> Posted by Kettianne Cadet, Program Coordinator, CFI

It’s been a few weeks now since our return from Cape Town and the kick-off seminar of the inaugural Africa Board Fellowship, a six-month program launched this year to foster peer-to-peer learning and exchange on governance practices among board members and CEOs at financial institutions serving low-income clients in sub-Saharan Africa. The fellowship begins and ends with multi-day in-person seminars and between seminars fellows are connected through a virtual collaboration space that includes discussion forums and dialogues.

In early June, CFI’s Investing in Inclusive Finance (IIF) team and the fellowship’s seasoned faculty, advisors, subject experts, and inaugural class of fellows all came together in South Africa for the in-person kick-off seminar. This first seminar was very well received by both fellows and staff and here are some of the reasons I believe it went well.

Participant Diversity: The first cohort of fellows connects 30 board members and CEOs from 13 institutions throughout 11 countries, all with diverse backgrounds and experience. Each participating institution is required to send their CEO along with one or two board members. Having this mix of participants throughout the seminar led to numerous engaged, candid, and rich discussions about roles, board dynamics, and responsibilities. Had we only brought together one fellow from each institution, these conversations would have been far more one dimensional.

Structured Accountability: Having both CEOs and board members present supports accountability within each institution – to participate in each session and to take action afterwards. If only one member from each institution attended, would they be able to transfer their takeaways to their organization or actually implement any of the lessons learned? Additionally, given that the fellows either came from a different geographical location, offered differing products, or perhaps targeted a different niche market, it seemed that everyone got enormous value from their exchanges with one another.

Participant Shaped Agenda: Before designing the ABF program, we conducted an assessment and collected responses regarding the governance and risk challenges of MFIs in Africa. Out of this research, it was identified that there was a lack of opportunities for exchange between board members outside of their own institution. A program convening board members and CEOs across institutions and regions didn’t exist in Africa. Based on the results from the demand assessment, this seminar was shaped in order to focus on board dynamics, managing sustainable growth, technology trends, and risk management. The ABF program encourages the fellows to teach and advise each other on these topics based on their own experiences. In this regard, the program agenda is very participant-led.

Small-Group Centered Sessions: The seminar included a variety of session types and locations to keep everyone interested and engaged. While there were some plenary forums and a couple of panels, the seminar mostly consisted of small group discussions, case studies, and role plays to work through challenges while replicating actual board situations, stories, and dynamics.

Real-Life Stories: One of the case studies, focused on PADME in Benin, provoked a great deal of conversation and debate on how boards and executives can manage executive growth. During a subsequent panel discussion on the subject, the former PADME Managing Director Rene Azokli opened up to the group to share honest and personal stories and lessons he learned. He warned that “Having a ‘Yes-Yes-Yes board’ will eventually lead you to a ‘Yes-Yes-Yes crisis.’” While this quote spurred many laughs among the fellows, his insights resonated and illustrated a board member’s role and responsibility to avoid nepotism and groupthink.

Though each ABF fellowship is only six months long, it is our hope that the connections forged among fellows create a durable network of leaders throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the financial inclusion sector. It struck me as odd that very few of the fellows knew each other prior to this kick-off seminar. Understandably, the region is vast but a financial inclusion space where few CEOs and board members know each other across countries seems like a big missed opportunity. Introducing and creating a platform to connect fellows from across regions – so now they can turn to one another for support or advice – is a big victory since many of the fellows are clearly struggling with the same challenges and have a lot to share with each other. Working groups are of course nothing new, but, with the ABF program as evidence, there’s a need across industries for more opportunities for stakeholders to forge relationships and learn from one another.

With each day the microfinance markets in sub-Saharan Africa, hosting a collective 6.6 million clients, grow increasingly diverse and competitive. It’s our hope that over the coming months the ABF’s collaborative learning opportunities will strengthen the fellows’ capacities to successfully navigate these markets, leading to good governance practices and bolstering the sustainability of the financial inclusion sector.

Image credits: CFI

Have you read?

Kicking off the Africa Board Fellowship Program

Waiting for the Revolution

Pursuing Better Microfinance Governance in South Sudan