Africa's power women: Just one in eight board seats in Africa is held by a woman, but smart companies know better

Kenya ranks highest in Africa on the proportion of women in boards of blue-chip companies at 19.8%

WOMEN make up 14.4% of boards of blue-chip companies in Africa, data from the African Development Bank (AfDB) shows, the third-highest proportion of any region globally, after Europe and North America. 

Some companies - such as Kenyan mobile giant Safaricom, beer maker East African Breweries Ltd (EABL) and South African food manufacturer Sasko each have more than 30% women representation on their respective boards. All three companies were among Africa’s most admired brands, according to the recently-released Brand Africa 100 rankings. (READ: MTN most admired brand for 2nd year in a row, while Nigerian firms can’t stop winning in Africa’s top 10 list).

This is a relatively strong performance by Africa’s power women, but is still low, despite the proven link between increased profitability and the presence of women in high-level positions.

It also falls far short of reflecting women’s contribution to the region’s economy in general – women comprise a little over half of Africa’s growing population, but they also make up 70% of the informal sector, where work is unstable and poorly paid.

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the African food chain “exists because of women”, who make up 70% of crop production, 50% of animal husbandry and 60% of marketing.

“Despite the sincere efforts of major corporations, the proportion of women falls quickly as you look higher in the corporate hierarchy. Overall, this picture has not improved for years. 

“We must bring women on corporate boards through programs to fast track women through middle and senior management in the private sector for us to break the glass ceiling,” said Geraldine J. Fraser-Moleketi, Special Envoy on Gender African Development Bank in the AfDB report.

The 307 top listed companies covered in the report from 12 African stock exchanges have a total of 2,865 seats on their boards of directors, 364 of which are held by women – an overall percentage of 12.7%. For large-cap companies, the proportion is slightly higher, at 14.4%.

Boys’ club
In other words, for every eight board seats, seven are occupied by men, and of the 307 African companies in the survey, 101, or 32.9%, have entirely male boards.

Still, some African governments have taken some steps to institute women’s representation in boardrooms: Kenya and South Africa have government mandates for women’s representation on the boards of state-owned companies, while the private sector in Kenya, Morocco, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa has integrated gender diversity into principles of good corporate governance.

Kenya ranks highest in Africa on the proportion of women in boards of blue-chip companies at 19.8%, according to AfBD data. South Africa is second at 17.4%, and Botswana and Zambia tie at 16.9%.

Tanzania (14.3%), Uganda (12.9%) and Nigeria (11.5%) hover around the African average, while Egypt (8.2%), Tunisia (7.9%), Morocco (5.9%) and Cote d’Ivoire (5.1%) have an average of less than one in ten board members being women.

Still, there are individual large-capitalisation companies that outperform this broad mean, the highest of which mobile giant Safaricom based in Kenya, which had five women directors on its 11-member board, or 45.5%. The company is Africa’s 13th most admired African brand, according to the Brand Africa 100 rankings.

Two other companies on Brand Africa’s top 10 with a significant representation of women directors are South African food manufacturers – and ninth placed – Sasko, at 33%, Kenyan beer maker East African Breweries at 27%, and mobile operator MTN, at 21%. MTN was the most admired brand in the Brand Africa 100 ranking.

Nigeria’s Star Beer, ranked in 10th place, has two women out of fifteen directors, coming in at 13.3%, but for the rest of the top 10 – Glo/ Globacom, Dangote, Mukwano, Simu TV, Zenith Bank and Peak Milk – either their data on board representation is scanty, or – as in the case of Dangote Cement – the entire board comprises men.

Three South African companies hold the next highest percentages in the AfDB rankings: Impala Platinum Holdings (38.5%), Kumba Iron Ore (36.4%), and Woolworths Holdings (30.8%)

Among mid-cap companies, Stanbic Bank of Uganda and Barclays Bank of Botswana, both have 33.3% women directors; Kenya Power and Lighting and Lafarge Zambia lead the small-cap companies with 33.3% women board directors, while Camelot Ghana leads the micro-caps with three women directors out of six (50%).

Smart business
The reasons for women lagging behind in the boardroom are many: The majority of board appointments continue to be made in a largely informal process, based in the proverbial “old-boy” networks, fed by family, clan, school and business relations.

Boards often lack understanding of the necessity and benefits of a diverse board, and lack of visibility of women in senior executive posts is an obstacle to more women gaining more board seats.

But gender equality in the corridors of power is not just politically correct and morally good – it’s smart business.

One study by McKinsey found that including at least three female board members improves the tone and responsibility of boards. Credit Suisse found a correlation between women on a company’s board of directors and improved financial performance.

“Women’s representation on boards is not only a gender equality issue but is also a performance optimization strategy. More and more evidence shows a better gender mix among senior management is linked with better results such as greater profitability,” said Fraser-Moleketi.

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