Profiles

What Lorraine Njue, a risk assessment expert won't risk

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FIA, FeASk Head of Strategy and Partnerships - African Risk Capacity Lorraine Njue during an interview on December 04, 2023, at Serena Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Lorraine Njue shows up with the most prominent purse you ever seen. Massive thing, classy. It sits by her chair like an emotional support animal. This fashion accessory could easily be a metaphor for Lorraine’s intellectual capacity but also her motormouth talent to express these ideas that come tumbling out of her with great speed and surprising coherence. Listening to her is like facing a whirring turbine.

She’s an actuary heading the actuarial at African Risk Capacity Insurance (ARC), a catastrophe pool organised into a specialised insurance company that provides parametric insurance coverage against weather-related risks such as droughts, tropical cyclones, and floods. ARC also provides parametric insurance against outbreaks and epidemics. A puzzled look prompts her layman’s explanation. “Basically,” she says, “we sell insurance - drought, tropical cyclones, floods - to African governments.”

There aren’t many of her types in Africa: qualified female actuaries with extensive experience in climate change, parametric insurance, actuarial management, regulation, and reinsurance. In London, before her current position, she was an actuarial manager at KPMG. She has also been the Head of Actuarial at Continental Reinsurance, a pan – African reinsurer with operations across six countries and a presence across all African countries.

She mentors young female actuaries on the continent because she understands the treacherous journey of her academic profession. (She holds a Bachelor of Science in Actuarial Science and a Master of Science in Actuarial Management from Bayes Business School.) And she does marathons.

How did you end up here?

It’s a very long story. (chuckles) I studied actuary at JKUAT, but I had other choices. I wanted to be a pilot. A couple of months before my graduation in my fourth year, one of our lecturers mentioned something about 15 exams. We are like, wait, sorry, what? What that meant was that I needed to have done 15 exams! Panic set in, and I started doing the professional exams, which involved a lot of failing. Then, I learned about the insurance regulatory scholarship programme.

The terms were that if you had five exams, they would award you a Master’s scholarship. Once you get the Master’s degree, you could qualify faster. So I did that abroad. I failed twice when I returned to Kenya, but eventually passed the professional exams.

Then, I started working for the regulator because it was a condition of the scholarship. Later, I went to work for a local reinsurance company and, a short while later, went to the UK for a couple of years. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and everyone was dying in their apartments. I remember my neighbour tried to call for an ambulance, but they didn’t come until the next day. I decided to come back to Nairobi. While I was here, they were like, “Hey, do you know this cool company called Africa Risk Capacity?” That’s how I ended up here.

Explain how this insurance works.

So, we sell insurance to African governments. We run a risk pool, which means we bring a group of countries together to share the risk because insurance is all about sharing risk. The idea is that several countries will not face a disaster simultaneously. For instance, you won’t have drought in West Africa and East Africa at the same time. So, we bring them together, get them to pay the premium, and whoever suffers a disaster that year, we pay them out based on that pot of money.

Currently, we have 17 countries in our pool. We check out its vulnerability and population profile, which are all done remotely. We download satellite data to tell us the average rainfall in the last 20 years, and based on that, if a country’s rainfall is less by or increases by one [factor], we can tell the effects on the population. We provide parametric insurance based on an index and a threshold. The index is the rainfall, and the threshold is by how much it’s less, which then acts as a trigger. This, of course, is an oversimplified version of what we do.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Komarock, Eastlands in Nairobi. My childhood was full of hustle, looking for clothes and thrifting. I was always looking for something. My dad was always busy, as was my mom. It took a long time for my career to come together. After finishing the undergraduate degree and then the 15 exams, my dad was like, "Will you ever finish?" The journey has been very long.

Would you do this again if you were to go back?

I’ve never thought about it. I would. The end justifies the means. It’s not the end yet for me. I’m in the middle of a mid-range mountain, and I know there will be more mountains. Everything we’ve done has led us to this moment, right? The pilot dream is not closed. I can still go to Wilson Airport right now. I’m not out of my dreams; I just took a longer path.

Do you feel like you are successful?

When I was 18, I wrote a 10-year plan. Among other things, it involved me buying a Mercedes Benz by the time I’m 38 years old. That, for me, was a measure of success. I’m not 38 yet. I don’t have a Mercedes, nor do I plan to buy one anytime soon.

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FIA, FeASk Head of Strategy and Partnerships - African Risk Capacity Lorraine Njue during an interview on December 04, 2023, at Serena Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Nonetheless, I have wowed that 18-year-old girl. I have impressed her and blown her mind off. She’s like, “Oh my God, this is you!” But then again, from the conventional point of view, I don’t think I align with the perceived blueprint of success. However, I measure success this way: Have I been true to myself and committed to my goals?

When was the last time you highly disappointed yourself? Gravely.

Gravely? There are so many. DisapGravely? There are so many. Disappointment is the price of ambition; to live with that sense of dissatisfaction that there's always more you could do, that there's always better. So that's constant.

This year, I didn't get the things I applied for, which made me question who I am. Whenever I spend my time on something, it should count. So, when I fail to achieve my goals, I feel like they were a waste of time. Which, thinking logically, is not the case because, you know, life is a continuum.

I really trained for the Berlin Marathon this year. I did everything there was to do, including changing my sleeping position, but I did not achieve my running time. But my failure wasn't that I didn't hit my time; I attached too much [importance] to it, and it almost made me, I don't know, feel different about myself.

It was the same disappointment I felt when I went to Mount Kenya. I almost didn't summit, finishing last. And that's a big deal because I've never been last in anything. I was always index one in school. But when Mt Kenya happened, I came down and shaved off my six-year-old dreadlocks. So, my failures have been because of my fitness limitation, which is a weird sense of who I am.

How bad was Mount Kenya?

Sobering. I remember lying there, thinking how I was going to die, right? Everyone was passing me, jumping over me, and my guide kept saying, "Roll, roll to the side." And I was like, "I have no strength." So, he rolled me to the side, where I could see everyone still angling and struggling to go up. It reminded me of my mortality; it made me realise I'll die someday.

What's the most difficult thing about being 34 now?

Time. Trying to find time to do everything you want to do. Time for all your passions, for excellence, for family, and time to date. Time is a big thing from a day-to-day perspective. You wake up and time has gone by so quickly. The to-do list is always longer than the number of hours.

Have you attained balance in your life?

I don't think there's a balance, is there? Every day you're leaning toward things, trying to catch the ball. Sometimes two balls are in the air, sometimes, three, and other times it's one. You're always juggling balls. I don't think you can say, "Oh, I've attained a perfect balance."

Do you plan to get married and have children, are those in the cards?

No, yes, I don’t know. (Laughter) I have to say yes because my mom will die if she reads this. She's doing her prayer group thing right now for a husband. So I have to say yes. (Laughs) But I don't know. Maybe. We'll see. Life has a way of unfolding. I'm not pressured about it anymore. I was like, yeah, so it's fine.

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FIA, FeASk Head of Strategy and Partnerships - African Risk Capacity Lorraine Njue during an interview on December 04, 2023 at Serena Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

When did it stop, the pressure?

I think on Mt Kenya when I realised I was going to die. I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to die, I've got to get about the business of life." I feel like I've always been waiting to do something or to be something and always racing. And then the Mt Kenya experience reshaped or reconfigured the whole thing.

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