Women in Tech: Orange Sierra Leone CEO Aminata Kane
"West Africa, and Africa in general, has a very high level of women entrepreneurs, more than anywhere in the world. So, you already have this drive and this ability to take risks that is present in West African women. They already have this ability to multitask."
This is one of the things that is helping West African women succeed according to Orange Sierra Leone CEO Aminata Kane.
Growing up in both France and Senegal and studying and working in Europe and the US, she decided to return to Africa seven years ago, joining the Orange Group, and specifically Sonatel in Senegal.
Three years ago, she was called up to lead the business in Sierra Leone and now her unit is the fastest growing company within all of Orange's Africa operations. She is also pushing for more gender balance at the company and 50% of the executive committee in Sierra Leone are now women.
Kane sat down with Connecting Africa to share her experience so far and offer some advice to women hoping to follow in her footsteps.
Paula Gilbert (PG): When you were appointed in Sierra Leone you were the first woman CEO and you were the youngest to have the role in the country. So, was that daunting at the time and what was the reaction from people when you were appointed?
Aminata Kane (AK): So indeed, I was the first woman appointed CEO within the Sonatel clusters, so the five countries in the region. And I was the youngest, I think, of all of Orange at the time.
Was it daunting? Yes, it was, but for personal reasons. At the time my son was four years old, my daughter was 18 months, my husband and I had a lot of discussions about how it would work. Me being in Sierra Leone, with young kids and him being in Dakar, but with him and with my family, my parents, my siblings, we decided to take on the challenge collectively, that I would not miss this huge opportunity to go to the next level, from a professional point of view, but also to have an impact on the continent, no matter if it was Senegal, or some other countries, it would be fantastic for me to just be able to have a larger impact. So that's how we decide that.
When I started, honestly, people were very surprised. I would go to meetings, especially in the provinces, and people would just disregard me. They would greet my directors and give them the better chair and then someone would say "this is the CEO, she's here" and people's faces would just be so surprised. It was great to always see the surprise.
But at the end of the day, I was very determined at the time to occupy this position as a full time CEO and I was also very clear about my role and my goals, but also my shortfalls. It was my first time being a CEO. It was clear to me that I did not know the job at the time. So I was very clear on that. That I needed to listen to people to spend a lot of time understanding, getting some coaching and mentorship. Orange helped me a lot with that.
I had some dedicated coaching for my first month, I was able to speak to a lot of other CEOs, especially my predecessor in the job who had become my boss. So, we had a lot of calls all the time and it was very important for me to get this coaching and this support.
Three years later, I don't think that anyone's looking at me as the youngest or as a woman, but just as another CEO who's doing her job.
PG: I think it's a story we hear a lot, of women who had experiences just like you. I was going to ask if it's different now, but I'm glad to hear that it is.
AK: It is, but at the same time, I am a woman, right? And I'm a mom, my kids have moved to Sierra Leone a couple of years ago. So yes, I go to school every day to drop them. I make sure that I have time for them in the evening and over the weekends. I try to avoid work commitments over the weekends.
So yes, it's part of me, that's who I am. I'm a woman, I'm a mom, I'm a wife. I bring all of these hats to my CEO job. So if sometimes I have to cancel a meeting because there is a race at school, well, I do that, but I think that even dads are doing the same, so I think we all bring a little bit more family time within our workspace, and I think it's important.
PG: Do you think you've seen that change over the years, that there are more dads and moms sharing that kind of stuff? Because how do you balance it all?
AK: That is the $300 billion question, how do you balance it all? From my own experience, I think you can try to balance things over time. So, at the same time, you will not necessarily get everything you want.
There are some times where you push for career, there are some times where you will push for family, there are some times you will push for your relationship with your partner, and there are some times you will push for yourself because you need time to figure out what you want to do next. I think that over time you can find balance but we also have to be a little bit patient.
For my first year as CEO, I was really pushing for my career. My kids were in Senegal with my husband and I would commute every month, go back and see them. But I was really pushing for career because I needed to understand what this job was about. I also had the huge task of taking this company to the next level. People had put their trust in me and I was not going to let anyone down, especially not my kids.
The second year, my kids came with me and I was pushing more for family. I knew I wanted my kids to feel comfortable in a new environment to learn how to speak English, because they were French speakers. I wanted my husband also to have the smooth transition with the kids not being with him anymore.
Now that we have this sort of balance I'm pushing again for transformation in the company. I think it's important over time to have a balance. I think that people who are always focusing on career, in my opinion I would not want that for myself, I think they might be a bit sad at the end of their lives. But again, no judgement, people know what is best for them.
But I think it's important not to compromise on something. Pushing for career for too long when you also want to be a family person. It's very important to also find a way to balance everything at the end of the day. Nobody has a perfect solution, but I know sometimes for me, it's more important to push one or the other, and I'm glad that my husband is on board with that.
PG: So it's hard to talk about anything at the moment without bringing in COVID-19. Over the past year how has the network in Sierra Leone been impacted and how has your work and the work of your team being affected by the pandemic?
AK: When COVID hit, Sierra Leone was ready, because six years ago we were hit by Ebola and that was a big tragedy for the country. So when COVID hit, the first case arrived much later than the other countries in the region, but people were ready much earlier than the other countries in the region. So I really have to give kudos to the government for stepping up so early to prevent the high levels of cases in Sierra Leone.
The company was also ready on time. Our goal was very clear: We need to protect our people we need to protect our customers. After that when people feel protected, then we can continue providing services to people because they need to have connectivity, they need to have coverage for their work or just to keep track of their families, so it was very important.
We also continued to work heavily on the network. The capacity had to double, almost overnight, because the traffic was huge. People were browsing all the time and all the companies were working from home, so the traffic increase was huge so we had to double that up. We were able to do that very quickly and adapt to the new ways of working.
We also had to step in to support the government. There were lots of campaigns, but awareness can be amplified by a telecommunications company, which is what we did, we provided a lot of support in terms of awareness, but also phones and data capabilities for the government to be able to spread the message and we also provided support when it comes to big data.
For me personally it was not as easy, because as the captain of the ship, you have to be steady and you have to sail right through whatever is happening.
But my husband was here, I was very lucky that he was here because he lives in Senegal still. So we were together with the kids which gave me a lot of mental support and a lot of comfort. That helped me really focus on my people and make sure that they were feeling okay.
So that's how we managed to do it, and honestly, I was not expecting for us to still be the fastest growing company this year, but our focus on our people, the human touch, made it possible for all of us to get these results.
PG: Globally, we're seeing gender balance improve a bit, especially in tech and telecoms companies with more women rising to top level positions, but are we seeing that trend also in West Africa?
AK: Slowly yes, I think it's now on the agenda of most of the CEOs that I'm talking to, which was not the case before. Before it was happening by chance – if you had a great woman you will promote her. But most of the time the women would not ask for promotions, so they would not be considered when the time came to appoint someone at the exco committee or the board member level. But now it's becoming a priority and on the agenda of most of the CEOs. So this is really comforting and helpful.
That being said, I think that the numbers are not good, and sometimes you have some trees hiding the forest. So I am a tree hiding a forest because you see Aminata was appointed but since I've been appointed, not too many other women have in the industry in general.
We also often look at the exco level or the board member level, but we fail to look at the middle management level. I'm sure this is very low everywhere, probably less than 30%. So it's not only paramount to look at the top, but also look at the mid-level because these are the people who will become the managers in the next five to ten years, they will become directors and board members and CEOs.
We have to have a pipe always full of women, and I think this is where we still struggling a little bit. But I'm hopeful. I think that now it has become the agenda of most people. Because it's proven that when you have more gender balance, your results are better. I think Sierra Leone is showing that, we're contributing to a positive narrative about having gender balance. So if we continue on this trend I'm hopeful for the future.
More women are also stepping up into managerial positions. There are a lot more examples of woman managing it and still having kids and being married or being in a relationship. They feel more that they can do that, especially on the expatriate tracks.
Sometimes you need to go out of your country to have a promotion, which was not the case before, but we see now more examples of women relocating and having to commute with their home base to see their husband or husbands moving to join them. I think these are good examples giving some courage to other women to try something like this.
PG: So how do we encourage more African women to aspire to tech and telecoms professions?
AK: Good question. I think there is not one answer to that, I think there is a series of measures that can be put in place.
You have to first talk about awareness. So what are the positions that are available? Is this company really standing for women empowerment and women coming to managerial positions? What are the recent examples and how did they manage it? The company has to take a stand on what is their position and how much they value having women in managerial positions.
Second, when you have good women in your pipe, nurture them. Make sure that they have mentors, coaching and great opportunities. It's important also to understand that some position will not lead you to CEO. When you look at the backgrounds of CEOs, most of the time in the telecommunication industry, they are coming from either sales, marketing, finance or IT, but they come less from an HR background, audit background, legal background, which is where women are working predominantly.
Making sure that women are also transitioning to tracks that can lead to board member or to CEO is also important. When I talk about nurturing, this is what I mean – making sure that they feel confident that they have people sponsoring them, but also that they are on the right tracks.
It's also important to accommodate women. When you want to have a woman that is at the top position, then she will come with baggage that makes her better. But it's also important to make the workspace great for her and comfortable for her. If she has kids, help her to find a good school for the kids. If she has a husband, how about finding a job for her husband? If she has parents that she needs to take care of then make it possible for her to go back every month to see her family.
It's important to take care of the woman as a whole because she comes as a whole, and most of the time, she would not want to compromise one thing of her personal life for her career. This is something that companies have to understand and take into account.
PG: If we look at West Africa, what do you think are the unique things that are holding women in the region back? Then on the flip side, what are the things that are uniquely helping them to succeed?
AK: Let me start with what is allowing them to succeed. So West Africa, and Africa in general, has a very high level of women entrepreneurs, more than anywhere in the world. So, you already have this drive and this ability to take risks that is present in West African women. Even women who are not working in the formal sector will have a side business and they will hustle something and they will sell something, etc. They already have this ability to multitask.
Secondly, they have a great support system. Most of the women [in West Africa] have their moms around or their cousins or they can have a nanny. You have a support system that most women in Europe or in the US actually don't have. So, it should be easier for you to go into career tracks. Because you have a support system and you already know how to take risks and you have seen your mom hustling and doing something and managing many kids at the same time.
On the other hand, I think that we are missing is having role models and honest conversations about what it is to have a career. There are still a lot of clichés that are hanging on to women who are going into these positions.
When I got appointed, you can't imagine how many people told me that my husband would divorce me. You could not imagine how many said my kids will hate me, that I don't have a heart, what kind of mom am I? That I'm going to another country while my kids are still young. I heard it all.
There are still a lot of clichés, people telling themselves that you have to be a certain type of woman to have a career or become a CEO. I think that having more role models, and more honest conversations, is going to help to fight these clichés that are still very present.
I also think when you don't have [gender based] data, it's really hard to track. There are not too many countries in the continent that are publishing data about the gender gap. I think that a lot of men just want to help, they really understand that having women in their teams is of high value, but they just don't know that they don't have that many. Because most companies and countries do not publish any data about that.
If you don't know where you are starting from and if you don't track it, it's going to be very hard for you to progress.
But I'm hopeful because African women are great at multitasking, really good at taking risks, and very hard working. So, there is no reason why in the coming ten or 15 years, we will not see a huge shift.
PG: So what would be your advice to young girls and young women?
AK: Dream big. We now have access to worldwide information, so if you're looking for a role model you are not going to look only in Africa, you're going to look everywhere. How many young girls were so happy and excited when Kamala Harris became the first female vice president [of the US]. Women are looking now to New Zealand, Norway and Estonia, and how they are appointing women in power, and how the women are managing the COVID crisis very well. Role models are coming now from everywhere.
So, dream big and know that there is a lot that you can achieve when you set some vision for yourself and you work hard for it.
Secondly, I would say sisterhood is important. In as much as it's important to have men mentors, it's always very good to be able to discuss with a woman who will be able to tell you that she relates and she understands what you're going through.
When I step in a room and I am the only woman – which happens most of the time – only another woman will understand that feeling. Sisterhood is important for me, I'm always here to help out some sisters and I'm getting a lot of help from other woman, may they be in the industry or not, or just girlfriends to tell me "okay, I understand this is hard." A man will not understand that.
It is important to always give a hand and also always take a hand of somebody who can help you. You also need men mentors, because at the end of the day, we are navigating in their world, and they are able to tell you how to navigate. This is not something that always comes intuitively, you have to learn it, so they need to be part of the conversation too.
PG: What do you think are the first steps we need to take to try and build a more inclusive, digital world that gives everyone equal opportunities?
AK: That's a great question, I think we need to know where we are starting from first. If we look at Orange in Middle East and Africa, you have a huge gap between the North African and Middle East countries and sub-Saharan African countries when it comes to penetration of data, which means how many people on our total base are using the Internet regularly.
In the Middle East and North Africa, you will be around 80% to 84%, but in sub-Saharan Africa, we are roughly at 35%. This is also covering a huge gap between some countries like Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Mali, which are closer to the 55%, and Sierra Leone, which is closer to the 20%. You have huge disparities on the continent, and this is already very painful.
However, there is coverage. Today if you want to connect to the Internet in Sierra Leone, 90% of the places where you go you can connect, but still, we have only 20% of people using the Internet in the country.
This huge gap is explained by several things. First, there is a direct correlation between the penetration of the data and the level of literacy. The more a country is educated, the easier it will be for the country to actually get access to the Internet. Education is a long term bet and it's going to have amazing spill-overs on everything, and digital inclusion is one.
Second, the prices of devices. When you buy a device for $10 in Europe or in the US, a smartphone, here in Africa, the minimum price will be $25. Because it's expensive to ship goods to African countries. They are often produced far away and then you have to add Goods and Service Tax (GST). Some countries like Senegal have decided to waive GST and customs on smartphones to make sure that it's cheaper for people to acquire one. Sierra Leone has not done that yet, but we are hopeful for the future that they will do that.
Lastly, people need to have reasons to use the Internet. WhatsApp and Facebook are not sometimes enough of a reason for somebody who is a farmer or a teacher in school to use the Internet. The more we come up with relevant use cases, relevant apps and relevant reasons for people to use the Internet, the more they will use it.
So it's not only a matter of coverage anymore or even a matter of price. Because in Sierra Leone, we are close to 1GB per dollar, so it's very cheap. But we actually have other reasons that are very structural and long term that we are working on and we're partnering with the government to have a more inclusive country when it comes to digital.
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*Top image is of Aminata Kane, CEO at Orange Sierra Leone. (Source: Orange).
— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa