Women in Tech: MTN Rwanda CEO Mitwa Ng'ambi
"There are so many unique challenges and therefore opportunities that Africa faces as a continent. I don't believe there's anybody better placed to address those challenges or provide solutions than Africans themselves."
That's one of the key takeaways from a recent Connecting Africa interview with MTN Rwanda CEO Mitwa Ng'ambi, who talked to us about her journey in the telecoms sector, and what needs to be done to accelerate inclusion in the industry.
The Zambian national is a software engineer by training and has worked with some of Africa's biggest telecoms operators in various roles in Benin, Senegal, Zambia and Ghana before landing the role of CEO for MTN in Rwanda.
Ng'ambi sat down with Connecting Africa to share how Rwanda is leading the continent when it comes to gender equality and how important it is for girls to have female role models in positions of power to positively mold their career aspirations.
Paula Gilbert (PG): When you were appointed, you were the first-ever female CEO for MTN Rwanda and the same at Tigo in Senegal before that so was that daunting and what was the reaction to your appointment?
Mitwa Ng’ambi (MN) : It's really funny that when you are taking up the roles, you never really think about being a female, right? You just think about being an executive, and you have the aspirations to get there. So, it's only when people ask me the question, do I get reminded of my femaleness, if you will.
I don't necessarily think about being female because I don't know how to be anything else. I've always been female, it's who I am. But like you said, as you're coming into a role then the headlines start saying "first female CEO" and that's when you think about it.
Daunting? I would say no. Exciting? Definitely. But I think also coming into such high-profile roles, and also being tagged as the "first female" anything really comes with a huge sense of responsibility to succeed. Not to prove yourself to anybody, but really to show other girls and women that they can do it as well.
So, it was exciting in that sense, but also a huge sense of responsibility to make sure that my story can leave a lasting example to the girls and women that they too can do it and that it's not a male-reserved role.
PG: At the moment we're seeing more women come into these high-profile roles in Africa, but do you think there's enough gender balance happening?
MN: I think in the ICT industry, specifically, it's definitely improved over the years. I remember going back three or four years going to CEO leadership retreats across companies that I worked for and I could very easily be the only female amongst 15 or 20 senior executives - CEOs, CFOs, etc.
But the wheels are definitely turning. Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not, I think there are certain countries that have propelled themselves much faster ahead of everybody else. I can give an example of Rwanda where I'm sitting where 60% of parliamentarians are women and 50% of cabinet members in Rwanda are women.
When you look at the private sector as well, within banks more than 40% of CEOs are women. So, you can see that certain environments are a bit more enabling and encouraging deliberately of female positioning within high-profile roles. But when you look at other countries, even where I'm from, while the tide is changing there's still a lot more to be done.
PG: I know you're from Zambia, so tell me a bit about you as a young girl, what were your aspirations back then? Did you envision yourself as a CEO one day?
MN: It's funny, I would always watch these interviews with female leaders, and they always asked the question: did you ever think you'd be a CEO? And nobody ever thinks that at eight or nine years old, nobody ever thinks that you'd be a CEO.
But of course, looking back, you'd see the inklings of leadership traits that you would have that manifest and grow over time.
But funnily enough, as a very young girl, my aspiration was to be a flight attendant, that was because I had an aunt who made that lifestyle seemed extremely glamorous. They were so beautiful with their uniforms and things like that. So, in my childhood that was the dream.
But of course, as I grew up, going into school, and then university, I always found myself gravitating towards more science and technical type subjects, and going into university, my intention was to pursue natural science. So, I started out in natural science and most likely had life not happened the way it did I would have ended up in medicine or pharmaceuticals or streams like that.
But because I went to a university that closed down in my second year of university, due to lecturer strikes at the time - which were notorious - the school closed down for what was meant to be a two-week recess, and it extended into two months. During that period, my dad and I had to think fast about what to do, and I ended up going to the University of Namibia - still with a thought that I was going to pursue natural science. But when I got there, the natural science school was completely full.
I started meeting all the Deans of the schools and had a conversation with the Dean of the computer science school and he advised that technology would be a good idea because with technology you can end up working in any environment - whether it's banking, finance, pharmaceuticals or medicine.
That's how I started out my journey into technology, it kind of happened by accident. But I promise you the minute that I entered that environment, I knew that I wanted to be a software engineer, just by virtue of being able to crack problems down to size and build solutions for them.
I guess everything works out in the end and I knew that at some point, I'm going to be a leader in the technology space without necessarily knowing I would be the CEO. I guess by being a CEO in the telecom industry, it's kind of a fulfillment of that.
PG: So, what was it about that environment, the software engineering space that was so interesting?
MN: I think it's the ability to break down problems and find technical solutions for them. Because I believe there's no problem under the sun that cannot be resolved by technology, it may cost money and it may take us time, but a solution can be found in technology. And that's what's so exciting about not only the technology of today, but also the future prospects as well. So that's what keeps me excited in my role today.
PG: How do we get more girls to be interested in this field?
MN: I think it's down to us who've been there and done that, to continue telling the story. That's one aspect. So, when I see forums or even interviews such as these, which tell the stories of women in these roles, that really excites me, because at least the story is being told, especially to those people who need it.
But beyond that, I think we also, as a society, have quite a big role to play, creating those home environments that make young girls believe that they are just as good as boys, and it doesn't matter if they are a boy or a girl, technology or any other discipline is equally persuadable by both.
Looking at the education system, I've seen a few countries trying to make progress on introducing these ICT-related subjects from a very young age. I really smile when I hear my nine-year-old son asking to do a coding class. This is not the way we used to speak when we were nine years old, but those kinds of opportunities are being deliberately offered within the school environment which will then prepare young kids - who are going to develop into adults who already have the makings of ICT and the potential that it has.
So, I think the education system has to be deliberately tailored towards including aspects of technology, because we know irrespective of the industry that you're going to work in, technology will form a big part.
PG: What's it like being a female boss in such a male dominated field? Or is the perception that telecoms is still male dominated outdated?
MN: It's definitely still quite male dominated. I think while we would like to think we've made progress, and we have, we're nowhere near where we should be. I remember in my very first CEO role, I was the only woman in my executive committee, so that meant I was the boss, and everybody who reported to me was male.
It was fine in the sense that at the end of the day because I was competent and I knew what I was doing, but it does make you think that there's a lot more work to do.
Is there any difference in my being female versus if I were male in the way I lead? I don't think so. Like I said, every day I wake up not thinking about how I'm female, I wake up thinking about the mandate I have to get things done.
What I have seen, though observing other female leaders as well, is that you tend to have certain characteristics that males don't have. It's funny how some of those characters have become 10 times more important with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because female leaders tend to be a bit more nurturing, a bit more engaging, and more approachable and more communicable in terms of relating with emotions, and things like that - which by the way in today's work environment, with all the pressures around COVID-19, are extremely important characteristics. I would expect the male counterparts to struggle a bit with that emotional side.
PG: Many people struggle with work-life balance, do you have any tricks or tips on how to achieve balance?
MN: I have one golden rule that I always share with female executives. It's about surrounding yourself with people that are going to support you and you must ask for help.
I learned this the hard way in the sense that as I rose through the ladder, I tried to do everything myself. I tried to be 100% the wife, the mom, the sister, the daughter, and all of that, and also tried to be 100% the executive, but the reality is, with your aspirations and ambitions, it does become difficult to do it all because you only have 24 hours in a day. I realized that as women, we tend to feel guilty for asking for help.
I need help keeping my house in order. But this is not something that comes easy to us culturally as we've been raised in Africa. But it dawned on me back in 2016, as all these responsibilities started coming up from being a CEO to now being a board member and a director and things like that - that you have to ask for help.
If I tell you the number of people that have helped me to sit down with you during this interview, you won't believe it. From the person who assists me in the office, to the lady who looks after my son at home, to my husband who I bounce ideas off whether it's business or other. So, I've found peace in asking for help knowing that for me to achieve what I'm trying to achieve, I need to be able to free myself from some of the things that potentially distract me from pursuing my goal.
Of course, does it come with sacrifice? 100% and it's just down to how willing you are to sacrifice versus not. Those who choose not to, it's no slight at them. At the end of the day, we all have our own individual dreams and aspirations. But for me I take all the help that I can get.
PG: You've moved around a lot and your family has followed you all over the continent, so what has that been like for you and for them?
MN: It's really been an interesting and colorful journey. I'll share a funny story. When we left Zambia my son was one-year old and he's nine today and we've never lived in Zambia since then. I remember getting a call from a teacher at his school and she was panicked, asking me which country are you actually from? I said we're from Zambia.
She explains that there was an activity in the classroom where the kids had to pick the flag of the country that they're from and my son had very innocently picked three flags. He picked the Zambian flag, the Benin flag and the South African flag. For him it was completely normal. He picked the Benin flag, because that's the country that we had immediately moved from, he picked the Zambian flag, because we're always going back home and he picked the South African flag because we always go there on holiday. So as far as he was concerned, he was an African citizen.
But I think, with that said with all the challenges of moving about, I think I'm excited at the prospect of the individual that he's going to grow to become through all of this exposure. But I don't think it would have been possible for me to move around the way I have, if I didn't have a supportive family.
My husband is the one who has actually been pushing me, whenever an opportunity comes up and I'm thinking maybe it's time for us to go settle back home, he'll be the one who says you have to go, you're still very young. I'm 38 years old, so I haven't clocked 40 yet. So, he says when you cross 40, there going to be other considerations in terms of your energy levels and things like that, so while you still have it in you, you need to explore and experiment. So that when we do settle back home, I've already tried and tested everything, and come out with a much richer experience. So, a supportive family structure is really important to facilitate those kinds of movements, for sure.
I always tell people that I have a board of directors for work, but I also have a board of directors for life – which is my mom, my sister and my husband. Whenever there are big decisions to be made, there's always discussions that mirror board-type discussions. Talking over the pros and the cons, based on where you're trying to go eventually and how does this lend itself to get you closer to that objective? So, you definitely need that support structure.
PG: What is your leadership style like?
MN: It would be really interesting to know what my people say about that question. We might get startlingly different answers. But I think my leadership style is that I tend to be very clear in terms of what the vision is.
I set what the direction and the end goals are and I try my best to get out of the way after that and allow the team to do it. If I've been very clear in the vision then I just act as a support, I provide that coaching role, empowering role, provide resources, remove obstacles, things like that, to allow the team to really be the ones to achieve the end result.
But having said that, at the end of the day delivery is delivery so at some point, there is a hard and fast line that we tow in terms of our measurement against results.
What I've also found over the years in terms of trying and testing different leadership styles there is one aspect of my role that I really enjoy - that's the aspect of people. Beyond my work as a CEO, I truly believe as a person, my role in this world is to help people identify their potential and live it up to it in full. The ability to have a chat with someone and help them realize that they are actually much better than they think and see their eyes shine and light up when they realize what they can achieve. That's really the aspect of my job that I love.
PG: What are the skills that are most important for girls to succeed in this space?
MN: I would say, within ICT number one would be passion and that never-say-die spirit. It's not easy, and by the way it's not easy for men or boys either. But that passion and drive to really see things through, and that sheer grit to make sure that no matter what happens along the way, you can bounce back and pick yourself up and continue moving.
But on top of that, within the technology space, there's so many problems that can be solved through technology. So that ability to stay curious, in every single thing, to always question if something has been done a certain way, can it be done differently? And how can I leverage technology?
Passion, a never-say-die spirit and curiosity would be a power combination for anybody pursuing the technology space.
PG: Finally, what is your personal vision for the telco space in Africa?
MN: I see an industry that is built for Africa by Africa. There are so many unique challenges and therefore opportunities that Africa faces as a continent. I don't believe there's anybody better placed to address those challenges or provide solutions than Africans themselves.
I've been in enough countries to know and observe that the talent and the skill is there. There are so many young, budding entrepreneurs who just require to be listened to by those in the positions of providing support.
Of course, there's a lot of work for us to do, as countries and as a continent to create those structures of not only governance, but structures of accountability as well. We also need very clear, structural plans in order to prioritize the things that we know will get us into that future of being as digitally savvy as some of the other continents.
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*Top image is of Mitwa Ng'ambi, CEO of MTN Rwanda. (Source: MTN)
— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa