Mukami Njeru has been elected to IFoA council and was the first woman in Kenya to become a qualified actuary. We asked her about lockdown, studying and female representation.
How has lockdown been for you?
It has been an interesting experience with ups and downs. I am currently based in Cape Town, South Africa, working for Swiss Re and looking after their East African market. Part of my role would normally involve visiting East Africa every three or four months. But now Covid-19 has happened and I have not been able to go home since early in the year.
Being away from close family at this time has been the biggest test. My sister is a doctor, so she has been on the frontline. It was emotionally challenging but at the same time it has been a chance to think about what I really value and what is important to me and to discover hidden or forgotten talents – I had to crochet my own hair when the salons were closed.
From a work perspective, insurers have been looking to us for answers. The first six weeks were the most intense as clients were looking to us to give answers that no-one had at that time. It was a noteworthy journey professionally and an opportunity to stretch and grow.
When did you develop an interest in maths?
At my parent's house there are a lot of 'best in maths' trophies from when I was in primary school. I apparently had a badge which had 'I love maths' on it – my sister still makes fun of me for that!
What made you pick actuary?
When I was thinking about my future career, the actuarial profession was little known in Kenya. I had been selected to take an architectural course at university. Actuarial science became my choice because of the job market. It seemed like I would have a better chance of getting a job. My parents didn’t really know what an actuary was, so I had to convince them that it was a good idea!
How do you feel about being the first Kenyan woman to qualify as an actuary?
I was pleasantly surprised to have found that I was the first woman in Kenya to do so. I did have a target to myself to qualify within a certain amount of time after university. It is something I am really proud of. I am the first of many and that is something I am equally happy about.
Has female representation improved?
If I look back to my education, I would say female representation was low but it was not something that I was very conscious about. It has changed. Kenya as a country has done a lot to bring up the issue of gender representation in education and in the workplace. Women are more empowered now than previously although the impact is not uniform across the country, probably more in some areas than others. Looking at the pipeline of students in diversity terms, there is a better mix in the actuarial profession. There is still work to do but I feel like the playing field has evened out substantially. The idea of having professions which are more suited to gender is something that is being demystified in our society.
We have also had an exponential growth of actuaries in Kenya over the last ten years – supported by the efforts that the regulator and the industry have put into institutionalising the need for actuaries – at the last sitting five out of nine of the new qualifiers were female.
Can you pass on any advice for taking actuarial exams?
My university didn’t have exemptions. I would study in the semester and then during my semester break I would keep studying and sit the exam. There was a group, around four of five, who I would do that with. I was talking to some students recently and their study strategy was selective focussing on past papers primarily. This is quite different from the approach I would take which was to do everything that the study pack advised. I also had an awareness at the amount of competition for jobs in the global environment since local options were scarce at the time. We understood how much work we needed to put in to succeed and encouraged each other to do so. While I was working in the UK though, I did realise how much better the exam experience can be if you have somebody to guide you through in the form of tutors and study mentors. So, my advice is to always aim for 110% but also to study smart and to make the most of the resources in your reach.
What gives you the most pride in your professional journey?
Currently it's the pleasure of seeing just how much more you can do with the actuarial skillset and being able to give back to the profession. But for a few years it was probably just the fact that I was a qualified actuary.
What are you looking forward to about being on the IFoA council?
After being on The Actuarial Society of Kenya (TASK) council for six years and working in various jurisdictions and roles, I look forward to adding to the diversity of thought and experience of the global profession, and to learning from other colleagues. I also want to be a voice from an emerging markets perspective.
Actuaries who work in emerging markets, or where there are fewer actuaries, have different needs and experiences. The level of specialisation in a market with thousands of actuaries is very high, as was my experience working in General Insurance in the UK market surrounded by multiple actuaries at a time where we would come up with solutions together. Comparing that to my next role at a composite insurer in Kenya where I set up the actuarial department and applied my skillset in three different practice areas concurrently, I was compelled to be more innovative and to think more broadly. One cannot find a direct answer in a textbook and may not find precedent for the scenario.
This is one of the reasons I got involved in TASK. I had a personal interest in making TASK work as we really needed to have the space to consolidate thoughts and align on industry practice and guidelines. Actuaries in emerging markets can find themselves involved in conversations that they wouldn’t be in developed markets and would face additional challenges in their professional journey. This may be similar to the journey taken by actuaries in working in newer wider fields.