, also, as a resource rich continent, African leaders need to encourage value addition of commodities that we export as a continent.  I fail to understand why an oil producing nation exports crude and imports refined petroleum products or exports copper and imports copper cables.  We need to start industrializing our continent so we can retain more value out of our production before we export.  This industrialization is what will create opportunities for jobs, for entrepreneurs from Africa to invest in Africa and for retention of skills on the continent.  

LM:

The majority of African countries have now signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), What is the significance of this in realizing Africa’s full productive capacity? 

GM:  

AfCFTA is key to Africa’s development.  Africa is lagging dismally in the area of intra regional trade. If we can trade freely amongst ourselves as a continent this will be the starting point for Africa’s development and maximizing our productive capacity and ability to trade competitively with the rest of the world.  For example, by trading amongst ourselves freely we can consolidate our resources and production and become a global competitor in certain key sectors as ‘Africa’ not as individual smaller economic units but as one giant.  We all rush to Europe and America and Asia to import goods that we can produce on the continent.  I had mentioned it earlier, but we are very good at exporting raw commodities cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, cashews, sesame, oil, base and precious metals, the list is endless. Why don’t we cooperate as a continent and at the very least semi process some of these commodities?  Different countries on the continent have different resources, capacity, comparative advantage etc. so by trading regionally we can first of all take advantage of the opportunity to consolidate our production on the continent before we trade our production globally.  

LM:

What are the opportunities for Afreximbank in this changing environment? 

GM:  

One of the reasons I love the organization I now work for is the incredible work that the organization is going on the continent.  There is so much to be done and Afreximbank as a multilateral financial institution has embraced the challenge and is leading the charge in solving some of Africa’s problems.  There is so much to be done and we are doing what we can to contribute in this changing environment.

We have a number of institutional initiatives on the go at the moment, ranging from an industrialization drive which entails facilitating the construction and financing of industrial parks, increasing intra regional trade through facilitation & advocacy work as well as financing intra African trade transactions. This will enable us to be a large contributor towards closing the trade financing gap in Africa which remains at around US$120bn.  Afreximbank is also positioning itself to launch a Pan-African Payment & Settlement Platform which will help boost intra regional trade in Africa. Afreximbank is also developing a trade information portal for African businesses.  All of these initiatives, individually and collectively are great opportunities for Afreximbank to help develop our continent.

LM:

Afreximbank has a unique partnership value proposition – how could this benefit countries on key critical projects? 

GM: 

Well given Afreximbank’s multilateral status all member states of the organization are eligible for financing from the bank.  Currently 51 African countries in Africa are eligible.  Secondly, given the organizations developmental mandate we have the ability to support projects that commercial banks may find challenging.  For instance, international banks have by and large withdrawn their support to African projects due to lack of country limits and limited capacity in the insurance market to underwrite the risks.  Local Banks face limitations which range from limited capacity or limited depth of liquidity in the local market (particularly when it comes to financing large projects in smaller economies), high interest rates in USD and limited availability of medium to long term FX funding sources which makes it difficult for them to support medium to long term loans in foreign currency.  Afreximbank can offer all of the above.

LM:

What does your role of Director: Trade Finance, Afreximbank entail, and what brings you the most joy about it? 

GM: 

The most joy and satisfaction I get out of my job is the fact that it is ‘banking with a purpose’.  We are not just chasing profit.  We have to justify each loan we grant by identifying the developmental impact and additionality that Afreximbank brings to the deal.  It is most gratifying to be a part of projects and other financing initiatives that are so impactful on the lives of people and economies in Africa at large.  For the first time in my working career, I don’t feel like I have a job, I feel like I’m on a mission!  Its very humbling to be an integral part of such gratifying work.

LM:

Who is Gwen Mwaba outside your high-profile role at the bank? 

GM: 

I’m a mum of two beautiful children, they are my number one priority in all that `I do so being a divorced single parent I have to juggle being a single mum with my role at the Bank.  I love to travel, I have always travelled, all my life and it remains one of my greatest passions.  I also love to read.  I enjoy reading biographies of people who have achieved success in one way or another.  I enjoy the theater, musicals in particular.  I also kind of look forward to the day I will have more time on my hands to do some of the things I love that I have neglected over the years simply because there aren’t enough hours in the day such as sewing or gardening.

LM:

How do you find balance within your very hectic schedule, where is your place to escape and unwind? 

GM: 

Finding the right work life balance has been a challenge to be honest, so I have to be very deliberate about making the time to escape and unwind.  My favorite escape is a trip to the spa for pampering treatments and a good massage.  I also find quiet moments to meditate and I practice yoga.  This is how I keep myself grounded and calm.

LM:

If you had an opportunity to talk to your 21-year-old self, what would you tell young Gwen? 

GM:

I would tell myself that life’s journey is not a straight line from A to B.  Expect to go left, go right, up and down and up again.

The key is:

  • as long as you are progressing in spite of the setbacks, challenges, distractions etc., it’s okay.  
  • enjoy the journey because many of those moments cannot be recreated.

LM:

What would you tell a young woman entering the Professional ranks of financial services about the obstacles ahead, and she could tackle them?

GM: 

Believe in yourself first and foremost, get a MENTOR, I cannot emphasis this enough, a mentor will help you navigate obstacles and corporate politics and will guide you especially when you need to make hard decisions.

Also, be clear in your mind about where you want to end up, then set yourself some goals and as you achieve those goals, set some more goals and keep checking in to ensure you’re staying on track.  If you yourself don’t know where you want to go, no one can make you get there.

LM:

Gwen, thank you so much for such a wonderful conversation, I am so proud of you my sister, I know my audience will enjoy your amazing insights. 

GM: 

Lincoln, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to share my insights with you.  I cherish the opportunity and the path that led me to have met you because you launched me on a trajectory which has put me where I am today. 

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