FOR those who are not familiar with her, Palesa Mphunyetsane, the Vodacom Financial Services (VFS) managing director, could easily pass for a middle manager as opposed to the bigwig that she is. All because of her simplicity and humility.
But her simplicity exudes elegance. And that, sometimes, sells her out because beneath the coy beauty is a raging tide of passion, drive and ambition. From helping set up M-Pesa a decade ago, launching it a year later and being appointed VFS managing director, Ms Mphunyetsane has an intriguing story of false starts and disappointments.
For instance, she never desired to be a corporate woman, instead, she wanted to be a doctor but was advised against it by a friend. Along the way, she even thought of getting into construction but ditched the idea midway. Yet her desire to help humanity has not left her despite turning her back to the medical profession.
In a recent interview with Lesotho Times (LT) deputy editor, Silence Charumbira, Ms Mphunyetsane shared her life story — the difficulties of being a middle child feeling “neglected” — and the victories like the several solutions that VFS continues to roll out. Excerpts:
LT: Many know Palesa Mphunyetsane the corporate woman, but they are interested in knowing your background. Tell us about Palesa the young girl and her aspirations.
Ms Mphunyetsane: I am a Mosotho woman aged 46, the mother of a 14-year-old boy. I was born and bred in Maseru in a family of three children as the middle child. I grew up in Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) barracks as my father was in the army and later moved to Mazenod after completing high school when my dad retired.
I’m particularly mentioning this because I believe that being a middle child influenced my personality and character and made me who I am today. The middle child syndrome is real, or at least I can testify. My parents were excited to have their first child (a girl) as many young married couples would be. And I was born two years later.
My brother was born a year and seven months later and he immediately took my shine. I believe that I did not get the attention that I deserved as a toddler, and I had to grow up fast. As such, it is not surprising that I’m an independent individual, a go-getter, strong-willed, assertive, hardworking and ambitious.
I come from a humble background, which has also influenced my soft skills. I’m empathetic, friendly, loyal and generous. We used to walk to school, church, shops, almost about everywhere really. This explains why fun-walks are not fun for me.
Both my parents were working and had just enough income to put food on the table, build a home for us and provide us with clothing and pay for our education. As a young girl I was inspired to live a more comfortable life and break the “hardship” chain in my family. I aspired to get a good paying job, drive a car, own a house and be independent and be able to invest for the future.
LT: How did it all start? Did you ever dream of becoming a corporate woman?
Ms Mphunyetsane: I never dreamt of being a corporate woman as a young girl. I wanted to be a doctor. For me, doctor was a prestigious title and a profession that would always get you a job. I was also inspired to save lives until my friend who had studied to be a doctor discouraged me after her first year of practice. She said she was depressed because she spent most of her time in a hospital and every time when a patient of hers died, she felt like she had failed. HIV was also not making things any easier, people were just dying.
So, she asked me an important question, “What is your passion?” I told her I wanted to have a job that will have a positive impact on people. My journey was not clear-cut. I started off by enrolling into Wits University in 1999 to study quantity surveying. I wanted to get into construction, so that I could be involved in building people’s homes and building infrastructure for Basotho. That only lasted for a few weeks. After attending a few lectures, I realised that I was in the wrong place. I did not like it. I changed to Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing and Information Systems. In my final year, I dropped Information Systems simply because programming was frustrating me. I loved marketing. That was my passion. I graduated in 2003
I did an MBA at University of Free State on part time basis while I was working for a local bank in 2005. I completed an executive programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) that is tailor made for Vodacom Executives and completed a Financial Inclusion Programme at Harvard University in 2016.
My career was also not clear cut. When I finished university, my first job was a customer care consultant at Econet Telecom Lesotho (ETL). After a year at ETL, I was fortunate to join Standard Lesotho Bank’s graduate trainee programme. Being a graduate trainee, I was exposed to different departments of the bank and enjoyed sales and marketing the most. It was at this point that my aspirations to become a leader in the corporate world were founded.
After two years in the graduate trainee programme, I became a global markets sales manager at the bank. The eight years’ experience that I acquired at Standard Lesotho Bank opened doors for me at Vodacom Lesotho where I got an opportunity to launch M-Pesa, as a manager. That is how it all started and I have been enjoying my job since then because it fulfills my ambition to be able to transform people’s lives positively.
LT: The corporate sector is largely male dominated. This is even more glaring in Lesotho where women are largely treated as second-class citizens culturally. Socially, this has resulted in the normalisation of vices like gender-based violence (GBV). But the world is changing. How do you think Lesotho can change its narrative in the corporate sector and possibly even in politics?
Ms Mphunyetsane: Unfortunately, our culture has played a big role in fostering gender inequality. This is deep-rooted and it will take generations to completely eradicate it. From childhood, boys and girls were assigned different chores. That stereotype mentality has caused gender inequality and to a larger extent, GBV. Lesotho has come a long way in changing that narrative.
The law did not allow women to buy land; women needed consent from their husbands before they could take loans from formal financial service institutions like banks, but men did not need a consent from their wives. Women were not allowed to be in senior positions. In similar roles, a man earned a higher salary than a woman.
This was law. Culturally, after a woman bore a child, she was sent to her home for three months so that her husband could be left alone “in peace”. After a husband dies, a woman is supposed to wear a black mourning attire for a year and cannot socialise while wearing it. When a woman dies, her husband does not wear any mourning attire and can marry another woman immediately if he so wishes. A woman would give up her chair for a man and sit on the floor as a sign of respect.
Seeing a woman carrying a child on her back and luggage on her head while a man walked with a walking stick in hand was common. So, it really makes sense that men dominate the corporate sector and politics, particularly in senior positions. I believe that GBV is committed by men who still believe that they are superior and will not be challenged by women, whether its intellectually, financially or otherwise. Such men resort to violence to show masculinity because women are physically weak compared to them. These men cannot step up to challenges that are not physical because they are weak in other aspects.
I am glad that big strides have been taken to change the law. Culture is also slowly changing to accommodate gender equality and women empowerment. The next step should be for every Mosotho to be intentional in raising our boys to embrace gender equality from an early age. All chores must be assigned to both boys and girls. Boys must be taught to protect girls and never lay a hand on a girl because it is wrong to do so.
Children must be taught to respect one another. Parents must practice what they preach in the house. Children also learn from observing and not by just being told what to do. Children must be encouraged to dream and be told that they can be anything they want to be, irrespective of their gender. Abusers must be harshly punished — no more M1000 bail. They should not find a place to hide and must be shamed by the entire community.
Corporates must intentionally bring women into the workplace. As corporate citizens, they must sponsor girls’ education in different disciplines especially those largely dominated by men such as technology, engineering, construction and many others. They must also be intentional to promote women to senior roles. They must invest in programmes that empower women to be good leaders. Women should be allowed to have a voice even in boardrooms. They should not feel like they have to shout a little louder or work a little harder than men to be heard or recognised.
LT: You are an example of a young Mosotho who has climbed up the corporate ladder, what advice can you give to younger women who are also aspiring to excel in the corporate sector?
Ms Mphunyetsane: My advice to young women is to follow their dreams. Do what you are passionate about because that is where you will succeed easily. Work hard, be consistent and do not be deterred by challenges that you meet along the way.
Never ever give up. Also, please be patient. A lot of young women these days expect to be promoted into senior roles three months after they have landed on the job. That is not how it works. Learn as much as possible and network both within the organisation and outside to expand your social circles. Positive attitude also goes a long way.
LT: You are a successful corporate woman, what are your dreams? What exactly do aspire for in your career?
Ms Mphunyetsane: My aspirations are still about making a positive impact on people’s lives. I am very proud to have taken part in advancing financial inclusion in Lesotho through the launch and growth of M-Pesa. I am particularly proud to have been part of the pioneering team.
A lot of Basotho are now able to access financial services through mobile money. My next goal is to take part in using technology to drive access to health services for Basotho, especially the vulnerable communities who stay in the rural areas. I believe that with mobile technology and internet, anything is now possible.
LT: M-Pesa has revolutionised the way transactions are done particularly for the unbanked. This is a division that you know intimately having been involved from the onset until now. Tell us about that journey. What challenges did you face and how were they overcome?
Ms Mphunyetsane: I’m very passionate about M-Pesa journey and extremely proud of how it has tremendously grown and changed lives of many Basotho, from individuals to businesses at large. The main challenge was convincing businesses to become agents and merchants. The second challenge was educating customers about what M-Pesa is, how it works, what they must do to register for the service and how to carry out different transactions on their phones.
But because it was a much-needed services that was secure, convenient and affordable, once the awareness and education was pushed, adoption grew exponentially. When we added bill payments on the menu, usage increased significantly. The other challenge was KYC (Know Your Customer) requirements which were quite cumbersome for people who used the service a lot and who needed to increase their transaction limits.
Getting the chief’s letter was a pain for many. Introducing partial E-KYC through connecting our platform to the Home Affairs Ministry ID data base simplified this process. Customers are now able to update their personal details which include the ID number on our menu and are automatically upgraded to higher transaction limits. Float and liquidity management for agents was also a persisting challenge and remains a challenge especially in the rural areas.
We have aggressively recruited merchants to increase number of businesses that accept M-Pesa as a means of payment for their goods and services. This has reduced liquidity pressure on our agents. We also changed our distribution model to allow flexibility of float/cash top ups to our agents.
LT: Vodacom has launched VCL Financial Services, a division that you’re now heading. What new innovations and solutions can we expect from M-Pesa this year?
Ms Mphunyetsane: We are now authorised dealers with limited authority. This means that we are now able to expand our international money transfer footprint globally. We also intend to expand credit products for our customers and digitise business channels. We have a lot up our sleeves this year to ensure that we continue to empower both individuals and businesses across Lesotho.
LT: The Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL) has been accused of being conservative. One school of though says the regulator takes too long adapt to changes in global financial service provision, therefore Lesotho’s financial services sector is always left behind. What do you think can be done differently by the CBL?
Ms Mphunyetsane: I beg to differ. The CBL has in fact been very supportive to enable advancement of financial inclusion by taking a risk-based approach which made it easier for people to use mobile money.
Registration of mobile money on the phone without having to submit documents to verify KYC was one of the ways that CBL simplified registration process. Partial E-KYC to upgrade accounts is another example.
The only pain-point was approval of new products which took way too long and hindered the launch of new products and service enhancements. That has since been rectified.