Rise of Kenyan women CFOs


(From left) Risper Genga, East African Breweries Limited (EABL) Group Chief Financial Officer and Sophia Mukoba- Kioko, Finance Director at Unilever East Africa. FILE PHOTO | POOL

Many years after women began getting jobs in the big corporates, only a handful have made it all the way to the top of the finance departments.

The issue of gender in finance has come to the fore especially now when Kenyan workplaces are seeking inclusivity.

A report by Catalyst released in 2021, shows that while women leaders are still more likely to be human resource directors compared to other roles, this proportion has decreased since 2020.

In the same time frame, the proportion of women in other leadership roles like CEO, chief finance officer (CFO), and chief information officer (CIO) has increased.

“I think women have been CFOs, but doing their thing quietly. It's just that now particularly the bigger organisations are starting to give them roles,” says Risper Genga, the group CFO and executive director at East African Breweries Limited (EABL).

“If you look at audit firms, you see a lot of the starters, it is 50-50. We are there, it is just maybe at one level down or we are just not as vocal.”

Ms Genga joined the brewer from Absa Group (previously Barclays) in Zambia as a finance director in what was meant to be her “route upwards to Kenya” after working across multiple countries and living in southern Africa.

“Being a finance director for Barclays in Zambia was meant to be a two-year assignment but became four years…In the process, EABL just reached out to me on LinkedIn,” she says.


East African Breweries Limited (EABL) Group Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Risper Genga. FILE PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Her LinkedIn profile shows years of experience in a field where women are breaking the glass ceiling to sit at the top corporate position.

Sophia Mukoba- Kioko, the finance director at Unilever East Africa says “CFO female representation has increased over the years, but it is still under-indexed.”

She says the improvement can be attributed to the work done by champions of diversity, advocating the benefits of having female representation.

As a result, many organisations have made a deliberate effort to drive diversity and accelerate the career growth of female employees.

“I don’t think the misconception that women cannot rise to the top of finance departments still exists as we have a few women who have broken the glass ceiling and proven that women too can make it in the demanding finance professional,” she says.

NSE representation

Even so, the number of women in top leadership positions remains low compared to that of men. Only 11 out of the 64 companies listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange have female CFOs including StanChart Bank and EABL.

Among the women who have made it to the list includes Chemutai Murgor, the CFO of the StanChart Bank in Kenya, Grace Oluoch, the former Bamburi Cement finance director, Lawrencia Gichatha, the finance manager of TotalEnergies, Catherine Chepkong’a, the finance controller of East African Markets at British American Tobacco, among a few others.

Remaining barriers

“Female representation in senior finance roles is still quite low and there is still a long way to go. There are several barriers that are holding back women and society and organisations should be focusing on unlocking these barriers for women so that they thrive,” adds Ms Mukoba.

However, once they are at the top positions, they have been the minority, Ms Genga points out.

This is because their counterparts have been more upfront and risk-taking. “The representation has been years and years of many people who have gone before us hammering out the door and knocking and creating the space for us,” Ms Genga adds.

“Women generally will focus on just getting the job done and hoping it will speak for them. They don’t take a lot many opportunities to meet up outside the office where they will be seen and heard.”

Both agree that the country has made some progress in the number of female CFOs and representation at the board level, but there is still a glaring gap.

“It still does feel like a man’s world and it is important that women’s progress is fast-tracked,” adds Ms Mukoba.

Women in finance departments, and at the top level are seen bringing more diverse voices at all levels (both in the c-suite and at the entry-level), sprouting new approaches and new thought leadership to a business.

Diversity dividend

A 2019 study by S&P Global Market Intelligence of 6,000 companies in the Russell 3,000 index over 17 years found that, within 24 months of appointing a female chief financial officer, companies’ profits increased by an average of six percent, and stock market returns improved by eight percent, compared with their male predecessors.

The advantage is that the risk-averseness enables them to critically evaluate decisions before they commit bringing about more financial stability, better risk management, social consciousness, and ultimately more profitability, Ms Mukoba says.


Sophia Mukoba- Kioko, Finance Director at Unilever East Africa. FILE PHOTO | POOL

“Women are also hampered by lack of self-belief, and perfectionism and are more averse to risk. Women will listen to their inner critic and dwell on their mistakes. In some cases, we have women who choose to avoid careers like Finance due to their demanding nature making it difficult to achieve a work-life balance. It, therefore, goes without saying that men will reach senior finance roles faster than their female counterparts.”

The finance profession has traditionally been a male-dominated profession and this has resulted in an inherent bias that is difficult to overcome.

This puts the females at a disadvantage when it comes to the recruitment process despite the potential benefits they would bring to the profession, Ms Mukoba says.

Need for extra experience

Amid these challenges including the societal expectations of women and juggling multiple responsibilities while still pursuing a career, they are forced to gain more experience to be at par with men.

Ms Mukoba who holds a Master of Business Administration MBA and qualifies as a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) started off her career back in 1998 at Deloitte as an Audit Assistant where she spent seven years rising to the rank of Senior Auditor.

During that time, she audited different clients in different industries which sparked her interest to join Finance.

With no prior experience in finance, she moved to British American Tobacco (BAT) in 2005 as Area Internal Auditor for Sub-Sahara Africa

The role provided her with the opportunity to join the Finance department as the Planning and Reporting Manager for the East Africa Zone covering markets in East Africa, Horn of Africa & Indian Ocean Islands after two years in Audit.

Before joining EABL in February 2020, Ms Genga had worked with Barclays Africa for about 11 years at the end of 2008.

Barclays had appointed her out of KPMG, where she had started her career and done nine years with her appointment following-up the financial crisis of 2008.

The transition means she went out of audit and moved into finance, then into manufacturing.

Ms Genga says to reach that level one needs to be teachable and open to new experiences.

“I think the biggest thing was starting my career with KPMG. Doing the nine years meant that I was exposed to anything, I got the challenge and figured it out. So it makes you very versatile, resilient and willing to learn and exposed to so many different industries.”

“I had never worked in FMCG. Everybody kept asking me ‘you don’t have FMCG experience?’ I said, well, when I started in banking, I didn’t have banking experience and now you are calling me a banker.”

What it takes

So how do one become a CFO?

“I think it’s twofold. One is being prepared. There is no substitute for preparation. If you want to be a CFO, there is a skill set you have to have. You do the work. There is no any substitute for doing the work that prepares you to do the job.”

“The second piece is just around being authentic to push yourself. Stakeholder engagement is also very important. It is important to know who are the decision-makers and who are the ones who will support you. You may go to cocktails, you may go to formal events, but also you need to find your way of connecting with people who will advise, support you, challenge you and push you. Because if you don’t, your work only speaks to you up to a certain point.’’

Ms Genga says people also need to ask for it.

“How you may appear creates a certain perception. I have learned over and over again, put up your hand and say, how about me and this job? What do you think? And what do I need?”

“They may not say yes to the job right now, but it challenges them to say why not this person actually? Why haven’t I thought about them? And to answer you, they may say it’s because you haven’t done 1,2,3. We hope people will read our minds and will see our dreams and our hopes and ambitions and respond to them without asking.”

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