Maria Ramos, CEO of Barclays Africa Group shares cogent, considered insights on doing business in Africa, gender parity and the value of diversity.

Maria Ramos was Director-General of the National Treasury from 1996 to 2003 and in January 2004 was appointed as Group Chief Executive of Transnet. She joined Absa as Group Chief Executive in March 2009 and is a member of the Barclays PLC Executive Committee.

Maria is a Non-executive Director of Compagnie Financiere Rich- emont SA. She is also a member of the International Business Council Executive Committee; the World Bank Chief Economist Advisory Panel; Business Leadership South Africa and the Banking Association of South Africa.

You have been ranked as one of the most powerful women in international business. Please speak about the growth of business opportunities you see happening across the African continent in the next five years.

Global growth is expected to pick up modestly from 3.1% to 3.4% in 2016, although we saw the year open with markets reflecting continued concerns about China and other macro trends. Closer to home we are facing multiple challenges in the short term, but there are reasons to be fairly optimistic about Africa’s future, including the continent’s maturing economies, growing urbanisation and youthful workforces, as well as a burgeoning middle class. Africa remains one of the fastest growing regions in the world and the continent has strong fundamentals in place, which will strengthen its resilience to withstand the current economic headwinds.

Africa is a very young continent – two thirds of the population is under the age of 30. Whereas western nations and China are facing the challenge of an ageing population, we’re seeing the opposite across Africa. We could very well be the source of future labour for regions where economic growth is threatened by ageing popula- tions and a shrinking workforce. Our young demographic will also provide a large future consumer population, compared to many other parts of the world.

Our population is increasingly clustered around urban centres and urbanisation is a key driver for economic activity. By 2030, almost 50% of Africans will be living in cities.

Across the continent, there is increased demand for infrastructure and IT services, opening up markets and creating significant opportunities for business. Innovation, especially technology-based innovation, changes lives in Africa, exponentially more so than in developed countries where access to goods and services is easier. This is true for the financial services and other sectors – from transport to tourism – where technology’s power of disruption is changing traditional ways of doing business. Mobile penetration in Africa, estimated at 89% at the end of 2014, is growing fast and enabling transactions such as money transfers and microfinance.

The opportunity for financial services companies is to develop solutions that meet diverse and complex market needs; demand for formal banking services is increasing and local companies across a number of African countries need sophisticated financial products to grow. Conversely providing increased access to basic financial services is just as critical.

According to McKinsey’s 2015 report South Africa’s big five: Bold priorities for inclusive growth, the three largest opportunities for service exports to sub-Saharan Africa are in the construction sector, financial services and business services. South Africa currently only has a 2% market share of sub-Saharan Africa’s service imports so the opportunities in this region of the continent alone are considerable.

Africa’s challenge is to deliver sustainable growth that creates jobs. There are of course some risks on the horizon: our lack of (or ageing) infrastructure, slowing growth in some of our major trading partners’ economies and lower commodity prices. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has cut forecasts for South Africa and for many other countries–the IMF now projects economic growth in South Africa at 0.7% from an estimated 1.3% last year.

Key strategic priorities for Barclays Africa include growing our corporate and investment banking and wealth, investment manage- ment and insurance offerings into the rest of Africa. We also see significant opportunity in retail banking to meet the growing consumer demand for efficient and innovative financial solutions.

On balance, I am excited by the potential Africa presents to our business and that of others.

As the only woman currently to head a JSE top 40 company, what changes do you think need to happen in South Africa for more women to be in similar powerful positions across sectors?

The benefits of gender parity are well documented. In their 2015 report, the McKinsey Global Institute looks at the economic poten- tial of closing the gender gap and found that as much as $28-trillion, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP in 2025 if parity in the world of work is achieved – a staggering number.

In South Africa, we benefit from one of the most progressive con- stitutions in the world which guards against discrimination on any grounds through the Bill of Rights. So we have a great foundation to build upon; but the meaningful socio-economic empowerment of women in South Africa will not happen quickly or easily. It requires the commitment of public and private sector bodies and leaders to overcome existing social norms and break through the barriers that hold women back.

Women also need to be challenged to take ownership of their own destiny. They need to be in a position where they have control to own their futures. More and more women have the ability to do so but don’t exercise this power in order to extract the full benefit. As women, we need to meet these barriers head on and demand to be included in and represented at all levels of society, government and business.

I firmly believe that education and skills development is the only way to achieve the advancement of women in South Africa. A recent government report entitled The Status of Women in South African Society indicates that good progress has been made when it comes to women accessing different levels of education. Crucially, however, this progress is not so apparent at the masters and doctoral levels. It is also problematic that women tend to dominate the services sector, gravitating less to the science, tech- nology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions.

As the report attests, women make up a large portion of the labour market, but a concerted effort is needed by the private and public sectors to bring women into decision-making forums and to encourage them–from school level–to pursue careers in mining, agriculture, finance and technology.

At Barclays Africa, women make up 25% (three out of 12) of our board, which also has a female chairperson. Four out of the 12 of our executive committee members are women. We have estab- lished various women’s networks across the bank such as Banking on Women, to accelerate the advancement and professional growth of women across Barclays Africa.

Barclays also sponsors a number of projects supporting the empowerment of women. HeForShe is a United Nation’s global campaign to involve one billion men in the advancement of women’s rights. The campaign aims to engage men as advo- cates for gender equality, encouraging them to take action against the myriad inequalities faced by women.

Transnet and Absa bank were white-male dominated preserves when you took on leadership positions in both organisations. Please outline your strategies to get buy-in for the transformation of their organisational cultures.

Successful organisations are ones that value diversity. There is a direct correlation between diversity and performance: a McKinsey & Co study of over 300 public companies in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Bra- zil, Mexico and Chile, titled Diversity Matters indicated that highly diverse companies appeared to excel financially.

This is key for us at Barclays Africa to attract and retain people. We have a comprehensive plan in place to promote diversity and inclusion, with gender as a key focus area. Our transformation agenda aligns with Barclays’ global diversity and inclusion strat- egy, the purpose of which is to attract and retain top performers and talent from diverse groups.

We also have Barclays Africa Diversity and Inclusion Council chaired by Nomkhita Nqweni, who was promoted to the position of the chief executive of wealth, investment management and insur- ance (WIMI) on 1 October 2015, to focus on gender, ethnicity, race and disability. One of the Council’s main priorities is to “create a supportive environment that develops and celebrates the inclusion of women in decision-making and leadership roles in Barclays Africa”.

Please comment on the importance of the 50/50 campaign for the SADC region – and the likelihood of South Africa achieving this goal.

Of all the sources of exclusion across the world, gender inequality is the most crosscutting and is so normalised that it often goes un- noticed, even by women. The 50/50 target of women representation in politics and decision-making positions in the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development marked a turning point in the region towards incorporating and measuring gender equality.

Last year was a milestone year as the targets set for SADC in the Protocol, aligned to the Millennium Development Goals, expired in August. While none of the SADC countries reached the 50% target of women’s representation in parliament, cabinet or local govern- ment, based on the 2015 SADC Gender and Development Index, all but one moved closer to gender equality.

And while the same index says South Africa has made 79% progress towards gender equality since 2009, our country still has a way to go. According to the index, 41% of parliamentarians are women, while women account for 38% of local government representatives and 41% of Cabinet members. The number of women occupying high-level economic decision-making positions was at 23%, according to the index.

There is no doubt in my mind that the absence of women in decision-making structures has an adverse effect on development. In our company, we are firmly aware of this and we have several initiatives afoot to ensure constant progression towards a more gender-reflective structure.

What do you see as the key components of South Africa’s gender agenda – and are we doing enough to ensure it is top of mind for both business and government?

Government has developed laws to promote the rights of women and it leads by example. Women occupy key positions in govern- ment from the ministerial level through to local government.

While there has also been progress in the private sector, women still account for only 21% of top executive management positions and 32% of all senior management positions (Employment Equity Report; 2014). Vitally, we need more women serving on boards.

Legislation aside, leadership programmes, networks and forums that focus on women all play a role in ensuring the gender agenda is top of mind in business and government.

It is fair to say we still have a long way to go.

Who are your role models–and why?

Nelson Mandela will always remain a source of inspiration to me. I am deeply grateful to him for what he did for South Africa, our continent and for the world. It was an honour for me to serve in government under his leadership.

When it comes to finance and economics, my local role models include Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus. An international role model is Ben Bernanke, due to his management of the Federal Reserve Bank under extremely trying circumstances during the global financial crisis.