Getting to know Haytham Ammar, CFO of M-Pesa Africa

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Haytham Ammar was late last year appointed CFO of M-Pesa Africa. CFO East Africa recently caught up with him, to chat about his career and the reasons behind his move to the mobile money company.

Haytham Ammar was appointed as CFO of M-Pesa Africa in 2023. CFO East Africa recently caught up with him, to chat about his career and the reasons behind his move to the mobile money company.

How did you end up in the world of commerce?
I come from a family of doctors. My mother was a pharmacist and I got to help her around her shop. I got excited about the business part because the pharmacy also stocked cosmetics which presented an opportunity to earn big margins unlike medicine whose prices were regulated. While in high school, I used to travel to Europe to visit my uncle and together we identified things that were not available in Egypt that I could travel back with to sell. This is how we increase the profits of the pharmacy and how I fell in love with trading.

How did you make a selection of what to study at university?
Upon entering university, my interest in managerial finance blossomed. I was captivated by the ability to leverage financial data for analysis, ratios, and decision-making within the business framework. It fascinated me how numbers could drive decisions, planning, and cost comprehension, forming the essence of financial management and accounting. My professional journey commenced in banking, but I soon realised it didn't align with my interests. Consequently, I transitioned to the corporate sector joining Nestle in 2005 as an accountant.

That experience was invaluable, as I firmly believe that a thorough understanding of accounting is indispensable for any finance professional. Mastering the intricacies of bookkeeping, comprehending the representation of business operations in financial records, and interpreting risk positions, balance sheets, and financial statements were key aspects of my role.

How did you end up in the telecommunications sector?
I had the opportunity to transition to Vodafone as a reporting analyst, marking a significant shift in my career progression and perspective on business.

I was happy to go into a role that aligned with my university aspirations, focusing on managing business information and data analysis. I took charge of reporting and analysing performance and trade dynamics, not only in financial terms but also in terms of network traffic. My responsibilities included deciphering how the network handled traffic and generated revenue, considering multiple products. This involved breaking down data to provide the commercial and pricing teams with insights into market actions.

How was your experience in Ghana?
I took over the role of CFO at Vodafone Ghana in September 2019. This opportunity allowed me to gain a comprehensive understanding of the business, merging my accounting, business, and managerial finance expertise. Over the course of three and a half years, I navigated a dynamic business landscape that needed transformation. The focus was on turning a non-performing business into a high-performing one, motivating the team, and contributing positively to the community through the foundation arm.

Additionally, ensuring alignment with our purpose of "connecting people for good”. During this period, I faced the challenge of transitioning from old technologies to new ones within budget constraints. I also played a crucial role in ensuring business sustainability by overseeing the transition to a new shareholder. This involved navigating through a mergers and acquisitions (M&A) process, ultimately handing over the company to a new shareholder who was interested in investing in the Ghanaian market.

Why did you move to M-Pesa?
M-Pesa is the largest fintech platform in Africa. I consider myself fortunate to have this opportunity, facilitated by my association with the Vodafone Group. It's an exceptional business where I am entrusted with the responsibility of connecting people to the financial ecosystem.

This role allows us to extend financial access to a significant number of individuals across various African countries, particularly in rural areas and villages where financial inclusion was previously lacking. The prospect of providing access to financial tools in these regions is something that genuinely excites me.

Transitioning from telecom to fintech offers a fresh perspective and the opportunity to broaden my industry skills.

What about the impact of all your moves on your family?
My wife, Sarah, and I are blessed with two wonderful kids. Moving to different countries initially seemed challenging, but in reality, the process becomes smoother as you adapt to the journey.

Adapting to a new country like Ghana, weather, transportation, food, and culture required deliberate mindset adjustments. Exploring the rich culture and history of Ghana was fascinating, though it took a few months to fully embrace the new environment.

Surprisingly, my kids adapted faster than expected, enjoying the multicultural environment at school. Even after four years, I see their exposure to different cultures as a healthy experience, shaping their beliefs and values. The school, resembling a small United Nations, provided a fantastic opportunity for them to grow, learn, and make choices.

On the business side, it took me two to three months to adjust to the speed and culture of the new environment. However, the journey became fantastic with great people, many of whom have become lifelong friends. Despite challenges like the pandemic and an M&A process, witnessing the business turnaround was rewarding. Effective leadership played a crucial role in navigating through uncertainties and ensuring positive outcomes.

What are the highlights of your career?
In my career, the highlights for me are twofold. First, I find immense satisfaction when my team embraces my leadership and works together in a fun and passionate environment, succeeding as owners rather than mere employees. This has been a recurring highlight throughout my career, both in Egypt and Ghana.

Secondly, I joined Vodafone Ghana just six months before the pandemic amidst tough market conditions. Overcoming these challenges involved making small gains every day, breaking down problems, analysing them with the team, and providing direction. Despite limited resources, the business steadily progressed, and I consider this ability to navigate tough environments and times a major highlight of my career.

What about the lowlights?
I've learned to approach challenges as opportunities for growth rather than sources of frustration. Encountering setbacks, such as project failures or unmet expectations, can be discouraging. However, it's crucial to quickly accept the reality and avoid dwelling in denial.

As a finance professional, relying on facts helps in objectively assessing success or failure. The key is to believe in one's own capabilities, either finding a way to turn things around or acknowledging that it's time to move on.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in Ghana, the transition to remote work and online education due to lockdown posed a significant challenge, with more responsibility on the telecom sector, where digital infrastructure became more important than ever before. We needed to meet the sudden surge in capacity requirements to meet customer demand.

Managing a large-scale business with over 3,000 sites and 8 million customers demanded strategic planning to uphold network resilience and ensure uninterrupted services. Collaboration with key partners, suppliers, and stakeholders played a vital role in mitigating challenges.

How do you define success?
Success, in my perspective, is about achieving your dreams and continuously evolving those dreams as you progress in your journey. It involves personal development, positive impact on family and friends, and giving back to society through various means, whether voluntary activities, financial support, or contributing to education.

For younger individuals aiming for success, my advice is to embrace failure as part of the process. Take the initiative to pursue your dreams, even if it means stepping into unchartered territory. Overcoming self-doubt is an essential aspect, and having the determination to succeed is key.

To achieve success, create a well-thought-out plan, identify the necessary skills to acquire, and determine the experiences needed to reach your goals in the next 2-3 years. Sustainable success requires continuous planning, preparation, and belief in oneself.

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