As African countries discuss the Continental Free Trade agreement, discussions over the importance of the private sector in making this agreement work have also begun in full earnest. Forums, like the annual African CEO Forum, alongside many others, create a platform for governments to put forth their plans to private sector leaders looking to take advantage of the trade agreement. But more importantly, the role of women in the new African course, especially women executives and entrepreneurs, also needs to be discussed. The AfCFTA must ultimately create jobs for Africa’s youth while engaging more women in the decision-making process in Africa.

Ventures Africa had a chat with Bella Disu, Executive Vice-Chairman of Globacom, one of Africa’s biggest telecom companies, and a non-executive Director on the Board of Julius Berger Nigeria Plc, on the importance of the Continental Free Trade agreement to Public-Private Partnerships in Africa, and Globacom’s plans for leveraging on the agreement. She also discussed the importance of building a network for business-women executives and entrepreneurs, as a driver for economic growth in Africa.

Ventures Africa (V.A): As a sponsor of the Africa CEO Forum, how important do you consider Public-Private Partnerships?

Bella Disu: I think they are very important. In a number of ways, the government plays a key role in ensuring that there is a sustainable environment for the private sector to operate, so there must be a collaboration between them. The government should make sure there are no delays in granting of licenses and eliminate other inhibiting factors that impact on a company’s ability to work and roll out its network. This should include the provision of adequate infrastructure like electricity. So definitely you cannot ignore the role of the public sector.

Africa CEO Forum President Amir Ben Yahmed (L) and Bella Disu (R) discussing at the recently-concluded Africa CEO Forum

V.A: Initiatives like the Women in Business Network is looking to create networks for African businesswomen. How would you rate the impact this has had on women executives in Africa?

V.A: I would say it is in three parts. One is that it is good for women to see like minds, similar to them already or who they aspire to be like. It shows that maybe I could pick one or two things and apply them to myself to grow to those positions. But really important for me as well is that there should be parity whereby key leaders in business can meet. Women in Business Initiative is powerful because it brings together women who get to meet each other, collaborate and lean on each other to learn from their experiences.

V.A: What has been your greatest challenge rising to the top as a woman CEO?

Bella: I started my career at 18 and I faced gender and age bias because I was a young woman in a largely male-dominated sector, and I extra pushed myself to be taken seriously. In a way, the good thing was I always felt I had to work extra hard so that people would take me seriously. That hindered me partially as well because it made me take on some man-like characteristics. I then became too stern, I wasn’t using enough relationship skills, I was focusing too much on tasks; I realized that a leader is not an independent actor but is shaped by and shapes her constituents. So I had to build a team. I also said there has to be a balance in my task and relationship skills.

Another challenge was just confidence. When a man speaks in meetings back and forth, people don’t say he is argumentative. But when it’s a woman, they say “she’s a bit too lousy a woman or too aggressive.” So It was about having confidence and embracing my individuality.

V.A: When the AfCFTA becomes active, would the agreement make it easier for Globacom to extend its networks across the continent?

Bella: It would because with the signing of the agreement, it would then become an active driver from the government to companies, to ensure that there are no barriers that could harm the trade pact. For example, we all know how difficult it is to travel within Africa. Sometimes you have to travel to Europe first to travel to another country in Africa; its the same with sending money. Pacts such as AfCFTA would make it a more enabling environment for these interactions to occur.

V.A: Every telecom company globally is now facing some sort of digital disruption. Is Globacom looking to invest in digital advancements like Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain?

Bella: We must and we are. We are living in an exponential world, we must expect exponential changes. If you don’t adapt, you fade into obscurity and irrelevance. Globacom must make those investments because we have the platform that enables digital innovations to occur – connectivity, network, etc.

We start looking at things like mobile money which is important because of the huge underbanked population in Nigeria. Out of about 190 million people, only about 31 million have registered bank accounts. There are also challenges involved in bank expansion.

Telecom operators can be drivers of financial inclusion. We (Globacom) will be deploying mobile money before the end of this year. With the disruption, my drive and charge is that network operator and providers must now shed that status of being only mobile operators. We have to develop a new digital process, go into FinTech, video bundling, etc

V.A: For a young Nigerian hoping to rise to a position such as yours, what piece of advice would you give?

Bella: I would say three things. One is to have a clear and articulate vision and mission of what you want to do because, without a vision, you cannot be able to develop. And the consumers you’re looking to serve must know that vision and you should not deviate from it.

Second, the product/service you are offering must have a distinctive competence. What is that quality that it has over anything else that’s present in the market?

Third would be about the growth; only the paranoid survive. Now you’ve launched your service (as an entrepreneur), your product is doing fantastically well. You must continue to ensure that the barriers to imitation stay high because you must remain paranoid that someone out there is either going to imitate you or take your company’s market.

V.A: For women looking to break the glass ceiling… ?

Bella: Women need to know that breaking the glass ceiling is one part, but you must not fall off the glass cliff.

I say this from a personal standpoint, women are like superheroes, always juggling so many things at once. Sometimes we get to lean on support and tap into resources, people see it as a sign of weakness. A good leader has that keen eye to say this team of eight or five people is the best people that I can tap resources from, thrive and really rise to the top.

So one is that you have to cultivate a team you can lean on. Second, you must be disciplined to work hard and be consistent. It permeates all aspects of everything you want to achieve.

Third, embrace your individuality. Each woman has something that is key to her, that could possibly influence her organization and it is important that you shut out the noise, know it’s a positive thing and keep pushing it forward.

V.A: Do you think that it is necessary for the government to implement policies that would actively encourage workplaces to hire more women?

President Kagame of Rwanda and Bella Disu at a meeting in Kigali during the Africa CEO Forum

Bella: There are debates and conflicting views on this. I would say yes. Rwanda (and Ethiopia) have institutionalized this policy. Ethiopia has mandated at least 50 percent gender parity and right now, they have 64 percent women representation in the cabinet. It is laudable and encouraging. I’m happy to come here and see that the Minister of Trade and Investment is a woman, Minister of ICT and Technology is also a woman. Nigeria is behind in this regard. So we should, I support the policies be put in place.

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