Spreading the word in Africa

Saturday, 01 March 2014


    Jane Valls heads a new network which aims to lift the very varied levels of corporate governance across Africa. Here, she talks to Zilla Efrat about the challenges of directors in Africa and especially in her adopted country, Mauritius.

    As chairman of the newly founded African Corporate Governance Network (ACGN), Jane Valls is spearheading a drive to boost the standards of corporate governance across the newest frontier of development, the African continent.

    Launched in Mauritius in October last year, the ACGN brings together 10 institutes of directors in Africa and could soon be joined by two more. “Our vision is for Africa to be a continent committed to effective corporate governance and ethical leadership,” says Valls.

    The idea of creating an African network of governance organisations is, of course, not new. But when Valls became CEO of the Mauritius Institute of Directors (MIOD) in 2010, she tried to find an international or regional network to hook up with, and there did not seem to be one.

    “When I met my counterpart in South Africa, she shared the same feelings. So we decided to do it. Put two determined women together and there you go,” she says.

    ACGN members will exchange and share knowledge, information, good practice tools and resources, while the ACGN will also act as a common platform for advocacy on corporate governance matters in Africa.

    “Our key challenges are the size of the African continent, the scale and variety of countries and cultures, as well as the different levels of maturity of each country,” says Valls.

    “Africa is a continent comprising 54 countries and is as big as China, India, the US and most of Europe put together. That’s why we need to look at individual countries to see which ones are doing best in terms of corporate governance.

    “The Mo Ibrahim Index is a good indicator that puts Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde, Seychelles, South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Tunisia, Lesotho and Senegal as the Top 10 in that order. Another good indicator is the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Ranking. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nine ofothe 20 economies most narrowing the gap on the regulatory frontier since 2009. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritius, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Seychelles, Zambia, Namibia, Cape Verde and Swaziland are the Top 10 in that order. In North Africa, Tunisia and Morocco are the African leaders.”

    But while Valls’ focus may be on Mauritius and Africa, her beginnings were rather different

    She was born in Shrewsbury, a rural market town on the Welsh border, but grew up in Liverpool and then London.

    She says she was not one of those lucky people who had a burning desire to be a doctor or an engineer. “I was always interested in reading and studying and loved history best of all. Queen Elizabeth I was always my heroine. I was a real bookworm and still am today!”

    In her last year at Birmingham University, where she studied French and Italian, she began looking for a career in the commercial world. Her careers adviser suggested she apply for the British Airways Graduate Training Programme as it  was the first year that it was accepting women. She did so, was accepted and, as a result, enjoyed six wonderful years based in the UK and working in Europe and a further 13 years based in Mauritius.

    On why she moved to Mauritius, she says: “I fell in love with a Mauritian! We met when I was furthering my studies at the University of Grenoble in France. I had no idea where Mauritius was then, but after a few holidays in Mauritius, we decided to come and live here for a few years. And 30 years later, we are still very happy here.”

    Asked what she loves most about Mauritius, Valls says: “The people first and foremost and the diverse cultures that make up the Mauritian population. And then, of course, the climate – the sun shines every day.”

    Arriving in Mauritius, Valls was immediately offered a job by a company associated with British Airways – luckily, because the unemployment rate at that time was around 25 per cent. Later, she held senior positions and directorships in a wide range of business sectors in Mauritius and overseas with companies such as Sun International and The Rogers Group, and ran her own management and training consultancy.

    When the MIOD was looking for a new CEO in 2010, it asked Valls to apply. “I knew of the work done by the Institute of Directors in the UK and when I looked at the objectives of the MIOD, I was very much in tune with the organisation’s values and I instinctively knew I could add value with my previous experience,” she says.

    The MIOD has tripled its membership in the past two years to over 920 members from a cross-section of the Mauritian business community. It runs 40 workshops a year on a range of governance issues and holds a biennial conference that attracts attendees from all over the world.

    Valls notes that last year was the seventh consecutive year that Mauritius was ranked number one out of 53 African countries in the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which measures the delivery of public goods and services to citizens by government and non-state providers across 84 indicators of governance.

    She believes that in a globalised world, the main challenges Mauritian directors face are probably very similar to those encountered by Australian directors: a rapidly changing world, becoming increasingly regulated and trying to keep up, not only with the new technology, but also with the fast pace.

    “The skills needed today are very different from those of a generation ago and the future is increasingly uncertain. So it is even more difficult to make strategic decisions as we navigate the uncertain future,” she says.

    “However, I think directors in Mauritius could really lift their game by spending more time on their own professional development. The world is changing so fast and if we just look at the last 10 years in Mauritius, during which time corporate governance has come to the fore, we have a whole raft of new laws that have been introduced, starting with the new Companies Act in 2001.

    “Directors need to keep up-to-date not only with their knowledge but also with their skills. These days, conflict resolution, finance for non-finance directors, understanding enterprise risk management and understanding IT governance are just a few of the areas where directors need to be up-to-date.”

    For Australian directors looking to do business in Mauritius, she observes: “Mauritius is continually reinventing itself and has leveraged its strategic position at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Australia. In so doing, Mauritius has transformed itself from a mono-industry country dependent on agriculture at the time of independence in 1968 into today’s dynamic business hub with a diversified, innovation-driven and knowledge-based economy, underpinned by a broad spectrum of business activities.

    “Mauritius offers an excellent gateway to do business in Africa as well as providing local business opportunities in the following industry sectors: agro-industry, aquaculture, education, financial services, healthcare, hospitality and property development, information communication technology, life sciences, logistics, manufacturing, media and creative industry, ocean economy, renewable energy and seafood.”

    On how her career has progressed, Valls says: “I don’t believe in luck; I think it is about seizing the opportunities that come your way and sometimes creating the opportunities. I have always taken up new challenges and I have learned so much each time. If we just stay in our comfort zone, it might be comfy but it won’t take us far.” 

    However, she does believe there is a “glass ceiling” that restricts women in Mauritius getting boardroom positions. “The figures speak for themselves. A PwC survey in 2003 showed that 30 per cent of senior staff in the Mauritian public sector is female, but only five per cent in the private sector. Although the figures may have improved since 2003, they have not changed dramatically. The World Bank report on standards of corporate governance in 2012 showed that in Mauritius woman make up only two per cent of the directors of listed companies. Mauritius has an excellent record of women at university and in many walks of public life such as the judiciary. So the poor representation of women at senior levels in the private sector and on boards must raise questions. I believe companies who ignore these facts are missing out.”

    Valls says in general, the gender diversity of Africa’s boards is very varied, but many African countries have a matriarchal culture so gender is not an issue there.

    To women wanting to develop a portfolio of board positions in the future, she says: “First of all, any director has to add value. So they need to ask themselves first what value they can bring. They need to be goal-oriented and focused and they have to be determined and not give up at the first hurdle. They must develop their board skills and knowledge and they could do this by finding a good mentor – someone they respect. And they must network and, of course, join the Australian Institute of Company Directors or the MIOD.”

    Australia is gearing up for the Asian century. But when will it be Africa’s century? 

    “Well, I think it is going to be concurrent with Asia – that is, now,” says Valls. “The centre of gravity is moving from the West. And Africa is the last undeveloped frontier with a very young population that ultimately will make the difference. By 2050, one in four people in the world will be African and there is a huge developing middle class. Asia, on the other hand, has an ageing population.”

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