When asked what’s keeping Nigerian CFOs awake at night, Maryam Abisola Adefarati highlights the critical issue of skills. The challenging economic climate in the country is leading many qualified finance professionals to emigrate overseas.
‘There’s been a brain drain,’ says Adefarati, who is CFO for Microsoft’s Africa regional cluster, a grouping of Africa’s anglophone countries other than South Africa. ‘It’s a lot more difficult to find the right talent to fill roles today than it used to be.’ Fortunately, automation can help address the issue, she adds. ‘With technology, you’re able to do more with fewer resources.’
‘In the unautomated past, month-end used to be a nightmare. I remember sleeping in the office’
As Microsoft has automated many of its own processes, Adefarati is well versed in automation’s benefits. She now spends little or no time on tasks such as reconciliation, which ate up her time in previous posts. ‘In the past, month-end was a nightmare,’ she says. ‘I remember sleeping in the office. At Microsoft, we have a single source of truth in terms of our numbers, which everybody sees in real time. That helps me to focus on other parts of my role.’
Adefarati likes to share this story with other CFOs to show how they can make their own finance function a more effective and strategic partner to the business. ‘For me, finance is not about reporting on things that happened in the past,’ she says. ‘I’m playing a more predictive role, a role that allows the business to see what’s possible for the future, and how we should shape that future with the data we have.’
In her role, Adefarati supports the business team to drive the company’s growth. She does this by providing finance strategy, as well as risk and compliance support. She also partners with Microsoft’s business team to engage directly with customers.
As a teenager, Adefarati worked in her mother’s textiles store, where she did the reconciliation of stock against sales, and banked the daily proceeds. This, together with a natural aptitude for maths, sparked her interest in finance. After studying for a BSc in business administration at the University of Lagos, she joined Arthur Andersen (now KMPG) as a business process risk consultant, mostly working on internal audits.
Initially, she began studying with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria but then decided to study for a master’s degree in the UK. In 2002, she moved to London and converted to ACCA because it was a globally recognised accountancy qualification.
A member since 2004, she explains that the ACCA qualification has been ‘the anchor for building the career I have today’. As well as helping her get through the door of multinational businesses, it has given her an international network of expertise to draw on in the form of other ACCA accountants globally.
She has served as a member of ACCA’s Council, the first Nigerian woman to do so, treating it as an opportunity to share her story, connect with students and help bring about change. ‘Being on Council was an opportunity to bring the Nigerian or African voice and ideas,’ she explains.
‘I had been itching to get into industry and be the one executing the ideas’
Operating income (2023)
MBA and Microsoft
Altogether, she spent six years in London, working as well as studying for the ACCA qualification and an executive MBA at Bayes Business School. She worked, mostly in internal audit contract roles, for organisations including PwC, Deloitte and Morgan Stanley.
After moving back to Nigeria, she did a brief stint at PwC before joining British American Tobacco (BAT) as an audit manager. ‘With consulting, I always felt like I was providing answers without executing my ideas,’ she says. ‘I had been itching to get into industry and be the one executing the ideas.’
During her time at BAT, she had plenty of opportunity to execute her ideas while gaining broad finance experience. A particular highlight was acting as the finance project manager for the construction of the company’s new head office in Nigeria. On another occasion, she liaised with the Nigerian tax authority to resolve a large, outstanding tax obligation.
In 2017, she left BAT after nearly eight years with the business, landing a commercial finance role with drinks giant Coca-Cola. However, secretly longing to become an FD, she moved to spirits company Pernod Ricard after 18 months. Coca-Cola later lured her back briefly to be an FD, but by then, she was ready for an 18-month career break ahead of joining Microsoft in 2022.
‘We have good jobs, so we can support other people on their journeys’
As a leader, Adefarati likes to encourage others to believe in the impossible. ‘I’m always keen to throw myself into a new challenge and to inspire others to do the same.’ To hone her leadership capabilities, she has recently completed the executive general management programme at Harvard Business School.
She’s also an entrepreneur. While still at BAT, she started a food delivery business called Jconceptz with her older sister, Toyin Bello. The business is run on a day-to-day basis by a local management team, but Adefarati provides strategy support and general business advice. She also spent time working in the business during her career break.
Together with her husband Babalola, she has launched a foundation to help underprivileged Nigerians to access free healthcare and education services, including a free consultation with a doctor. The foundation does not collect donations – Adefarati and her husband fund it out of their own savings. ‘If you live in Nigeria, you see people in need every day,’ she says. ‘We believe that as we have good jobs, we can support other people on their journeys.’
In the long term, her dream is to help her country prosper by supporting the Nigerian government in some way. ‘As a country, we have so much potential,’ she explains, ‘and I want to contribute to Nigeria’s success.’
Appointed CFO, Africa regional cluster, Microsoft
Managing director, Jconceptz
Finance director, Nigeria, Coca-Cola
Finance director, Nigeria, Pernod Ricard
Finance, marketing and customer insights – West Africa, Coca-Cola
Various finance roles at British American Tobacco, culminating in commercial finance controller for West Africa
Various audit, consultancy and project management roles at different firms, culminating in audit manager at PwC