Women in Senior Leadership — Breaking Barriers

A few years ago, Belinda Bwiza, the incoming Country Director at One Acre Fund Rwanda, left Canada to answer her passion’s calling for social change.
By Flora Nanjala
Diversity, equity and inclusion

Armed with a track record in Finance and a resolve for social justice, Belinda is contributing to efforts that uplift farming communities and push for gender equity in the workplace and among communities. Read about her purpose-driven journey, passion for inclusivity, and why she advocates for more women in senior leadership positions.

Belinda Bwiza

Why did you decide to work with a social enterprise?

At the beginning of my career, my professional background in Finance and Business determined the path my career took. However, after a while, I began asking myself tough questions as I aligned my work to my purpose and sought meaning beyond just employment and personal growth. When I got a chance to work with the government of Ontario, Canada, it opened my mind to how the policy and business landscapes work. This phase clarified my purpose; after six years abroad, I needed to return to my roots in Rwanda, where I witnessed the opportunities that good policy and governance can provide. I was eager to use my skills and experience to contribute to solving some of the social challenges Rwandans experienced, and One Acre Fund made for a great fit. The organization is a perfect nexus of an enterprise that solves social problems with the discipline of a business. 

If you could describe your job/role in one word, what would it be, and why? 

That would be ‘facilitator’. My role is to ensure that the organization’s vision and strategy come into action to deliver outcomes. My responsibilities revolve around ensuring my teammates have what they need to do their job well. 

How have your responsibilities evolved since you joined more than four years ago?

Working at One Acre Fund is quite exciting because our programs and activities continually provide opportunities for roles to morph. While I’ve been in the same role since joining in 2018, my responsibilities have evolved vastly. Initially, I oversaw our farmer program and people teams. Back then, my duties centered on program efficiency —ensuring we scaled innovations sustainably and had enough resources to serve farmers — and providing growth opportunities for our people. Today, I oversee our farmer-facing channels, with my main focus being to deepen our impact per farm. I am responsible for diversifying our portfolio to deliver the best possible customer experience as we grow our products and service offerings. I am happy that today, we have achieved national scale and are present in every district in rural Rwanda.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Two things — witnessing the impact we deliver by improving individual and community livelihoods, and working with brilliant colleagues to innovate and solve complex social challenges.

What is the one career achievement that you cherish most?

I love being part of the One Acre Fund family and enjoy being in service to smallholder farmers. I am privileged to hold a role that allows me to tackle the challenges that face these hardworking individuals and communities, and honored to do it with a fantastic group of people.

Would you describe yourself as a risk-taker? What are some of the biggest risks you have taken in your role, and what were the results?

I know I am a risk-taker. The start of the Covid 19 pandemic, and its attendant challenges, led us to think outside the box. The pandemic was especially tough on farmers — suddenly, some could not access markets or repay their loans. So we resolved that food security would be our priority objective; everything else would have to follow, including loan repayments. This resolution allowed farmers to enroll and receive farming inputs for the following season, regardless of whether they had completed their loan repayment. While this decision risked the organization’s financial position, supporting farmers was what mattered most. As it turns out, the dividends for that decision were some of the best we’ve seen — farmers trust us to act in their best interests, and we are serving over 750,000 families in Rwanda directly this year. It also challenged us to innovate more, including designing tools to manage farmer credit better.

Field Officer helps Rwandan farmer enrol using their mobile phone.

Field officer Phocas Ngaboyisonga from Kayonza district helps farmers enrolling using their mobile phones for the 2022A planting season.

What is your thought process when making a tough decision?

As I have grown in my career, I have realized that there's no single correct approach or solution. My method is to gather all facts, dig deep to understand the root cause, and ultimately make a decision that improves the situation or allows us to innovate accordingly. The decision doesn’t have to be suitable for everyone or be the correct answer; it needs to address present challenges without compromising the future.

What makes a good leader? 

A good leader is a visionary who can identify a problem, strategize and innovate where necessary, envision an end state, and communicate it with clarity. The ultimate measure of leadership is how one brings their vision to life. It is not enough to simply have a clear idea; it is equally important to know how to attain it — tapping into people's strengths and passions and keeping teams empowered and accountable to deliver on the big picture. I like balancing team support with autonomy — allowing the team to drive priorities independently. 

Sometimes leaders are looked at as having peaked, but growth never ends. How do you continue to grow and develop as a leader?

Since I started my career, my cue for a new challenge is when I begin to feel comfortable in a role. At that point, I begin to seek new opportunities and challenges that align with my passion. Additionally, networking with leaders and experts in my field has contributed to my professional growth as it challenges me to be better.

What leadership roles do you assume outside of the workplace? 

I am passionate about gender equity and so I participate in several gender equality initiatives. I leverage my networks and role to contribute and advocate for improvements in women empowerment and inclusivity.

Do you think confidence is an essential leadership trait?

It is interesting because I come from two different schools of thought. During my upbringing, I was taught to be humble. As I grew up, I got exposed to other education systems and learned that sometimes one’s progress is boosted by being assertive and confident.  

Taking the best of both informs my confidence— being confident and assertive while remaining humble and respectable. A menu of these traits makes you personable, and people pay attention to you.

What excites you most about having more women in senior leadership roles? 

That women leaders symbolize possibility and promise for upcoming professionals. Additionally, having a diverse leadership team strengthens organizations because different opinions and worldviews contribute to a thoroughly explored solution. Women leaders have lived through the challenges experienced by most working women and can influence organizational policy that breaks barriers for the women growing under them. 

How does One Acre Fund support upcoming women leaders to realize their potential?

We’ve prioritized diversity, equality, and inclusion over the last two years. We currently run a mentorship program that lets us benefit and learn from each other, and allows us to have accountability partners outside our direct teams. For example, I mentor at least three female staffers every year. It is nice to have an accountability partner outside your direct management line. I am happy that such interactions have pushed some of my mentees to pursue personal and career goals. We all have unique contributions, and mentorship plays a significant role in making the organization a better workplace. 

Tell us one thing people at work don’t know about you?

I love to dance, although I often don't get time to do it. I am also adventurous: I like to travel and discover new places. I want to go skydiving soon — I was going to do this with my friends a few years ago and backed out at the last minute, but I still want to try it sometime.

Belinda Bwiza and Eric Polman during a Staff Appreciation day in Rwanda

Belinda with the incoming One Acre Fund CEO, Eric Pohlman, during a staff appreciation party.

How do you unwind? 

With music, maybe a good tv show or a good book. I am currently reading a fascinating book called ‘How to Raise Successful People’ by Esther Wojcicki. I am a mother, and I constantly want to learn about parenting. Wojcicki writes about the TRICK philosophy— Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration and Kindness — a  beneficial philosophy for parents and leaders.

What is your mantra/philosophy?

Everything begins with self! Whatever you want to achieve and improve in your life starts with you. So it helps to know oneself and understand your motivations and weaknesses — then you will learn how to be the best version of yourself.

What advice would you give to other leaders, particularly female leaders who are early in their careers and want to make it to the top?

The first is to invest in yourself: uncover your strengths and proactively seek opportunities that align with your passion and interests. The second is to invest in networks. Beyond excelling at work, it is essential to have networks of people who challenge you, connect you to opportunities, and inspire you.

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