Joyce Ollunga.

Making an impact as a female entrepreneur in Africa

3 October 2022

The article at a glance

Joyce Ollunga (MFin 2008), outgoing COO of Arifu, a learning platform for emerging markets, talks about her time at Arifu and her experience as a female entrepreneur.

Joyce Ollunga (MFin 2008), outgoing COO of Arifu, a learning platform for emerging markets, talks about her time at Arifu and her experience as a female entrepreneur.

Joyce Ollunga had always wanted a career that would allow her to have a positive impact on people’s lives. She was working at Bank of America Merrill Lynch on the credit, derivatives and obligations team when she decided to swich to impact investment. She realised that the best way to make this transition was to go back to school and then refocus her energies.

In 2008, Joyce became part of the first cohort to study for a Master of Finance (MFin) at Cambridge Judge Business School. She saw the MFin as an opportunity to broaden her training and enhance her skillset while remaining in finance. Joyce initially considered other business schools but was keen to be part of an environment that would allow her to thrive as an entrepreneur. She was drawn to Cambridge Judge and its connections with Silicon Fen.

The first MFin cohort comprised 28 students from 14 different countries. The nine-month course was intense. Joyce learned to be very focused and methodical about how to succeed in her career while maintaining a work-life balance and experiencing Cambridge life to the full. She learned a huge amount from her peers. “For me, Cambridge was about being immersed in an environment in which I was learning and training with equals.”

The MFin programme was launched in the midst of the global financial crisis that affected the banking system and the operation of financial markets around the world. After graduating, Joyce and her peers had to be creative with their careers, whether they liked it or not. At the time, there really wasn’t a market for investment bankers, and Joyce considers herself fortunate to have been able to move into private equity in Africa.

After several years working in social impact investment in the private sector, Joyce moved by chance to the non-profit sector. Her experience in the private sector gave her an interesting perspective: coming from an area in which the bottom line and return on investment was king, she was now using her expertise for non-profit investments. The deployment of capital became the dispersal of funds, and resource mobilisation became fundraising. “At the Africa Medical and Research Foundation, if we deployed capital to bring medical equipment into a facility, we didn’t expect a return on investment in cash, but we did expect to use the equipment to serve 1000 rather than ten people per day,” says Joyce.

Arifu: a learning platform for emerging markets based on the African oral tradition

In March 2022, motivated by the desire to move into technology while maintaining both her startup and impact background, Joyce joined Arifu as Chief Operating Officer. “Arifu is exciting, it’s unknown, it’s an impact investment company,” says Joyce. “You could call it the Udemi or LinkedIn for emerging markets.”

Arifu is a digital content and interactive learning platform that is personalised and free for its learners. Its main feature is a chatbot that allows phone users to learn via any mobile chat application including SMS, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. The content is designed to meet the unique needs of each individual, whether learning about entrepreneurship, financial management or nutrition.

Learning with Arifu is as easy as chatting with a friend, making the interactive chatbot a natural progression of the oral tradition in African societies where, historically, information was passed by word of mouth. Elders taught children by storytelling, and feedback was direct. Groups of women formed chamas, or informal cooperative societies, and discussed a huge range of issues such as the crops they had planted or how to improve their livelihoods. Later, when Africa transitioned to smallholder farming, government officials, known as agricultural extension officers, would walk between communities and discuss practices, sharing their expertise to improve outcomes.

Arifu puts this historical and cultural background onto a tech platform and, as mobile penetration is high in Africa, the platform is both easily accessible and inclusive.

Africa: big challenges, huge opportunities

For Joyce, Africa is a continent that offers tremendous opportunity, but she is also aware that “it takes a brave heart to get into Africa”. What is lacking is a curated media story focusing more on the opportunities than on the challenges. Joyce believes that the only way to really take advantage of the opportunities is to understand the local lie of the land. “One country is very different from another. Kenya is not Malawi, Kenya is not Nigeria, Nigeria is not Togo. It’s not Ghana,” she says.

Joyce struggled initially as a female entrepreneur in Africa, particularly when she was younger, finding it hard to earn the confidence of investors. She met with the same barriers in the corporate world, where she continued to deliver and prove herself but was not promoted. Despite the obstacles, many prominent women are now doing some very interesting work in Africa in the tech space. For example, Sylvia Mulinge is CEO of MTN Uganda, and Risper Genga Ohaga is Group Chief Financial Officer and Executive Director of East African Breweries.

Joyce has also spent several years working in the United States and is currently living between the United States and Kenya. Her experience as a female entrepreneur has been very different on the two continents. She admits that she feels lost in the United States because she doesn’t have the community that she has in Kenya. In the United States, she tends to have more contact with successful men. “I don’t feel like I have anyone beating the path for me here in the US, so it’s a bit harder,” she says. “If I had had a mentor, I would have been successful here a long time ago.”

Joyce has many female mentors in Africa, as well as direct access to them. She would love to see platforms for integrated discussion about how American, Caribbean or African women, for example, can be successful, and then cross-pollinate this to make global successful women.

Give back to Cambridge by your work and your deeds

Joyce is grateful for the support of her MFin cohort and professors, with whom she has kept in touch. She encourages MFin students following in her footsteps to explore everything to do with Cambridge because it is such a rich culture. “Just absorb Cambridge in all its glory. The 800-plus years of existence really mean something.” Joyce also believes in giving back to Cambridge. “Give back to Cambridge by your work and your deeds. That’s the gift you can give to Cambridge in acknowledgement of how much it has given you in a very short time.”