There was a lot to be learned at the first-ever credit union African Women’s Forum held in March. Twenty credit union leaders, from all across Africa, came together in Botswana to share their successes and struggles of working in the sector.
The 20 women came from 16 African countries and ranged from a village elder to an administrative manager. The two day event gave them a rare opportunity to discuss and learn from each other’s experiences.
Ingrid Fischer, Africa Region Director with the Canadian Co-operative Association, explained: "As in so many other parts of the credit union world, women in Africa's credit unions face tremendous barriers advancing their careers. In fact, many leave the sector for lack of opportunities to advance."
Joining the 20 leaders were four Canadians and one American, including Monique Dunbar from Detroit. She said: "The women I met in Africa are so strong, so proud and so resolute that I came away from the experience inspired to succeed."
Ms Dunbar, training and development manager for US$35 million Communicating Arts Credit Union in Detroit, led sessions on human resource and training initiatives.
Some of the other women who went to teach, felt like they came back as students. Kam Raman, Assistant Vice-President, Sales and Member Experience at First West Credit Union, said that credit unions in Africa and Canada had more in common than one would think.
Her presentation on product innovation turned into a discussion on customer service standards. She explained the story of one manager who told about how she holds a five minute meeting with staff each morning to go over the work day ahead and to thank them for a job well done.
Ms Raman said: "It was an eye opener for me to see just how powerful grassroots approaches like this can be for staff."
It is perhaps the grassroots nature of the African women’s tales which are the most affecting. Ms Raman went onto say: "One woman in a small rural Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) told me the latest loan she received from her credit union was to buy a blanket for her daughter because she had heard it was cold in Ireland where her daughter was going to attend medical school."
Ms Dunbar was also affected by her time at the Forum, she was inspired by her meeting with Ma Hooud, a Morwa village elder and treasurer for the Morwa SACCO. She described Hooud as commanding great respect in her village and said her example will have a profound an effect for the future of Detroit's credit union leadership.
Ingrid Fischer explained the importance of the Forum, she said women must contend with male dominated boards, cultural barriers against women taking on leadership positions, demanding domestic responsibilities, and little if any access to opportunities for professional development.
Ms Dunbar echoed that statement: "My primary message to the group was to stay positive. It's too easy to see so many conflicting demands as a way to keep you from achieving your goals, but you should never stop trying."
The positive experience of the forum affected many of the women who attended.
Dorothy Namirembe, Administrative Manager with the Y-Save Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO) in Kampala, Uganda said: "As women we are going to another level. I am so grateful that, through this forum, change is already coming to my own SACCO."
Ingrid Fischer said they also achieved the other goal of the Forum, to help bring women's perspectives to the attention of the annual leadership forum by increasing female participation there.
She said: "We particularly wanted to do this in 2012, the International Year of Co-operatives. Last year, in Kigali, 30 of the 138 participants at the African Confederation of Cooperative Savings & Credit Associations leadership forum were women. This year, 82 of the 176 participants were women, and two-thirds attended on their own dime or that of their SACCO."
Ms Dunbar explained how the event had affected her and what she hopes for the future: "You don't see a lot of African-American women who are credit union CEOs, but that's not going to stop me from pursuing that goal. It's extremely important to me that future generations of staff exceed what I have done and that they, in turn extend their hand to the next in line. I feel that the women I met in Botswana have given me some wonderful examples to take home."
The event was organised by the Global Women’s Leadership Network, an initiative co-founded by World Council of Credit Unions and the Canadian Co-operative Association.
The four Canadians and one American who attended and spoke at the event were: Elisabeth J. Geller, Manager, Community Engagement, Digital & Community Engagement Dept., Vancity Credit Union, Carmelina Michalenko, Marketing and Strategic Services Manager at Affinity Credit Union, Lorri Lochrie, Consultant, People Solutions, Central1, Kam Raman, Assistant Vice-President, Sales and Member Experience at First West Credit Union, and Monique Dunbar,Training & Development Managerwith Communicating Arts Credit Union in Detroit.