23 Jul 2020 / Article

“A company performs better when it is run by a woman”

Toyin Sanni, Group Chief Executive Officer, Emerging Africa Capital Group

Oluwatoyin Sanni, or Toyin Sanni for short, is one of the rare Nigerian executives to have completed her entire education in her native country. Neither King’s College London (UK) nor George Washington University (US) – the favoured academic institutions of Nigeria’s elite – appear on her CV. After studying law and graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Lagos, she opted to launch her career in the finance sector with little hesitation. Then, early on in the 2000s, she began specialising in capital markets and worked at a number of Nigerian banks, including First Bank Group and United Bank for Africa. Before she was appointed in 2018 to her current role, she served as CEO of United Capital Trustees Limited, a subsidiary of the Emerging Africa Capital Group. Named one of Nigeria’s top 25 CEOs by the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 2014, she has since become a significant figure in the world of African finance. After appearing in the AFRICA CEO FORUM webinar “Closing deals during the Covid-19 period: what can we foresee in the pipeline?” in early June, she agreed to chat with us about her vision of African business and discuss her activism in favour of women’s leadership. 

 

Are you happy as a businesswoman in Africa? 

Yes, absolutely! I’m extremely happy. Africa is overflowing with business opportunities. And the idea of being able to inspire African women and show them that they can have the same type of career is very exhilarating. 

 

According to a recent analysis by Boston Consulting Group, if women and men participated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by up to 6%. What do you think of that? 

I totally agree with the conclusions of this study. It confirms the results of other studies that came before it, such as McKinsey’s report on the same subject. Wealth is distributed very unevenly around the world, and this is partly due to the fact that men and women aren’t treated as equals. This gap could be reduced if women’s participation in economic development was on par with men’s. In my own small way, I’d like to be part of the solution to this problem. First, I want to be an example who inspires and motivates women to reach their objectives, but I also want to help women actually get leadership positions at my company. 

 

In your opinion, is there such a thing as women’s leadership?

Leadership is leadership. It’s the ability to influence others in such a way that they achieve the objectives set. Both men and women can be good leaders, so I don’t particularly care for this expression.

 

Do you feel that you’ve encountered specific obstacles in your career because of your gender?  

Of course. Like all women, at some point or another I’ve been discriminated against, underestimated or looked down upon due to my sex. We live in a patriarchal society where such obstacles occur on a daily basis. 

 

What are your responsibilities in your current position?

Emerging Africa Capital’s role is to raise funds for governments, companies, institutions and households. As CEO, my primary responsibility is to build business relationships to increase the group’s revenue and devise strategy for our various subsidiaries. 

 

Do you think it’s more difficult to be a woman in the workforce in Africa than elsewhere in the world?

Yes, because traditional barriers are still very prevalent here, although the situation can vary significantly from one region to the next and from one culture to another. Facts are facts: Africa’s richest companies are all run by men. For instance, gaining access to financing is more difficult for women than for men in Africa because we aren’t naturally associated with the corporate and management world. However, it’s been proven that female-led companies perform better than male-led ones! 

 

Does your company have a gender strategy? 

Our main strategy is to ensure that men and women are represented in equal measure at every level of the company. Within the various boards of directors, at least 40% of the members must be women. We are very proud of the fact that three out of four of our boards of directors are chaired by women. And this 40% rule is applicable at all management levels. In terms of hiring, we have a 50/50 policy, so 50% of our employees are men and 50% women. Finally, we prioritise supporting and financing women-owned businesses. 

 

In your opinion, what are the main challenges of the Covid-19 crisis in Africa?   

First of all, awareness raising. A lot of people on the continent have yet to grasp the seriousness of the Covid-19 crisis and even question its existence. We absolutely have to work on this point but also on the habits that need to be adopted to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, such as following preventive measures, which continue to be loosely practised in many regions. Secondly, there’s an enormous amount of work to be done in terms of health infrastructure, health care personnel and medications. The continent is deeply lacking in these areas and can’t respond with ease to a crisis like this one with the current level of resources. 

 

Is there a woman who has inspired you in your work life?

There are several women! In the banking sector, I really admire Ibukun Awosika, Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, and Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Wealth Management at the US bank Morgan Stanley. I admire these kind of women who combine various roles in their work life in addition to their role as a mother. I’ve tried to do the same myself. I also deeply admire Folorunsho Alakija, a Nigerian businesswoman who made her fortune in the oil industry, because she has been extremely successful in business throughout her life. On top of that, she’s one of the wealthiest women on the continent. 

 

Do you have a favourite male role model?

Tony Elumelu, who was one of my former bosses. I admire his leadership qualities and his positive impact on Nigerian entrepreneurship.  

 

Is there a certain African company you admire?

There are several. I admire them for their ability to export their business across the continent and/or around the world – companies like Dangote Group, United Bank, Transcorp Plc, etc. 

 

Are you active in an organisation, a women’s network or as a mentor?

Yes! I founded Women in Finance Nigeria in 2016. The main goal of the organisation is to help women move up the ladder to leadership positions in the male-dominated finance world. I’m also a member of the AFRICA CEO FORUM’s Women Working for Change initiative and I’m very proud to be the ambassador of the Africa CEO Network in Nigeria. 

 

What kind of young woman were you at 20? 

I was very curious, always asking questions and thirsty for knowledge. I finished studying at university when I was 18 and started working at 20. I was already determined to have a successful career at that age. 

 

Are you where you wanted to be? 

In many respects, yes, I’m exactly where I always wanted to be. But now, I want more! I think I’m capable of doing more. Today, I want to influence business outside of my industry and my home country; I want to impact the entire African continent. The AFRICA CEO FORUM is the platform helping me to begin to head in this direction. 

 

Which book/movie/TV series/CD has impacted you the most?

The Bible. It has influenced my entire life. My faith gives me the strength I need in my work and everyday life. My relationship with God has helped me reach all of my objectives. 

 

What do you do to relax after a day at work? 

I watch movies and I listen to a lot of music. I also love to read. 

 

Which African country would you like to visit?

Tanzania, which I’ve never been to before. Zanzibar also really intrigues me!

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