Mukami Njeru and Lucy Muthoni talk to Kim Chimsasa and Chris Seekings about their work at the Actuarial Academy of East Africa, and improving access to the profession on the continent
Mukami Njeru and Dr Lucy Muthoni are trailblazers within their respective fields, the former being the first Kenyan woman to qualify as an actuary and the latter being among a few select women to hold a PhD in mathematical finance in Kenya. Through their work at the Actuarial Academy of East Africa (AAEA), they strive to improve access to the profession while boosting financial literacy among Africa’s young, bustling population.
Here, Mukami and Lucy explain how they overcame the odds to rise to the top of their male-dominated fields, and how they hope to inspire the next generation to help Africa build a dynamic, modern economy.
Lucy, who is a senior lecturer in mathematics and actuarial science at Strathmore University, Nairobi, was a domestic worker when she first heard about actuarial science. “My employer’s son asked me what I wanted to study at the university,” she says. “I said I wanted to pursue medicine, and he said, ‘But you are good at mathematics. Haven’t you heard of actuarial science? It is the field with the most money!’. That is how I ended up pursuing an actuarial degree. However, I discovered that there is something more to it than money – its multidisciplinary nature. You’re taught things like economics, IT, mathematics, statistics and finance. I can offer multi-sectoral solutions, and there’s no area I cannot work in as a consultant.”
For Mukami, who is an IFoA Fellow and the first IFoA Council member to come from East or Central Africa, there were few career options to pursue. “Growing up in Kenya, there were only four professions to choose from: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or disgrace to the family!” she jokes. “When I finished high school there was a buzz about actuarial science, but I had to convince my parents that I needed to pursue a career they had never heard of. I was the first Kenyan woman to qualify and, thankfully, there have been many after.”
When Mukami was studying to become an actuary, female representation in classrooms was low, at around 20%, but this has improved to about half in recent years. Lucy had a similar experience. “For women looking to get into mathematical finance there was a lot of discouragement, but that pushed me to prove myself,” she says. “We are still struggling to get women to pursue a PhD in mathematical finance. Right now, in Kenya, there are only two women with a PhD in this area – but we are trying to say, ‘Here we are, we made it, why don’t you come and join us?’”
Changing the world
As a teacher, Lucy explains to her students how they can use their mathematical skills to better society. Improving access to affordable housing and universal healthcare are two such areas, and one of her students is currently working on a project in which automatic deductions on telephone airtime, as people use their airtime to call, text or buy internet, can be used to help people save towards a pension. “One of the things
I ask my students is: what makes you angry about society?” she says. “What are the problems that you’ve identified that you’d like to solve using mathematics or actuarial science? What I enjoy most about my job is that I’m able to work with my students to solve these issues.”
We need to think seriously about how we package ourselves as actuaries if we want to improve the future working space for our students and people who qualify
Although there are numerous ways in which mathematics and actuarial science students can apply their skills, it can be difficult to see these opportunities at the start of their training. While working with data and models, Mukami says she found herself wondering whether she would see real-world impacts. “I was recently speaking to one of the women I mentor who is in university and is struggling with the question of whether her degree will help to change the world,” she says. “I went through the first couple of years of my actuarial journey wondering whether or not I would make an impact. A few years post-qualification I was able to better understand how my analytical skills were being applied to solve real problems and to see the big picture. For instance, I have been involved in managing COVID-19 impacts and ensuring societal resilience through the support that reinsurers give to insurance companies and their clients to manage extreme and unexpected events, designing bespoke products, and setting up new business ventures across the insurance value chain. As you go through matters such as these, you see the versatility of the actuarial skillset.
“Actuarial science is an in-depth specialisation, delving deep into areas of risk for (mainly) financial institutions, so there is the hazard of focusing on the part of the puzzle that you are solving at the expense of seeing where the problem fits into its context,” Mukami continues. “This is something that the profession has become aware of and is working hard to change. The time it takes students to get to the point of managing the whole actuarial control cycle has been reduced from a syllabus perspective and from a work-experience perspective, and there is deliberate exposure to higher-level concepts early in the actuarial career. We still have some way to go, but we have made progress over the last decade or so.”
She believes that actuaries are increasingly moving beyond their traditional role as advisers, taking on more senior positions. “We are moving from being risk managers and advisers on specific items to bringing opportunities to the table and helping businesses to strategise and execute. We have more rounded actuaries, including those who are going into wider fields and being part of top leadership. It’s not a pure actuarial role – it’s more like a business role. I really enjoy being able to bring the actuarial mindset to conversations and to long-term sustainable decisions.”
One of the biggest challenges in improving access to the profession has been raising awareness of it in the first place. After carrying out an industry survey among Kenyans, Lucy found that 50% were unaware of an actuarial science graduate’s skillset. “That was really worrying,” she says. “We need to think seriously about how we package ourselves as actuaries if we want to improve the future working space for our students and people who qualify.”
The AAEA, established in 2018, is a non-profit institution that is committed to developing the actuarial profession in East Africa. Its work is governed by three key pillars – mentorship, tutorship and university support – and its overriding aim is to vastly increase the number of qualified actuaries in the region. “At the moment we have around 70 in East Africa, but when you look at the statistics of actuaries per GDP in established financial systems, we want to see over 500 to 700 within the next five to 10 years,” Mukami explains. “For instance, South Africa has more than 1,700 actuaries. The outlook for the economy and the financial services industry growth in East Africa means there are so many opportunities for actuaries to use data for good and apply their skillset to a broad range of fields.”
The outlook for the economy and the financial services industry growth in East Africa means there are so many opportunities for actuaries
She is keen to reiterate that the AAEA’s focus is not just on qualification, but also on mentoring and continual professional development. “In an environment where there are not so many actuaries to look up to, we want to keep supporting the profession. For the actuaries who are passing actuarial exams without exposure to real-life applications, who perhaps only have theoretical exam knowledge, we give them access to qualified actuaries and mentorship to help them deal with stakeholder management and other non-technical challenges.”
The IFoA Foundation – a charity launched in 2020 – has supported the AAEA with funding, and recently helped implement an e-learning model to make it more accessible. However, there are still barriers to overcome if diversity is to be improved within Africa’s actuarial profession.
Access for all
There is a misconception in Kenya, Lucy says, that teaching is the only career path for students who study mathematics, and people in rural villages remain unaware of the various opportunities on offer. “Teaching is not looked at very favourably in Kenya because it is the profession with the lowest salaries – it’s a nightmare to tell your parents that you’re going to be a teacher!” she says. “I was exposed to the actuarial science field because I was working for a rich family, but most of my classmates were already very informed and came from urban schools.”
Before working with the AAEA, Lucy would meet with young girls in her village church to explain the various opportunities there are in mathematics and actuarial science. “I was so happy when I saw two women from my village, around six years later, graduate in mathematical-related courses,” she says. “I now talk to students at universities to let them know what they can do with a degree in mathematics or actuarial science.” By working with rural schools and universities, the AAEA aims to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the tools that are needed to succeed in the profession. “We are able to access people from rural areas, so that someone who would not have had exposure to this particular industry is exposed,” Lucy says. “That increases diversity, bringing people together from urban and rural areas and even diverse tribes.”
This is key to ensuring that the profession can shed its elitist image. Even with reduced rates, it still costs around £200 to sit the actuarial papers, Lucy explains. “Many students struggle even to have three meals. Now we are telling them they must get professional papers, a minimum of two, for us to give them an internship,” she says. “The gap between the haves and the have-nots becomes bigger by the day. I find that unacceptable, and it is a challenge that the AAEA is trying to address.”
Increasing insurance penetration across the African market is another ongoing challenge, according to Mukami, who says that addressing this could improve diversity within the profession. “As we increase insurance penetration and make it more widely accessible in Africa, I believe this will support the issue of having more diverse representation in the actuarial profession and the insurance industry.”
A modern economy
As the world becomes increasingly reliant on new technology and digital services, Africa has a great advantage: demographics. The median age in Africa was 19.7 years in 2020, indicating a population that is likely to embrace innovation. “Africa is a very young continent, and in an era where people have access to information, they are looking for an expansion of financial products,” Lucy says. “People are getting into cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens, and governments are thinking about introducing digital central bank currencies, so we need to ensure that the demand for services will be met in the future.”
The emergence of artificial intelligence has led some to believe that actuaries might become redundant as machines take on roles traditionally carried out by humans. However, Mukami believes that the Actuaries’ Code and the profession’s public interest aspect will make it integral in establishing sustainable financial services and sectors. “We have the opportunity to establish things in the right way, and the actuarial skillset will help to support a growing and vibrant financial services industry,” she says. “The number of actuaries in the region will also professionalise the industry and generate better products, because some of the products we see in the market are not designed with the end user in mind. I trust that the actuarial profession in Africa can support the ‘social’ aspect of environmental, social and governance more concretely as we build a more sustainable financial services industry.”
Building professional capacity and implementing sound regulatory frameworks will be key to the success of Africa’s financial services market, and Mukami is optimistic, saying that, in her experience, actuaries who work in emerging markets can be “a lot more entrepreneurial”. She adds: “If you are looking for a profession that allows you to be a global citizen, that is easily transferable across different parts of the world, and that is exciting in terms of solving real-world problems using data and mathematical acumen, then yes, you should definitely consider the actuarial profession. We welcome you and look forward to supporting you and giving you the tools you need to go through this journey.”
With over 60% of the African population being under the age of 30, Lucy believes that now is the best time for the actuarial profession to start growing. “Africa is no longer what it used to be, and we have a lot of infrastructural expansion, with the northern-southern corridor coming up, which is going to open more markets and jobs,” she says. “There’s so much potential, whether you are a female or a male, or you come from different parts of the country or different parts of the continent. The profession has grown enough to embrace you.”