Risper Ohaga: How love for numbers pushed EABL finance boss up corporate ladder


Risper Ohaga, the CFO of East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL). PHOTO | POOL

This is the scale of the financial juggernaut that Risper Ohaga runs. The EABL is quoted on all three East African stock exchanges and has operations with a turnover of more than $1 billion, making it the third largest company on the Nairobi Securities Exchange by market capitalisation. It is one of the largest business units in Diageo Africa and directly operates five breweries, and two distilleries as well as barley and malting facilities.

It’s currently ranked among the top 50 in Africa in terms of market capitalisation. On top of helping develop and deliver strategy, Ms Ohaga offers leadership in finance, taxation, financials, treasury and risk management, and business performance.

It’s a lot of numbers upon numbers, an ocean she is most comfortable sailing in after having started her career at KPMG before moving to Barclays Africa Group where she left as the chief finance officer to join EABL in 2020 as their group chief financial officer and executive director. Overarching these achievements is family, her cornerstone. “I had my first child at KPMG in the first year of joining, that wasn’t common at that time. Nine years later, I told my boss, ‘I’m so bored, I will either get a baby or a new job’.” She laughed.

Which one did you get?

I got both. [Laughs] I got a call from Barclays, they were on the back of the financial crisis and looking to strengthen their risk teams, have a physical presence in Africa, and refresh their talent. I met Adan Mohammed for two hours, he had a compelling vision I wanted to be a part of. He was so smart, I just wanted to work for him. That’s when I made a difficult decision to move from KPMG to Barclays. Got the offer letter and found out I was pregnant with my third child on the same day. You know, the original intention was never to have children or get married but then Peter showed up and I liked him so much. Peter is not a flashy guy if you know him. He’s calm, a great sportsman, and extremely kind. These were great wins because I could see the lasting qualities, something that will not change overnight. We didn’t think about it too much, to be honest. We just loved each other and we wanted to make it work. We didn’t have much and started with no furniture in the house.

What has ever given you the most discomfort, motherhood or career?

Motherhood. Because you reinvent yourself in your career. One of my bosses used to say, ‘You can be successful at everything else but the outcome of your efforts in parenting? You just never know.’

I think what helped me was doing a parenting course early on I always used to be very worried about how my children would turn out and I remember them saying ‘Just remember, you must do your best as a parent, the outcome of that is a combination of very many things, and you can’t hold yourself to that.”

In parenting, your input and output may not be related so I find comfort in doing my part, but also making sure my children know that I will go to war for them if it’s necessary. Thankfully, most of the organisations I have worked for have been very supportive in my motherhood journey.

What’s been your key tipping point in life, your beacons of life?

My parents got married very young and then they both went back to school for university. My dad was here and my mom got a scholarship to go to Canada. She had to leave us for three years in the hands of relatives. That stint with the relatives was tough even though we didn’t know it was tough.

Whenever I face something difficult I think about my mom having to go for three-and-a-half years, leaving her six, three, and nine-month-old children in the hands of people. I can’t imagine how hard it was. And even now she still finds it hard to talk about it. I think that’s the biggest tipping point because if they didn’t do that, our lives would have been very different.


East African Breweries Limited (EABL) Group Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Risper Ohaga. PHOTO | COURTESY

What figures, and personalities, did you want to fashion yourself around growing up?

I don’t know if I had actual people, what I know was that my dad was a great figure in my life, and he affirmed me. When we first came to Nairobi from the village, speaking nothing other than Luo, he coached me in English. I’d never been to school; I was getting into preschool where people had been to nursery school and he coached me through that year until I caught up with everybody else.

And his affirmation, I think, through the years is such a milestone for me, constantly telling you, there’s nothing you can’t do. I’ve only ever known what I’m good at and I wasn’t good at many things but academics, which I focused on. I was great at maths, I was obsessed with statistics. So I just maximised what I was good at.

Like I said, I didn’t want to get married. In Form One I sat with a friend whose parents got divorced and this child was going through hell and I thought, 'why do people have children and let them go through this?' Maybe it’s just a good idea to build a career and fly, and travel the world. And don’t bother bringing children into this world where you make them go through this.

And then along came damned Peter to ruin all these.

[Laughs loudly] Yes. And of course, there was my mum who I admired because she was so articulate, so smart, so poised, and well put together. You always wanted to be like your mom.

What season are you in now in your life?

I feel like I’ve done a lot of stuff and I’m kind of thinking about what foundation am I laying after the corporate season is done. What will I do? I know I’ll probably do a lot of work with women and children so I’m starting to think about how I structure that. I know I’ll do a lot of work around building leadership, so starting to do more in that space, to build whilst I’m in this season, building leaders, and having an impact on corporations. I’m also thinking about laying the foundation for the next season.

What are your struggles currently?

I guess my biggest thing is my children. I mean, they’re fantastic children and we’re very close—they are 24, 20 next week, and 14. I feel like the world is so different now, you can’t tell what’s real and what’s contrived.

There’s so much reason to be insecure and everything is changing so fast that it’s very hard to keep grounded in this world that they’re growing up in. Can they be healthy and adaptable and be good and kind people? The thing that’s closest to my heart is that I raise good children who can make it through this very complex and rapidly changing world.

Are you happy as a mother, with what you’ve done?

I am. I had my daughter here [Romo restaurant, Westlands] on Saturday at a forum for close-knitted business leaders and someone asked me whether I feel I did the right things for them, particularly with all the moving I did in my career. She was in the crowd so I asked her to answer that and she said there were indeed ups and downs but she would never have asked for anything different. I think that’s comforting that they know I’m human, they know I have struggles, but they also know that I give it my absolute best.

Where do you get your affirmation from now?

I think…Peter mostly. I mean, he’s known me since I was 19 years old and he is the most practical but also most affirming person after my dad. My dad is also still affirming, he still gives me that extra push. And then a lot of affirmation is from myself. I’ve realised the world sends you a lot of missiles. So I do a lot of reflection, journaling, do a lot of meditation, and just a lot of self-reflection to affirm myself because the world can be quite tough.


Risper Ohaga, the CFO of East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL). PHOTO | POOL

What do you think Peter struggles with when it comes to you?

I can be very stubborn, especially when I’m onto something. It’s hard to stop me and he has learned how to bring me in. Peter went to boarding school at five, so he is more neat and organised than most people I know.

When you are neater than most people they will tend to frustrate you at times. [Laughs] I always tell my house girls, ‘You’re about to be fired when you see Peter dusting around.’ I’m a little bit more scatterbrained and so those are the things he has to deal with.

What’s the story of your tattoo?

It’s a combination of a phoenix rising and a semicolon, which is the symbol of support for mental health. It means “choose to continue.” So my eldest daughter has depression and so this was me just in solidarity with her. She also has one of the same. The phoenix, well I was going through a rough time and that’s what people don’t tell you about expat life.

I was in Zambia, I had children in midstream of an exam and I had a particularly vindictive boss. We took a flight to Germany with two best friends and did the tattoo to remind me to choose to continue no matter what.

What advice would you give parents with children with mental health?

Talk about it, it’s not something to hide or to be ashamed about. I mean it’s like any other condition. I found out that the more I talked about the more I found out that many more people are dealing with the same thing. Sharing with other people with the same helps you with perspective and learning. The second thing is to seek professional help because there is a lot of stuff you can’t handle yourself but the profession is also evolving so pay attention.

Lastly, stand with them, and work with them through whatever. It can get so difficult at some point but it’s your child, you will go through the fire with them, right?

How is she doing now, is she better?

Yeah, she is. She’s in a good season. She graduated successfully in the UK, came back, and had a bit of a rough patch. I think they’re struggling with this transition from schools into the world of work. So she’s currently doing an internship.

She has her ups and downs, but on the whole, she’s doing way better. And I have to say we are still very much experimenting with different specialists to get the right answers. But you keep trying. You walk with them.

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