Redeeming The Insurance Industry In Africa

A seasoned CEO and board director, Charles Washoma works mainly in East and Southern Africa. As CEO of African Life Assurance (now Sanlam Life Insurance Tanzania), he actively led the business from 10% to 47% market share. He currently serves as Vice President of the International Affiliated Institutes for the Chartered Insurance Institute (with over 120,000 members globally), and as Chairman of the Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee for UAP Old Mutual in Tanzania. Charles speaks four languages (English, Shona, Ndebele and Swahili) and holds a Diploma in Insurance at Chartered Insurance Institute (UK), and a Diploma in Risk Management at The Institutes (USA).

The following is a summary from his interview with Ziwani’s Sibs Sibanda.

Charles Mashoma has always been passionate about building a just and fair society – for this very reason he considered becoming an attorney, a priest, or a public servant, before embarking on a corporate career in the insurance sector. As a keen student of history, he realised that effective leadership is key to addressing the wrongs in society, and therefore made it his mission to be always mindful of the impact of his leadership on the wider community.

“As I worked my way up the corporate ladder, I was enthused when I came to more senior positions with higher responsibility because that gave me the space to make decisions based on biblical principles – to make fair, just and right decisions,” Washoma recalls. “But the reality is that business ethics isn’t always straightforward. There is so much brokenness around us, and we need godly wisdom to navigate the challenges.”

In his view, the widespread brokenness in contemporary society is due to a departure from biblical principles. “For example, I believe in a free enterprise system – it has created employment and brought wealth to many, and has contributed so many good things to society. At the same time, however, the idea of capitalism as ‘the accumulation of riches’ has led to people pursuing self-interest above everything else, at the cost of others. This departure from biblical principles shows itself in corruption, fraud, and lack of accountability. Banks have collapsed and insurance companies have gone insolvent – resulting in the loss of jobs, the loss of savings, and sometimes even wiping out people’s pensions. And most of these wrongs can be traced back to pure greed,” Washoma laments.

He continues, “This has led to a bad reputation for the corporate space, and mistrust by the public. It is no wonder that ‘business ethics’ is sometimes called an oxymoron, because many people, from their own experience, find it difficult to reconcile the two. It’s as if, in order for you to have success in business, someone else needs to lose.”

Corporate governance itself (in terms of legislation, regulations, and best practice) has been largely reactive to crises in the financial markets. Yet, “corporate governance has real-world implications. God’s original intent for humanity was that people should flourish, and therefore the failure of corporate governance is not only an issue confined to a specific organisation, but actually prevents people from flourishing as God intended,” Washoma says.

So how can Christian business leaders bring biblical principles back into the corporate space?

He answers, “God made us to work, to be creative, to be productive – and so work is an essential part of our lives. The very idea that we are made in God’s image, means we are a reflection of His character to the world. And what is His character? It is just and fair – and this has to come through in how we conduct ourselves, professionally and personally. God is not interested only in what we do, but how we do it.”

“Colossians 3:23–24 reads, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’ This means that our daily work is an act of worship,” Washoma asserts. “We have been called to redemptive action, to create a more wholesome environment, and to act in alignment with God’s purposes. This does not mean we judge others or become ‘holier than thou’, but that we strive to maintain a higher standard, for the sake of Him who will hold us accountable. Of course, all of us are under different authorities, but ultimately we will answer to God.”

He acknowledges that it takes courage to follow God in the workplace, “because the system is so bent towards compromise and the worship of money. But we are not bound by the system, we can be empowered by God to respond creatively to problems in the market, and to devise solutions.”

By way of example, he recalls a time when he headed up a large financial institution. “I was phoned by a high ranking official, who said, ‘Washoma, I understand you’re losing out on opportunities because you’re not cooperating with people.’ Essentially, he was saying that we were losing business because I wasn’t willing to pay bribes. I responded, ‘Thank you for sharing with me what you’ve observed. However, our shareholders, the regulator, and our clients have extended a great trust to me in my appointment as CEO, and it would not be right for me to put all of that at risk for that sake of short-term gain.’” Washoma made it clear that he would not allow others to pay the price for a failure of principled leadership on his part.

At another time, when he was a young executive of an insurance carrier, the business entered into a market that relied heavily on intermediaries for new business (up to 70%–80%). Washoma discovered, however, that many intermediaries were paying bribes to get the sales. “As a consequence, they were putting pressure on the insurance carriers to pay higher commissions, not for adding any value, but simply to facilitate the payment of bribes, which was something I refused to do,” he remembers. At first, this baffled his colleagues on the management team, but fortunately, he had the full support of the chairman and the board.

“So we adapted our business model, and soon about 80% of our business was conducted directly with clients, and only about 20% of new business came through intermediaries. We found that clients preferred to deal with us directly because we had true intent towards them, had a quick turnaround time, and gave them good service. In return, this gave us security in terms of retaining our clients’ business, because we weren’t subject to the intermediaries’ annual threats that they would move their clients’ business to another insurer unless the carrier agreed to their demands.” He points out that, “We became not only the largest, but also the most profitable insurer in our sector, and in essence, we rewrote the rules of the industry.”

This was in contrast to another insurer he had worked at before, where the board did not agree with his refusal to pay bribes. “They challenged me: ‘What is your problem? When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ But I insisted, and intentionally only dealt with a particular set of clients whom I knew had best practices in place, such as international development organisations, multi-national banks, and the diplomatic sector. At the same time, I intentionally avoided deals with local municipalities or government institutions because their governance had not yet matured to a reliable degree.” The eventual outcome was that the insurer signed up many blue-chip clients and did very well in the market, even as a greenfield operation. Unfortunately, the difference in values between the board and Washoma led to continual conflict, and in the end, he decided to leave.

“So there have been instances where I had to forego career opportunities because of personal ethics and values, but God has always been faithful,” Washoma states. “God also protects us, even when we are unaware of it at the time.”

He explains, “I was once offered the position of Principal Officer at a well-known financial intermediary, which was the second-largest in the country at the time. But for some reason, the approval of my appointment by the authorities was delayed for six months. Eventually, I decided to walk away, and it took another six long months before I found employment. One day, I opened up the newspaper and found out the previous intermediary had been deregistered by the authorities for embezzling client funds and defrauding business partners. In hindsight, I realised that even though I had been so frustrated and disappointed that year, God had been protecting me.”

Washoma agrees that “anyone who wants to uphold biblical principles in business will be challenged, but even more so at director- or CEO-level. There are many temptations relating to power and ego, and there are many fears relating to being shunned or being unemployed. But our duty is to ‘hold up our end’. God is faithful, ‘He is not a man, that He should lie’ (Numbers 23:19).”

So, what does it means to ‘hold up our end’ in practice?

He expands, “The Bible warns us that ‘No good comes from ill-gotten wealth’ (Proverbs 10:2), and commands us to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). Who are our neighbours? They are our shareholders, our employees, our clients, our suppliers. How do we love them? By honouring their financial investments, their interests, and acting with the utmost good faith towards them. This definitely does not involve cheating them, or establishing win-lose relationships.”

“The Bible also tells us that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Psalm 24:1). This means that we are to actively support the effective implementation of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards. There are so many good initiatives that we didn’t have before, such as codes of conduct, best practice, the Kings Code, ISO global standards – we should embrace these, and spread the good news that there are people who want to see a positive shift in our industries. We are also told to ‘Honour the Lord with your wealth and with the first fruits of all your produce’ (Proverbs 3:9), which teaches us to let go of money.”

His encouragement to Christian business leaders?

“Amidst the complexity and speed of change in business, we need to remember that the principles we live by, are constant. No matter how crazy this world gets, whether because of technological disruptions or political change, we need to remember that our God does not change.”

“Galatians 6:9 reminds us: ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ It is important to stay connected to the body of believers, and to God as our source of strength – so that we can persevere through the challenges. Sometimes we can clearly see that people intend to do us harm, but we can rest in knowing that ‘in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).”

“As we integrate our faith and daily work, we can hold on to the promise that ‘the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:7), even through the storms.” He concludes, “We can shape our industries through principle-based decisions, and we can bring redemption to society through godly leadership.”

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Charles Washoma