CFO Risper Genga Ohaga on courage and sacrifice

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Risper Genga Ohaga, the CFO of East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL), considers success a multifaceted concept, spanning courage, sacrifice and self-awareness.

Risper Genga Ohaga, the CFO of East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL), considers success a multifaceted concept, spanning courage, sacrifice and self-awareness.

“A key success factor is having the courage to speak up and make your ambitions known. If you want to become a CFO you will need to let the key decision makers know because chances, are they will give you the right support to get there,” she said.

“You really have nothing to lose by asking, because if you do not get the support, then you will remain where you are which is no different from where you will be if you remain quiet,” she added.

The experienced finance professional, who also holds non-executive director roles, has firsthand experience of success being “the product of sacrifice”. 

“I had my first child early in my career and my boss needed me to return to work early from maternity leave to handle a specific task. Thankfully I had support from my family with my mum and sisters helping out and my husband Peter was hands on,” she recalled.

Furthermore, Risper does not consider success to be an end point, but rather part of a continuing journey in life.

“For me, it is all about doing your part and being as prepared as you can to tackle what is handed to you. In my journey to becoming a CFO, I did a gap analysis where I assessed the skills I possessed and the skills that I needed in order to hold this position and then worked on deliberate actions to bridge that gap,” she said.

Smooth transition

Moving from financial services to a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company has been a smooth transition for Risper in part because of the forward planning and careful transition planning by the leadership at Diageo.

“At the end of the day, the basics of finance are applicable across industries. What I learnt in my early years in auditing is still very relevant. Issues such as financial control and maintaining the general ledger do not change from one company to another,” she said.

However, there are a few key differences in how the finance function works within the financial services and FMCG environments.

“In financial services, you are managing the balance sheet. You consider the financial assets and liabilities, pricing and margins as well as risk management for liquidity, currency exposure and interest rates exposure. You also focus heavily on compliance as it is a highly regulated industry. Wrong pricing or risk management could be very costly, and the CFO is often an arbiter between various business units in order to ensure the best outcomes for the company. Banks will also tend to have a large volume of suspense and control accounts that have to be managed carefully. Banking is all about risk management,” she explained.

Risper had such an experience in Zambia when she became the arbiter as, she says, people tend to look to the CFO for key information to make decisions. 

In the FMCG environment, however, the business buys the inputs it needs to produce goods and then sell the goods at a profit.

“So, finance has to ensure that we are buying inputs at the right price and quantity to support sales. Planning is essential as is pricing and management of working capital and funding. Therefore, capital allocation needs to be done optimally,” she said.

Planning post-pandemic

This approach was tested when Risper joined EABL, as she arrived just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit and restrictions were put in place including outlet closures. 

“The pandemic set everybody back to factory settings because no one in FMCG or any other industry had run a company through a global pandemic. The skills that I had acquired at Absa across the continent came in handy because I had been involved in scenario planning and raising funding which were crucial activities at that time,” she explained. 

The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that a manufacturing operation cannot be shut down and restarted easily. So, production had to continue while ensuring maximum safety - and had to take into consideration key factors like storage and shelf life of products.

“Planning became and still is a very big part of our operations. The pandemic really showed me the crux of this business; it is cash rich because beer is sold on cash basis, but this also meant that when outlets were shut our cash flow was under severe strain with a lot of fixed costs that needed to be paid,” she said.

Despite these tangible financial pressures, the company leadership undertook to put employees foremost on the agenda.

That gave Risper first-hand experience of the value which lies in taking care of people and ensuring a win-win situation.

Macro-economic factors

Despite the fact that the pandemic and its related restrictions are in the past, Risper and her finance team continue with scenario planning on a daily basis.

“I tell my team that the pandemic may have passed but we are still in a very volatile environment where we have moved from one crisis to another as a consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war and other macro-economic factors,” she said.

With a portfolio that spans Kenya Breweries, Uganda Breweries, International Distillers Uganda, Serengeti Breweries, UDV (Kenya) and East African Maltings, while holding responsibility for group strategy, investor relations, treasury management, capital allocation, taxation, financial control and business performance, these macro economic factors loom large. 

“My biggest headache at the moment is taxation. In Kenya, we have had two excise increases in the past year. The ambiguity in tax policy can leads to a lot of disputes with the revenue authority,” she said.

She added, “Another issue we face is inflation. The cost of grain and ethanol keeps creeping up and we are doing our best to manage it to avoid passing on these costs to the consumers.”

Better balance

Having had exposure to so many working cultures across Africa, Risper notes that people in Kenya “work extremely long hours which does not necessarily translate to higher productivity”. 

“Here people seem to work very long hours as there is a perception that working longer hours means greater productivity. However, when examined closely, this is not always the case. I think we can have better balance and still be very productive. The pandemic made it worse because the online working environment took away boundaries and every available time slot was quickly occupied by meetings. My children said I was more present in the house yet more absent from their lives. This is why I prefer to go into the office because I can resolve issues quickly, collaborate better and then go home and switch off,” she said.

Switching off for Risper also includes reading, with some of her favourite books being. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Managers

“I am currently reading Master Your Emotions: A Practical Guide to Overcome Negativity and Better Manage Your Feelings by Thibaut Merisse which is an absolutely awesome read that all professionals should consider reading,” she said.

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