One of the major issues militating against the active participation of women in social and corporate activities across developing nations has to do with cultural norms which see the woman as a caregiver with no place in the corporate world. For those women who have dared to choose career paths, they are usually faced with the challenges of being a success in the corporate world and caring for their families. However, women have been encouraged to brace up and do more in order to be an all-round success.
This formed the crux of the discussion with Mrs Ebelechukwu Nwachukwu, Managing Director/CEO Zenith General Insurance Company Ltd. Nigeria, in an exclusive interview with the Amazons Watch Magazine editorial team. Excerpt:
You are the Managing Director of Zenith General Insurance Company Limited, one of Nigeria’s leading financial institutions. Please tell us about your background and some of your experiences growing up as a girl in Nigeria.
Mine has been a story of God’s grace. I was born in a town called Agbor, which is in the Delta state of Nigeria. Both my parents were teachers and eventually school principals. I grew up in a very stable and happy home with my parents. I had three sisters; so my parents had four daughters. I say had because I lost my older sister in the year 2007. My parents lived with the stigma of having all-female children but my dad always believed that girls can do just as well as men if they are raised to believe in themselves. My dad was at every school event and was very present. Unfortunately, we lost him to an accident when I was 12 and we were left with our strong mother.
In the town where we lived, everyone wondered how my mum would cope and predicted that we will not turn out right, that we would be wayward and that my mother would not be able to handle four girls, but she did. We all graduated and held master’s degrees before we were 25 years old. My mum ensured we were educated. Education for women is very key. So, as I girl I experienced love, strength as well as resentment, doubt from people, a bit of disregard. Following our dad’s death, we became a little vulnerable, but my strong mother shielded us and ensured we were stable, disciplined and focused.
You began your career as a Health Insurance underwriting and marketing officer, with International Standard Insurers in 1994, quite a humble start. And today, you are a leader of one of Nigeria’s leading financial institutions. Please tell us about your career journey and what would you say is responsible for your success?
When I joined the insurance industry in 1994, it was purely by chance. I was accepted to run the compulsory National youth service (NYSC) year with International Health Insurers by Dr Festus Okubor, who headed the health Insurance operations but my direct boss was a woman. I worked hard. Hard work is a virtue I had learned from home. I was in early, I never left any task undone or unfinished. The NYSC allowed us one day off for community development, I would go for my community work but return to the office to ensure my desk was clear. This was the beginning for me.
At the end of my service year, the company retained me with a promotion. So, I guess from my early years, I learnt that there are great rewards for hard work. I continued my career in this manner, working hard to exceed set targets, ensuring I contributed positively to every team I belonged to, ensured my bosses knew they could depend on me and read often to ensure I was also improving my skills so I could add better value.
Over the first 10 years of my career, I was promoted nine times and I received high-performance related awards. When I was given the position in Zenith, I was in an acting capacity, I had to, this time, prove myself on many levels, building a team, ensuring the company developed clients, ensuring profitability for the shareholders and developing an excellent reputation for the business, and ensuring we complied with all regulatory requirements. I must confess that my early days were a little challenging, I faced some rejection and disregard, so I sort the mentoring I needed, I consulted with people who had done well with their careers and slowly and consistently, our performance improved and my acceptability improved also. Today Zenith Insurance is top three in profitability in the Nigerian Insurance industry and I attribute this to the same values and virtues I learned from home and through my career life. These include hard work, focus, respect for people, processes and communities and ensuring excellence without compromise. It hasn’t been an easy journey but for me, we have only just begun. With the level of insurance penetration in Nigeria, we have a lot of ground to cover and I intend to continue to push every boundary to ensure I contribute my quota to the evolution of insurance in Nigeria; doing my part to build the Trust reputation the industry needs. More than anything else also, I am a person of faith and I trust in God to help and guide me always. He has never failed me.
Young African leaders and innovate minds believe that improving access to mentorship and incubators will help them become successful business owners. How do you mentor the youths of Nigeria, and help young women to overcome barriers, particularly those in your line of work?
I have a young team and half my team is female. I tell them, and I show them that we are strong. I listen, I encourage, I motivate. I also sometimes give them the time that they need, when they need time off, without them feeling disadvantaged. I think in my line of work; a lot of the young women are inspired by my success and I make myself accessible to them when they need to talk and need to be shaken up. I have raised many women to believe in themselves, see no limitations and aspire to any height they desire.
One of the challenges most women in pursuit of a successful career are faced with is the essential and pivotal task of balancing family and professional life. Kindly tell us how you balance your family and work life. Has your pursuit of success in your professional life in any way affected your family life?
Well, I must say the balance is challenging to achieve but is very achievable. I think women more than men need to realize that it is essential to start early to focus on the desired career and we need to stay the course when marriage and children come. We do not have time to play around or to waste, and we must stay motivated and not burn out. Women, by starting early would already have set a pace, before family life comes in. Even when you don’t start early; women must realize that many times, we need to do more. We must stay the course.
My pursuit of success in my professional career and having a happy and balanced family, have been two independent desires of mine. Neither has impacted the other negatively. The balance I have in my family life gives me significant confidence to continue to remain successful in my professional life.
I have time for work and when I shut down from work, I give my full attention to my family. I give my family the time required and work the time also. Yes, sometimes there is an overlap but communication in the home front is very key.
Some reports say that Nigeria’s insurance sector is battling with low patronage, non-payment of premiums, capital inadequacy, particularly in 2016, largely due to the economic recession the country is experiencing, which also affected other sectors. What is your experience with the state of Nigeria’s economy?
The Nigerian economy witnessed a significant slowdown in 2016 as the effects of falling oil prices and dwindling foreign reserves took their toll. As the economy is largely driven by the oil sector and government transactions the effects were felt in most sectors and the insurance sector was not spared. Oil and gas sector premiums were much lower as new activities in the upstream space significantly reduced, importation was also limited by the availability of foreign exchange so some lines of business related to imports were almost ground to a halt. Also, premiums from government agencies were not forthcoming or were paid in trickles and this impacted on the overall gross premium earned in the insurance industry. The government is making a deliberate effort to diversify the economy and empower businesses within Nigeria. This will help the nation’s economy grow and help the growth remain sustainable.
The issue with non-payment of premiums has been eliminated by the regulator’s actions of enforcing the ‘No premium, No cover’ policy. So now we receive our premiums before we incept cover. However, the premiums have not grown, because Insurance products have not reached the Nigerian population. The corporates organizations buy insurance but the individuals typically do not. Claims and losses are on the rise, as is typical in seasons of recession. The Insurance industry must make efforts quickly to help the economic growth that is desired.
Findings reveal that your industry remains largely untapped, playing a passive role in economic development, in spite of economic potential. The Nigeria Re in its 2016 report said the insurance industry had largely remained underpenetrated with insurance density at 0.225 per cent. And approximately 1.5 million policyholders out of over 170 million people patronise insurance products, a very low coverage level. What is your take on this and how can Nigeria truly tap from the potentials of the sector?
Well, the rate of penetration is generally very low in Nigeria. Our contribution to GDP is also very low as compared to other countries with smaller populations than Nigeria. We are working hard from both the regulatory end to the Nigeria Insurance Association with specific programs to increase insurance awareness. We have some compulsory products that the regulator has introduced as part of its MDRI initiative and this will drive premiums up significantly.
The bigger challenge for insurance companies, however, is how to move from products that are purchased because they are compulsory to a point where products are bought because they are needed or they can help achieve a need. To tap its full potential, in addition to building Trust, the insurance industry has a task to improve its relevance and develop products that will attract the people and bring us up on the priority list of the average Nigerian. We need to put insurance in the position to drive economic activity, not wait for the activity to happen and then expect people to insure. We need to develop products that will help the banks give more loans to the average Nigerian, the farmer who wants to develop his farm, the man who wants to buy a new machine to start a small business. We need to move from waiting for the machine to be bought to ensure it, to developing products that will enable the economic activity to happen. We need to diversity distribution of insurance products and services also.
Insurance companies need to set aside the capital and develop the people and skills required to improve our current position. Unfortunately, not many companies have this focus now, but I believe in the very near future, with the current level of capital and innovations, the industry will evolve tremendously.
The Nigeria Health Insurance Service says that only about 3 per cent of Nigerians having access to healthcare coverage. Your company works with the NHIS in the public sector. Please tell us about your health insurance policies and some of the steps to improve healthcare coverage in Nigeria?
Well, Health Insurance still has a long way to go and requires a lot of capital and structures to improve its penetration. It is a need for Nigeria.
To enable us to deliver our Health insurance services, we have had to enlist so many hospitals in Nigeria on our plans. The process of enlistment requires us to visit many hospitals to review their facilities, accessibility and service quality. We set a criterion for selecting our hospitals. What this has done is to push many hospitals to improve their facilities so they can be enlisted. There are still so many gaps, but our efforts have helped push the need to improve operational standards of the hospitals we work with. We have also developed several products with flexible covers and premiums that ensure insurance is within the reach of Nigerians.
Lastly, we partner with Government and NGOs to facilitate some awareness programs and administer the NHIS programs in some states of Nigeria. There still is a lot of work to do.
In your opinion, is there a relationship between women and sustainable development? If yes, are there proofs to such a relationship?
There most certainly is. Women nurture, women build, women manage resources, women develop minds from the very beginning. I find that women take on responsibilities more out of passion and a desire to excel, than they do for fame, ego and money. In my organizations, women hold key roles. Our Chief Finance Officer, Chief credit officer, Head of Human resources, Head of reinsurance and the Heads of six of our Marketing operations across Nigeria are women. What I find is, we just want to win. We don’t want errors, we want to guide and protect our reputation, we want to do well.
Several leading Nigerian, African, and global fortune 500 companies are led by women and the common factor is they took over these companies, sometimes as poor performing companies and have transformed them into great companies, developing people in the process.
When women are empowered, society develops and blossoms. Economies will develop faster with more women leaders and entrepreneurs.
What is the best way for the readers of Amazons Watch Magazine to connect with you?
I do not have an active social media presence but I am working to improve on this, and most certainly will. I think I have a lot to share. I am on Linkedin, my twitter handle is @Ebele3, I am on Instagram as ebele_b_nwachukwu and on Facebook as well. I will be happy to connect with readers of Amazon watch so we can continue to share thoughts and drive activities that showcase the innate strength of women in business and institutions.