She grew up in a typical Zongo community where parents placed more premium on education for the boy-child rather than extending similar opportunities to girls.
These setbacks notwithstanding, she was challenged to make it to the top in order to silence those who advised her father to find a vocation for her rather than ‘waste’ his money on her education and development.
Raised by unschooled parents, her brothers enjoyed more attention in their schooling, but determined not to be left behind, she decided to follow them to school.
And with her eyes on the ball, she turned out as one of the best students in her school and it naturally opened the floodgates of success for her until date.
She is Mrs Marufatu Abiola Bawuah, the Regional Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of United Bank for Africa for six countries comprising Ghana, Republic of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Mrs Bawuah is armed with two firsts in the industry: she is the first indigenous CEO of a Pan-African bank and the first female to be appointed CEO.
This is a position she held until today and during her tenure, profits of the bank increased by incredible margins.
Mrs Marufatu Abiola Bawuah’s milestone
In a chat with The Mirror at her office, Mrs Bawuah took time off her busy schedule to recount her challenging upbringing and how she persevered to pull herself up by her bootstraps in the face of difficult social and cultural barriers.
Mrs Bawuah disclosed that in her community in Aflao, hardly did people get the opportunity to attend school.
“The only person whom we saw as a role model was one Mr Johnson, who was even a messenger, yet my mother would always use him as the benchmark.
He always looked smartly dressed in his shoes and neckties, which was enough motivation for all and sundry,” she narrated with a laugh.
Challenges with her primary education included the need to adjust to new environments and a change in schools as her parents relocated from Aflao to Accra, and it came at a great cost as young Marufatu was made to lose three years of study.
“Instead of being in Class Six, I was sent to Class Three at the defunct GEMPISCO because the standard of education in Accra was far higher than where I came from,” she explained.
Being the oldest in the class, it was a bit nerve-wracking and uncomfortable for her.
Nonetheless, she stayed focused on her books and did not allow herself to be distracted by other influences.
“Sometimes, I felt so old that it got to me, however, some of the teachers around encouraged me to remain confident.
With this zeal, I passed the Common Entrance Examination at that time and gained admission into the Achimota School.
“In fact, I didn’t even know the schools I selected at that time.
When I went back to my primary school I was told I had been admitted by Achimota School, so I went straight to the school and met an old man called Mr Duncan who paid all my fees, which was later refunded to him by my father,” she narrated.
Achimota School was a turnaround in her life as she made good friends such as Lilian Bampoe and Kizzita Mensah, whom she described as “sisters for life” because their parents were supportive of her at school, for which she is eternally grateful.
Despite the challenges leading a successful bank across the sub-region, Mrs Bawuah remains enterprising as she swam into the golden age this week (September 25).
As part of her 50th birthday celebration, Mrs Bawuah will be launching a book which mainly chronicles her amazing life story.
‘Chosen from The Darkness’ is the appropriate title of her 250-page biography about how perseverance took her from humble beginnings to become a celebrated and award-winning banker.
She is hoping that her personal story of determination against all odds will provide inspiration for the younger generation to walk her path to the top.
For Mrs Bawuah, her personal story is enough example of the importance for society to provide educational opportunities and support bright children from deprived backgrounds to realise their full potential.
Abiola Bawuah Foundation
“Currently, the government is doing remarkably well by providing free education.
However, there are some children who have passed (their exams) so well but because their parents cannot provide them with basic things such as trunk, chop box, mattress and provisions, these children are still home,” she lamented.
“For me, coming from an Islamic community, I think it is crucial for the girl-child to be given the opportunity to go to school no matter the circumstance.
You know if we don’t get them into school because of financial constraints, they may end up getting pregnant,” she noted.
She stated that the proceeds from her book would all be put into an educational foundation which would be launched this weekend when her birthday celebration reaches a climax.
“We are trying to support young girls to get the education they need to transform their lives and secure their future. This means working to ensure free and equal access to quality, safe education for all girls, including areas affected by emergencies,” she explains about her passion for girl-child education.
Mrs Bawuah has substantial experience in retail banking and marketing. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Actuarial Science from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She also holds a Bachelor of Law (LLB) from the University of London.
She also pursued a Diploma in Marketing from the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) and an Executive of Master of Business Administration (EMBA) in Finance from the University of Ghana.
Mrs Bawuah loves to study and has several leadership qualifications from Harvard Business School, Columbia; University of New York, INSEAD and Institut Villa Pierrefeu in Switzerland.
She worked with the Standard Chartered Bank as a Business Relationship Officer, and at the CAL Bank as a Relationship Manager. She left for the Strategic African Securities and worked as an Authorised Dealing Broker, as well as with the then Bentsi-Enchi and Letsa (now Bentsi-Enchil, Letsa and Ankomah) law firm as an Investment Officer.
In 2012, she was made the Executive Director at Zenith Bank Ghana; having previously held positions of General Manager, Marketing and Group Head, Retail Banking at the same outfit. She joined UBA as the Deputy Managing Director in 2013.
By dint of hard work, she was elevated to the position of Managing Director and CEO in less than a year.
Mrs Bawuah has a tall list of awards under her belt, among which are the 2016 Chartered Institute of Marketing Ghana (CIMG) Marketing Woman of the Year and the Finance Personality of the Year Award at the Ghana Accountancy and Finance.
In addition, she was adjudged by the Chief Finance Officers (CFO) in 2016 as Woman of Excellence in Finance. At the same awards ceremony, her gifted guidance led UBA to pick the Best Bank Award in Risk Management.
She volunteers her time to serve at orphanages, including the Osu Children’s Home. In 2017, she donated a month’s supply of new-born baby milk, diapers and cases of water.
Mrs Bawuah also volunteers as a motivational speaker in various churches, religious bodies, NGOs and women’s groups.
She is married with three children.