Katy, Finance Director, Exagris Africa

New Employer

Exagris Africa

Exagris Africa aims to lead in the Agri-business sector in Malawi. It seeks to be innovative in the development of its farms, creating value for its stakeholders and social and economic growth for the country.

They aim to produce high quality agricultural products whilst respecting the environment, being supportive of the community and creating value for its shareholders, employees, customers and the nation of Malawi.

Exagris Africa

Career Changer

Katy (ACA) Name
Katy (ACA)
Finance Director
After years of success in the private sector, Katy Young decided to take a career break to do some travelling. She decided to combine this with a volunteer assignment through AfID, where she supported SolarAid in Malawi.

Katy fully intended on resuming her previous career, but her career path took a very different direction after her assignment.

How did volunteering benefit your decision to change career paths?

Volunteering prompted me to want to work with people who needed training and who would really benefit from having my skill set passed on to them.
There is no way I would have got my subsequent job in Malawi without undertaking my volunteer role first.

Where did your volunteer experience take you? Can you tell us a little about this role and how it differed to your last full time position in your previous sector?

I have just finished a position as FD of an agricultural company in Malawi. In my last UK corporate role, I was assistant FC in the City at an insurance company.
The biggest challenges in the Malawi role were around working within a different infrastructure. For example, a weak education infrastructure means that your work colleagues are simply not as knowledgeable and lack the experience that your UK colleagues may have. This means a lot of time has to be invested in training. Repetition and patience are essential. Persuading them that asking questions and saying no is ok is also a challenge as this is not the cultural norm. 
Weak governance means that any dealings with official parties is drawn out and usually lacks a clear procedure and legislative support. Physical infrastructure is also frustrating when vehicles all break down and there is no electricity.
Also in Malawi procurement is a whole different discipline to in the UK. It is a lot more of a profession in Africa and people study for it. It is a lot more time consuming, fraught with risk and hence dominated by controls and procedures. You do not appreciate how easy it is to buy things in the UK.
However, despite the differences I still did accounting work in Malawi much as I did in the UK. I oversaw financial reporting close process, documented audit trails, wrote and reviewed procedures and policy etc. so the overlap is such that there is always something familiar.

Many accountants worry about the transferability of their skills when moving to a new country and sector; was this a concern of yours?

I was really worried about this. When I first wanted to volunteer in Africa I cursed that I was not a doctor or nurse that could actually do something valuable and relevant.
I was so wrong. Nearly all of your experience as a trained accountant with business experience is transferable and relevant in your new role. 
For example, if you have been working with top-of-the range automated stock systems these systems are unlikely to be operative in small NGOs and CBOs but the controls that the system operates can be built into a primitive manual system.
Just training on Excel skills and how to keep proper paper records can be a significant change for small organisations. If you can design Balance Sheet reconciliations for accounts other than Bank then that can be huge!
One thing to note is that I often found myself laughing at how some of the work I was doing really was like being back in exams.

What would you say are the pros & cons of making your career change?

My pros of working in Malawi has been seeing the massive increase in professional skills in my workforce. The other huge reward I got from the role was seeing others adopt a culture of training others.
The only cons are that I have missed seeing my family in UK and feel sad that my baby has not seen enough of his grandparents and cousins.

What would be your advice to other accountants considering a similar career change?

Honestly I would say make sure that you are done in the corporate world first and have a little money saved in your bank account so you are happy to 100% throw yourself into a volunteer role without the worry of no income for a while.
Then do it. Pick a place you have a connection with so that you are happy with your environment as the move can be tough so go somewhere where you are interested in and somewhere where you can travel afterwards or during weekends to places you want to see.
I would argue that this is more important even than the nature of the organisation you are helping. You might passionately want to work with youth but may be offered an environmental focused position. The thing is you will become passionate about the organisation whatever its focus and the people you will invest the most time in will be your colleagues and you will change their lives and empower them to do their jobs to a level of ability they did not know they had before. Then they can deliver the objectives of the organisation and change other people’s lives too.