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Meet Zumi Njongwe, the Consumer Communications and Marketing Excellence Director, and Business Executive Officer: Confectionery for the Nestlé East and Southern Africa Region who is determined to champion the African story to drive change in business, society and the continent at large

The Nestlé East and Southern Africa Region (ESAR) is an arm of Nestlé which operates from Southern Africa all the way up to the east coast to Kenya, as well as off the coast within island nations such as Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles.

Nestlé, which was founded in 1866 by Swiss-German pharmacist Henri Nestlé in Vevey, Switzerland, derives its purpose from unlocking the power of food to enhance the consumers’ quality of life for today and generations to come.

Zumi Njongwe, the Consumer Communications and Marketing Excellence Director, and Business Executive Officer: Confectionery for Nestlé ESAR, is charged with helping to drive the Nestlé message within this integral region.

She presents a broad and deep Classical Background in Marketing & Business Management, with a proven track record of delivering results over 20 years. Her working experience has mainly been in Africa and the UK in Middle to Senior Management roles. Her experience spans multiple countries in East, West and Southern Africa, multiple portfolios/brands/ categories mainly in Liquor, Health, Beauty and recently in the food industry in the globally leading Nestlé business.

On her journey to date, Njongwe explains: ”I have been very fortunate in that I have worked for fantastic multi-nationals that have been very instrumental in my career trajectory across both breadth and depth of experience in marketing and business general”.

“Working with some of the best minds in building brands has allowed me to learn from the best and to set ambitious targets for myself. One of my most transformative line managers words always ring true to me when he said, ‘if it’s easy, I don’t want to do it’ and so I have endeavoured to take the road less travelled where possible. I have also had a fantastic array of stakeholders who have taken an interest in my career. Those particular people, whether they have played a peer, senior or junior role to me have been pivotal in teaching or coaching me in different leadership or functional spheres and I have been the richer for it, Of course, my own level of accountability and self-insight has always been strong and this allowed me to self-critique and learn quickly while delivering results.

“Over the course of my career, I have also met and made friends with a number of really instrumental powerhouses who are in different roles; HR, Finance, fintech, media, and various different industries. That for me has been quite a wonderful opportunity as these relationships have proven valuable as we hold the mirror up to each other to actively and intentionally build each other up.

Living the Nestlé dream

Njongwe’s dream has always been to immerse herself within the African story. Armed with a desire to work within multi-market African roles, in 2019, she accepted the challenge to work at Nestlé ESAR.

“Nestlé has again given me the chance to experience the African story working across East and Southern Africa. Of the 23 markets that we look after, we’ve got six big markets that really over-index in our business. I love working in industries and businesses that value innovation, the place emphasis on the power of great ideas and that champion the positive African narrative.

Njongwe holds a special interest in Digital Marketing Transformation, which she has become an expert in since joining Nestlé. This was a major aspect which drew her to the role at Nestlé ESAR, as it would challenge her and provide her with the opportunity to take her career to the next level.

“Coming from an FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) background, this was the first organisation where I felt that digital transformation and the development of data and technology as an integral part of marketing was really being embedded. Nestle is really driving a step change in digital marketing that will leapfrog other FMCG markets,” Njongwe says.

As much as Nestlé ESAR’s goal is to ensure sustainable profitable growth another major aspect of their existence is providing hope and assistance to the world at large and those who need it most and this matters as business has to play its role solving society’s issues.

“Something which I feel passionately about is how to use marketing for drive societal change. This is how we use marketing to build brands that deliver to communities and to the planet; shaping the future of the world we want to see ” she explains.

“As I reflect on my career so far, this has become a meaningful area that I want to tell my children when I am old and fabulous. It is not just about business profitability in isolation, it is really about what you are going to leave as your legacy when you reach the end game. We are driving change for now and for generations to come through great nutrition at scale, better connected consumer experiences and of course, growing and unleashing the power of our people.”

Marketing for good

Global brands naturally have global campaigns, and many of them are powerful, moving and often enduring. But it is when they reflect awareness of the uniqueness of the local market that global brands demonstrate their awareness and respect for a diverse global marketplace. This reinforces the need for marketers to always weigh in the role of context in making decisions about where and how they run their campaigns.

The juggling that is experienced by those who manage global brands in local markets becomes even more demanding in the African context where we have so many diverse complexities from race, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation challenges among many others. Those who’ve ever travelled across Africa are well aware of how representation of gender stereotypes can change across different African markets. As marketers operating in a nominally global marketplace, we need to always remain alert to nuance and context to not just reflect our world but also shape it through the power of our collective influence. Because in this way we can delight our audiences, create discussions and transformation with reduced risk for offending them unintentionally.

As marketers we have the power to normalize equality in the way we portray our communities and consumers in the markets in which we live. This is not a mind-blowing revelation so much as it is a deep acknowledgement of the role I have played in entrenching stereotypes in my career in the past. As I have entered different stages in my life, I have discovered the deeply held notions of inequality, stereotypes and biases in the communication and advertising space that I have embarrassingly been a part off. So being externally attentive and responsive is critical in ensuring we are driving creativity strong narratives that deliver business growth.

“We leverage many of our partnerships in order to help us to do that. When I say partnerships, I am talking about our agencies, internal staff members, and the ecosystems we’ve developed around our innovation hubs. We use all of the power of that knowledge to help us drive behaviour changes and keep our finger on the pulse.”

‘When we make mistakes, we own them, and course correct quickly with a strong internal locus of control. ‘

Nestle ESAR’s African footprint

A big part of the appeal of Nestle ESAR role for Njongwe was that she would be able to experience more of Africa. She explains: ”I think my passion for Africa has come from a realisation that while I want my family to know that South Africa is our home, I also want them to explore the rich continent in which we live. I wanted to expose my family to the African narrative, African story, and the diversity of our thinking and richness of our culture.

What we require as a continent is more and more people to step up and afford its people the chance to create something much bigger than themselves and for all of us to realise we share a common humanity and desire to be our best selves.

She says: ”I’ve discovered that Africa is a very innovative continent which is constantly striving for development, growth, and differentiation. I have found as Africans we are very creative and very innovative, so that’s cemented my love for growing that African story through my own profession.

“However, there are misconceptions which can be damaging. As I have lived in other countries, so I have been exposed to how the African narrative has been one sided. I think that as senior leaders of African businesses, ours is an important role to be able to balance and counterbalance those stories with the real narrative of why Africa matters and its role in shaping the future of the world. It’s time for our people, brands, consumers, stakeholders, communities, and children to see that reflected accurately in how we go about telling our business stories, our portfolio stories, and our brand stories.”

Moreover, Njongwe believes that marketers like herself have a responsibility to society to drive home the importance of diversity in the modern era. The sad reality is that before the dawn of democracy, the majority of South Africans were starved of representation—and that needs to change now.

“Growing up in the 80s, seeing representation of people who look like me in work that was aspirational was rare. As time has progressed, whether you are looking across diversity of race or of thinking or of gender or of sexual orientation, us marketers have a big role to play to ensure that we drive that diversity of acceptance in Africa,” she asserts.

“Marketing plays a role in that because we reflect society and we reflect what people think of themselves.

“So that narrative of seeing diverse African people in all their glory in marketing work is not just about selling the business and selling the brand, but it is also about representation and ensuring that our communities can see themselves through the eyes of the brands that we build and consume here. I think that has been a very, very important part of my own personal aspiration when we talk about legacy work.”

Can woman have it all?

The plight of women in business is a discussion which sadly never falls off the societal discourse. With women making up less than approx. 25% of senior management in South Africa, there is clearly still significant work to be done.

For Njongwe, she has found that trying to manage the demands of her role as a mother is the only way to achieve that balance, as chaos away from work does little for your performance in the office. However, her management strategy may look a little different to the norm.

She explains: “A lot of women can relate to the management aspect because we carry a disproportionate amount of responsibility at home. When you get to a middle to senior level—and I am sure other women will articulate it in other parts of their careers—it is difficult to manage the demands of the role together with the demands of a growing family’.

“So, for me, it is about negotiation with the people in my life around when I need to deep dive into work commitments and when you can come back into a place of equilibrium with my personal life. I think the moment I stopped searching for a work-life balance and I started searching for how I could negotiate the requirements of my life at different points, the better my perspective became.”

This is where support structures come into play. Luckily for Njongwe, she has people she is able to lean on when she needs to deep dive into her work.

“I have fantastic support form Lerato, my amazing home executive and in truth my life would be a mess without her. Our home executives are under recognised at times, when we tell our stories and that needs to change. My family also plays a pivotal role in ensuring they shore me up in times of intense load.’

Nestle ESAR’-The Good Food, Good Life philosophy

As previously mentioned, Nestlé ESAR are big proponents of driving representation of women as we walk the talk

Njongwe reveals that the empowerment of women is highlighted in various ways at Nestlé ESAR; a conducive working environment for the inclusion of women, a crèche on site, and flexible working policies, extended maternity leave, strong succession planning on our top talent among others

“We have policies that support the growth of women which ensure that they can come to work and give the best of themselves. We’ve also had a representative executive. When it comes to conversations around succession planning, talent management, coaching and development, we are very much focused on growing female leadership and having the tough conversations around our challenges’ she says.

“This extends to our procurement of services where we drive female representation across our value chain from agencies, suppliers and marketing campaigns. Another interesting aspect is Nestlé ESAR’s Gender Affinity Network. This network is made up of a group of employees who advise senior management as a ‘junior executive board’ on any and all gender issues affecting employees.

“This means that we are listening to people at all levels of our business in order to make sure that our initiatives are right and to ensure focus on creating an inclusive culture,” Njongwe, who is a Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) council member, explains.

“We also have a strong mentorship programme. It is not just for women; it is accessible across the board for middle management. This is where we sit and talk about the stuff you don’t learn in a business school; how to grow careers, how to build confidence in yourself, how to sell yourself, and how to make or build your own brand.

“It has proved to be hugely beneficial,” she concludes.

In terms of what Nestlé’ ESAR does for communities, they form part of the Alliance for Global Youth Initiative. Together with a number of their business partners, Nestlé’ ESAR drives the support and mentorship of young people who are in need of employment. This entails the upskilling of youth across the board and graduate programmes where graduates can garner work experience, with the chance of earning full-time employment an added bonus.

“We have also had a number of sustainability initiatives focused on our 4 key pillars of reducing our carbon footprint, improving sustainable packaging, driving responsible sourcing and caring for water. We look at how our portfolio of brands can reduce our carbon footprint and create a positive societal and environmental impact. For example, there’s a great youth start-up in Tembisa called Kudoti who have a recycling programme for plastics. Given that this is one of our key initiatives, we have partnered with them to ensure that we are helping them to drive recycling of plastics which helps us reduce waste to our landfills in line with our purpose. We are doing it for the planet, but it is also helping to create employment through our third-party partnerships and live our brands and company purpose.”

Indeed leaving the world and the businesses we work for in a better place than when we arrived is mantra we should all continue to strive for.

Zumi Njongwe’s message for dealing with bad press

“Not all press is good press. In all the businesses I have worked in, our intention is always the best intention, but when you do err, one of the things you must do very quickly is acknowledge the error and then communicate with authenticity to remain credible. The second the issue occurs; you must diagnose the issue and work collaboratively as cross-functional teams to resolve the problem. Once the root cause is found, you must improve the message. This is done using the principles and value system of authenticity and respect.”

Five key dates in Nestlé’s South African journey

In 1872, the first Nestlé products arrived in South Africa.

In 1916, Nestlé was formally registered as a company in the country.

In 1927, local production of Nestlé products commenced following the purchase of the South African Condensed Milk Company factory in Donnybrook and the Estcourt and Franklin factories of Joseph Baynes Limited.

In 1937, condensed milk and milk powders such as Nespray began to be manufactured in Standerton.

In 1975, Nestlé’s head office moved from downtown Johannesburg to Randburg.

By Editor