Interview with Ms. Yolanda Zuleka Cuba, Chief Executive Officer of Vodafone Ghana

  • May 19, 2017

“Vodafone on a mission to revolutionize the telecom sector”

Yolanda Zuleka Cuba is a transformational and accomplished business leader – who is widely regarded across the African continent. Her career has spanned several reputable sectors including telecommunications, FMCG and investments. Yolanda joined Vodafone Ghana as Chief Executive Officer in May, 2016, from Vodacom South Africa where she was the Director of Strategy and New Business. Ms. Cuba also previously served as Executive Director of Strategy & Business Support at the South African Breweries Limited (SAB), a subsidiary of SABMiller. She has also held Directorship positions at New Bond Capital and Mvelaphanda Strategic Investments (Proprietary) Limited; where she became one of the youngest Chief Executive Officers ever of a JSE-listed company. In 2008, Yolanda was selected as one of the Young Global Leaders in an initiative by the World Economic Forum and named as one of the “20 Youngest Powerful Women in Africa” by Forbes Magazine in 2011. She is South African and has degrees in Statistics and Accounting from the Universities of Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal. She is also an alumnus of the INSEAD International Executive Programme and still serves as Independent Non-Executive Director of Barclays Africa Group Limited.

Q. What advice will you like to give to those who are building their careers now and want to be in your current position one day?

A. Life is about choices, taking risks, and making the most of opportunities. Consider what could have happened if the American Rosa Parks had not challenged the status quo when blacks in her time were segregated against in terms of sitting arrangements in public transport? What would have happened to the American Civil rights movement? With hindsight, when she was asked why she did it, she said, “I had no idea history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” We have to learn to question the system. Be inquisitive. Be on the lookout for the Yolanda Zuleka Cuba, Chief Executive Officer of Vodafone Ghana 36 door of opportunity. Do not be intimidated because you might be too young or too inexperienced. When I was approached to consider being the CEO of a JSE-listed company at 29 years, I initially hesitated, but then I realized that these were people much more experienced than me that were appointing me. They were saying, “We believe in you.” For me, therefore, it was an opportunity not to miss. It was unheard of that a female aged 29-years will be chosen to head such a firm listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. And yet what did I do when the opportunity came? I did what will be referred to in Latin as *Carpe Diem*. I “seized the moment” and acted. Was I frightened initially? Yes! But did I give up? No way! I embraced it thoroughly and it has shaped who I am today. It might sound trivial, but the truth is that people forget your age when you know what you are talking about. Be prepared to learn. Show humility and accept that you need people smarter than you and more experienced than you to succeed. Success in business is a team effort.

“When I was approached to consider being the CEO of a JSE-listed company at 29 years, I initially hesitated, but then I realised that these were people much more experienced than I, who were appointing me. For me, therefore, It was an opportunity not to miss.”

Q. What inspires Yolanda Zoleka Cuba; as your personal philosophy and source of motivation?

A. I am generally a hands-on individual, eager to learn new things; technologysavvy and very technical in orientation. My philosophy in life revolves around learning and being eager to experience new things. My motivation comes from knowing that there’s nothing I cannot achieve if I put my mind to it. Throughout my life I have been unafraid to thread on new and unfamiliar territory. Sometimes such experiences make you see and appreciate yourself in unique and special ways you never could have envisaged. Pushing myself allows me to discover the best I can be every day. Sometimes I even surprise myself. And yes, another key aspect of my entire philosophy on life is about people! Leadership is about people. Earlier in my career, I was under the impression that it was my technical abilities only that played an instrumental role in my rise to the topmost job of CEO. However, looking back and reflecting, I see it being all about people. Honestly, when you get into your office as CEO, you find you are actually dealing with people issues. It’s about motivating and inspiring people. Being smart alone is not enough to make a great leader.

Q. What is your view on the call for a collaboration between the banks and the telecom companies on mobile money?

A. Over the past year, Vodafone Ghana has been at the forefront of the thoughtleadership agenda around financial institutions and telecom companies concerning mobile money. Are we in competition or are we complementary services? Well, the view we continue to espouse is that telecom companies would not suddenly become pseudo-banks just because they are engaged in mobile money services. I do not see mobile money as a threat to banking. It may be a threat to some archaic ways in which banking chooses to serve the customer but not to banking. The reality is that we are here to contribute to the long standing agenda to increase the percentage of the bankable population in Ghana. Disruptive innovations have enhanced banking in the past. Think of the ATM. Mobile money is simply the current disruption and like innovations in the past, it will enhance banking rather than replace it. It is another gateway to banking but one that is more democratic than any path we’ve ever seen. If you consider that in Ghana, about close to 70% of the population is largely unbanked, then you appreciate what I am saying. It does not matter where you live. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. If you have a basic mobile phone, you have access to a pseudo deposit system and that is awesome! Democratization of financial service will happen the same way as the democratization of telecommunications happened. Slowly, slowly then pretty fast.

Q. What was your biggest challenge last year?

A. I have been in Ghana for less than a year and honestly I am enjoying every bit of it. The business is dynamic. I have been taken in by the warmth and comfort of her people; the weather and most importantly, the relationship and camaraderie that I have built with my colleagues at Vodafone Ghana. The business is very competitive and progressive. Our business continues to grow in revenue and subscriber base and that gives me hope that we will continue to make great inroads in our market share as the years go by. One area of challenge last year was in relation to the external environment. The private sector has very high expectations from the current government. We expect to flourish as a result of the policy initiatives and other measures that a pro-business government like the current has signaled. Specifically, for the telecommunications industry, we expect to see policy initiatives and regulatory interventions that support the growth and development of the industry. For example, the spectrum policy needs a re look, else we risk creating an environment of unfair competition. The fragmented nature of the market is also unsustainable, requiring urgent attention. It is in that vein that Vodafone welcomes the Tigo-Airtel merger in the belief that it will enhance competition and make the industry more sustainable. Interest rates, the level of inflation and cost of utilities, particularly energy, feed into the cost structure of the private sector. For an industry such as ours, increasing energy cost, which was driven in the past couple of years by Ghana’s energy crisis, had a profound effect on the sustainability of our operation. Consequently, it is an area to which the present government ought to devote some quality attention. With Vodafone’s fixed business, the cable theft phenomenon is increasingly affecting operations and our commitment to a better network experience for customers. Over the years, our copper communication cables continue to be a target for thieves, who steal them in the dead of night and then export the extracted copper for profits. The impact is felt across all facets of life including security services, businesses, medical centres, schools, homes and industries. This results in interrupted services for our customers and an unnecessary in efficiency in the form of duplication of investment. The good news is that we are tackling it head-on in partnership with several external stakeholders such as the Ministry of Trade and Industry, to ensure that the export of copper cables becomes unattractive.

Q. What drives the success of Vodafone to be one of the best telecom companies in Ghana?

A. As a company, our ethos has been to combine creativity and innovation in all our deliverables. We consider it essential to stand beside our customers, not above them and this is fundamental to how we run our business. Our quest to create a successful and admired brand has and continues to yield dividend through the quality of our people and our values of speed, trust and simplicity. In all we do, we owe it to our customers and key stakeholders to lead the agenda and ensure that the country continues to make great strides in the area of economic growth and digital inclusion. The freedom and liberty we afford our customers and other stakeholders to take control of their lives – the ability to create friendships, business connections, the luxury to do whatever they want on the platform we provide – make us a SuperNet. We see ourselves as the fuel that powers the engine of the Ghanaian life and that has given new meaning to what a telecom company should stand for.

Q. What are your expectations from the new government for the telecommunication industry?

A. Let me say that as a company, we are committed to the socio-economic development of Ghana. That said, we are ready to collaborate with every government to ensure that our strategy to digitalize the entire Ghana is on course. The beauty of democracy is that countries encounter transitions every now and then and Ghana is no exception. We are looking for a favorable working environment – one that takes cognizance of our issues and makes efforts to engage us in moving forward. There are issues in relation to 4G spectrum, liberalizing the tax regime for telecommunication companies and other regulatory interventions that will put us in a good stead to make the transition to a more relevant and advanced sector.

Q. In the next five years, where do you plan to see Vodafone Ghana?

A. Our digitalisation agenda as a company has been set in motion and our aim to ensure no one is left behind is very critical. We want to see our customers, our stakeholders, indeed the entire country becoming abreast of current trends in technology – in their homes, businesses, schools, churches, playgrounds, etc. Going forward, I foresee Vodafone as an integrated total communications business that will be touching every part of one’s personal and work life from the rising to the setting of the sun. We will be relevant in striking the balance between infrastructure and services areas – progressing to become a market leader. The ‘Internet of Things’ will continue to be a huge growth area for us. Under our customer service agenda, we want to provide a wider suite of services to both our consumer and enterprise markets. These services range from traditional telecommunications, such as voice and data, to more specialised services such as video, security, smart homes and cities, health and financial services. Additionally, convergence will ensure that we are intimately involved in all areas of peoples’ lives, whether they be individuals, small business or large corporates, delivering a suite of telecommunications and other virtualized services.

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