Mrs. Edith Onwuchekwa is currently the General Counsel/Legal Director of Lafarge Africa Plc. She joined Lafarge Cement WAPCO Nigeria Plc in April 2005 and later became Company Secretary/Legal Adviser of Lafarge WAPCO in 2008. In December 2010, Edith moved to Cairo, Egypt to work as an expatriate at the Lafarge Group Regional Office for Middle East and Africa as the Legal Counsel, Sub-Saharan Africa business.
Edith returned to Nigeria in 2012 as Lafarge Nigeria Country General Counsel/Public Affairs Director, supervising the Legal and Public Affairs aspect of the Lafarge Group entities in Nigeria. Edith joined the Board of Ashakacem Plc as a Director and Vice Chairman of the Board. She is also a Director in Lafarge Associated Nigeria Limited.
She is a graduate of Law 1997 (LLB), was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1999 (BL) with Second Class Upper honors and is currently an Associate of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of UK, 2009 (ACIS). She also holds an MBA from the University of Bradford UK.
Prior to joining Lafarge, she took up various Positions in Nigerian German Chemicals Plc and Jolimair Nigeria Limited as Legal/HR Manager and Company Secretary/Head of Administration respectively. After her National Youth Service in the year 2000, she was actively engaged in legal practice as Head of Chambers and Barrister and Solicitor in reputable law firms in Nigeria.
In this interview with The Guardian, Edith talks about women in boardrooms and her career as a lawyer.
As someone who has worked with notable companies at the top level, how would you describe the chances of the Nigerian woman in the boardroom?
A research conducted by Reap and Arcenciel, a sister division to ReapFinance, found out that only 12 per cent of Nigerian women occupy executive director positions in Nigerian listed companies. This is a far cry from the participation of women in developed countries. I believe that Nigerian women are strong women who can weather the storm in any corporate business and we have not a few names, who are corporate gurus.
Women are talented with multi-skilling abilities, able to balance the economics of housekeeping with that of corporate business. Having travelled extensively, compared with other African countries, women in corporate boardrooms in Nigeria are well respected and provided with adequate support to fulfill their potential.
AshakaCem, of which you are the Vice- Chairman, currently has only a female engineer in its employment. Are there gender-friendly policies in place to ensure that more capable female engineers are employed?
LafargeHolcim has a goal to achieve a 15 per cent female workforce by 2020 and 30 per cent female workforce by 2030. Lafarge has always shown strong support for women and already this can be seen in what has already been put in place. The following steps are being put in place to make this goal a reality.
Currently, we have 30 per cent of women in the Exco, the most senior level within the organisation. 35 per cent of the women in the organisation are in senior management roles.
A future area of focus is to be more deliberate in seeking competent women for entry levels, for example, through planned graduate trainee programmes, internships and apprenticeship programmes. An ongoing mentoring programme has currently 22% of the mentees as women.
Understanding the complexities of our business operation for women, we have designed gender-friendly policies that provide a comfortable working atmosphere for women. For example, at our plants, cloakroom for staff is female-friendly, with rooms apportioned to female staff to allow them the much-needed privacy, this is just one of many other policies to make the workplace attractive for women.
For women who aspire to climb up the corporate ladder, what are the dos and don’ts that you think they should follow?
Women who seek to lead in the corporate world should first of all work hard in their current job assignments to deliver results. They should be role models and reflect all tenets of integrity and commitment to excellence. Women, especially married ones, should create a balance between their family life and work. I do not mix family and work. I spend quality time with my family, we have fun uninterrupted. When at work, except on occasions when absolutely exigent, l give it my best shot.
Women should quit any form of mediocrity, nagging or timidity at work. If their current state of education does not meet their aspiration, a plan with commitment should be implemented to support the intended goal.
From the government to the individual, what really needs to change for women to contribute to the meaningful development of the country?
The government should propagate a deliberate agenda to ensure women’s representation in all levels of government without reducing the standard or criteria for qualification. I believe that women, due to our special God-given talents, are change agents, equipped with capabilities to contribute to both economic and socio-political advancement of this great Country.
As individuals, women should not limit their educational pursuit because of culture, tradition or any other circumstance. There is a popular saying ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’. Parents should create a sense of equality for their children male or female child – equal opportunity to fulfil each potential and equal access to the highest level of education.
What experience in your childhood prepared you for where you’ve found yourself today?
Some of my greatest learnings were from the Church and my parents. My late father imbibed in us strong principles of integrity. He would usually reiterate that a good name is better than riches.
I joined the choir at a very early age and at 15, l was already a leader in a choir full of grown adults. This shaped my leadership characteristics and taught me wisdom in deliberations. It also strengthened my self-confidence and boldness because l could sing and speak to a room full of hundreds of people without any feeling of intimidation. For time management and organization, during my WAEC examinations, l would not miss any choir practice but would also spend time putting in adequate preparations for my examination subjects. It may interest you to know I got 7 distinctions despite my choir obligations.
How would you say your experience has been so far at the company since you joined in 2005?
First of all, l will like to give thanks to the Lord God for His mercies, grace and favour and for giving me a wonderful husband and three lovely children who supported me throughout my career.
I joined WAPCO after the acquisition of Blue Circle Industries UK by the Lafarge Group. This resulted in the acquisition of WAPCO by Lafarge. WAPCO was being transformed into an international brand by Lafarge Group, a world-class cement-manufacturing giant in existence since 1833.
I was opportune to participate in the journey which was tagged ‘the New Dawn’. For me, the new Dawn programme amongst other topics signified a platform for me as a woman to discover and develop my potential with a heavy focus on hard work, creativity and integrity. At that time there were few women at the top and the company had begun a campaign on diversity to attract more women. I began to realise that for me to aim for the top, I not only had been the best in my current role, but go the extra mile to deliver added value.
I decided to deliberately participate in cross-functional projects within and outside Nigeria in the Lafarge Group. I opted and successfully ran the intranet page for Lafarge Group Lawyers in the Middle East and Africa, and as a result of hard work, l won the 2006 Best Manager award in WAPCO. In 2008, l became the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser of WAPCO.
Would you have preferred to have your own chamber than to work for an employer?
Today, l am proud to work for Lafarge Africa Plc. Owning my own practice is a dream I will like to actualize in future. I did venture at the beginning of my Legal practice and in between childbearing years to run my practice. It was convenient then as I wanted time with my kids, but as soon as my kids gained some measure of independence, l was back into the corporate world. Looking back, l am very happy and satisfied with this decision. It did not only enable me to support my family with an income but has contributed in establishing a pathway of corporate expertise that l have always yearned for in the Legal profession.
In what specific ways has Lafarge Africa helped you to grow?
Lafarge Africa with its people development objects has increasingly impacted positively on my career growth. In 2011, l was expatriated to work in Cairo Egypt, Lafarge Regional office for the Middle East and Africa. I became the Legal Counsel for Sub Saharan Africa. It was an opportunity to expand my portfolio and expertise, which opened up new learning on doing business in Africa and other parts of the world. It was also a great opportunity for my family to live and experience different cultures, a truly rewarding experience. I returned to Nigeria as Lafarge Nigeria Country General Counsel and Public Affairs Director, which enabled me to develop a valuable external structure for Lafarge Businesses all over Nigeria.
This was an exciting opportunity to extend my responsibility to government relations and stakeholder engagement, sustainability initiatives, our host community relations and CSR. My growth within the company has enabled me to develop talents within the Legal department. I believe strongly in succession planning and have passionately groomed lawyers within my team to ensure continuity and career progression.