Skilled women are Botswana’s real diamonds

The growing number of female accounting professionals in Botswana are not only changing their lives and furthering their careers, but also helping to wean the local economy off its diamond dependency.

Sharlen Mavundla Dube dreamed of being an accountant ever since she was a little girl. Growing up in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, she wanted to help her father with his taxi business. When he died suddenly when she was only 10 years old, it seemed her dream would never come true.

But many years later, moving with her husband and son to Botswana, she registered with the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), the UK’s leading professional institution for vocational accountants and studied for her accountancy diploma part-time. “This qualification has allowed me to spread my wings,” says Sharlen, now 31 and one of many vocational accountants trained by AAT in Botswana.

The organisation globally has over 130,000 members and is backed by accounting bodies CIPFA, ICAEW, CIMA and ICAS as well as the Botswana Institute of Chartered Accountants (BICA). The AAT Accounting Qualification is currently offered to over 4 000 students per year in Botswana – its largest cohort of students outside the UK.

“Such qualifications are contributing to educate Botswana’s youth and helping them to get good jobs,” says former student Nilima Bhagi. She was the institution’s youngest ever qualifier, completing the AAT qualification by the age of 16. Now 24, she is a senior team leader in the finance department at a well-known Botswana university, in charge of a team of nine people.

Almost two thirds of AAT’s members are women. Nilima believes the course is attractive to women for many reasons. “Many women prefer desk jobs to being out in the field. But it could also be because accounting has a worldwide scope and will allow them to work anywhere.”

Unemployment is a growing problem in Botswana. It is currently at about 20% and government is trying to address the problem through various initiatives and in trying to diversify the economy by shifting the focus from the diamond industry, which accounts for a third of the country’s gross domestic product and 80% of the country’s exports.

As diamond sales and prices have dropped, government has attempted to boost the economy through various initiatives and has aimed to stimulate growth in other areas. One target is the financial services industry, which has grown significantly over recent years and is helping to support other sectors in the economy.

According to the Commonwealth Network, between 1995 and 2008, the banking sector in Botswana grew by 11.3% a year on average. Although the banking sector dominates the financial sector, other institutions like pension funds have seen growth as well. There is more competition in the financial services sector with greater innovation in products and service delivery.

The beauty of vocational accountancy is that it can be used in the growing financial service sector as well as in other companies, opening up a range of job opportunities for students. Andrew Williamson, AAT’s Director of Marketing and Brand Strategy says vocational accountants can work anywhere from public sector and government departments to private companies and helping to run and manage small to medium-size businesses, using their financial expertise to helping them grow more profitable and successful.

AAT President Allan Ramsay adds that one of the benefits of vocational training is that it is more accessible to young people. Youth unemployment in Botswana, in common with the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, is a growing scourge.

“The great thing about the introductory AAT Diploma in Accounting and Business is that young people aged 16-19 can enroll in it. They need no prior qualifications and learn skills that they can use straight away in the market place,” says Ramsay.

He explains: “These are practical, real-world skills, developed in consultations with employers to equip students with the key finance skills modern businesses are looking for.”

The Ministry of Finance in September revised its GDP growth forecast to 2.6% down from earlier projections of 4.9%. Assistant Minister of Education and Skills Development, Moiseraele Goya, recently said young people should aim to learn skills that can help them in their careers.

Recent research on youth entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) has stressed the importance of financial training and support in particular as a key enabler of employment and economic growth.

In Botswana, there are government economic empowerment programmes that target the youth, like the Youth Development Fund (YDF) and Women Economic Empowerment programmes. The Skills Development and Training programme (SDT) is estimated to have trained a total of 4 344 young people in different trades.

Nilima thinks government has done much to educate women and equip them with professional skills, but she is of the opinion that more can be done to boost skills development among especially young women.

Research shows that when women are empowered, economies perform better. A recent United Nations report showed that when women were earning salaries, economies grew as well. Apart from the economic impact, women like Nilima are also empowered to improve their own lives and further their careers.

She says, “Sometimes working and studying is hectic and it can mean sleepless nights when I’m trying to get everything in order but I enjoy it. My achievements are my motivation.”

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