Q&A with Abigail Aruna |  Women in WASH Leadership Series

Abigail Aruna, Head of Operations of Clean Team Ghana Limited and a ROCKBlue mentor, provides insight into her background and experiences as a women in WASH.


Describe your educational background and how it has advanced your career.

My first degree is in geography and rural development from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. I taught in a secondary school after my national service and had my first job with Zoomlion Ghana Limited, where I was in charge of solid waste management from 2010-2011. Then I joined Clean Team Ghana Limited in 2012 – a project that provided household toilets for the urban poor in Kumasi. In addition, I did a Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety Management which enabled me to build a sound health and safety culture within the team. After working for about five years in building Clean Team’s operations team I obtained my MSc in Logistics and Supply Chain Management, which enabled me to manage Clean Team’s value chain more efficiently. 

Finally, I recently completed the Mandela Washington Fellowship Institute for leadership in business courses with Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Why did you choose to work in the WASH field especially in developing countries?

The WASH sector, especially sanitation, has been neglected for a long time even though it is a basic human right. People often have to find ingenious ways to respond to nature’s call. I have experienced this personally during the early stages of my life and it is very degrading. Moreover, it is unsafe. Other than polluting the environment and causing diseases, it also strips people of their dignity. The direct impact my work has on people’s lives is the preservation of dignity of men and women.   This is the satisfaction I derive from the work I do.  


Did you have a role model who guided you, and if so, what advice have you received from them that you still apply today?

I have had quite a number of role models who have helped shape my life personally and professionally. 

My first role model has been my mother. She is a strong woman with so many talents. A workaholic who is never afraid to take on challenges. She always excelled in her work. These are strong attributes which she instilled in me.

My second role model is my former CEO (Valerie Labi), she challenged me to do my best and to think outside the box. She had so much faith in me and helped me believe in myself. She advised me to always leave something that would be remembered. 

Lastly, Kelvin Hughes – my current CEO – has been my biggest cheerleader, mentor and role model. He has taught me to always ask thought-provoking questions that will enable me to understand situations better. He also taught me to lead with empathy and emotional intelligence.


Please share more about your work experience.

My first job was with Zoomlion Ghana Limited, a solid waste management company. I was in charge of managing operations in the Ashanti Mampong Municipality, from 2010 to 2011. 

I then joined Clean Team Ghana Limited, a social enterprise organization that provides household toilets for the urban poor, in Kumasi. My work experience spans operations management, production and health & safety management, within the sanitation industry. My research interests include building efficient systems within organizations and investigating potential bottlenecks that contribute to operational cost overruns, while ensuring a safe and healthy working environment. Over the past eight years (now as  Head of Operations), I have contributed to the operational excellence of one of the most innovative companies in Ghana: Clean Team Ghana. I’ve worked at streamlining activities of Clean Team Ghana to meet both financial and operational targets set by management. But even within this role, the demands have shifted significantly. For example, from managing a team of five to a team of over 30, and from managing a basic door-to-door waste collection service using hand carts to a complex transport system with over 15 tuk-tuks (tricycles) one truck, one tractor and four trailers for transport of waste containers to our waste processing site. I also had the responsibility to build the team culture and ethics from scratch, maintaining and evolving it appropriately. I have worked on different models across different sites and at different levels of scale, as the business needs evolved.  


Describe your journey towards senior management.

Working at a startup has been a great part of my journey towards senior management. This is because it offered me the opportunity to experience all sides of the business. I have to find innovative ways to resolve daily challenges as we are pioneers in providing large scale container-based sanitation to the urban poor.  I have developed my experience and skills within this period through hard work, commitment to duty and the preparedness to always go the extra mile. These attributes increased my impact and influence at Clean Team Ghana Limited, over the years, and gave me the opportunity to build my experience really fast. 


How would you describe your journey as being different from your male colleagues?

I think the difference in my journey from that of my male colleagues lies in the fact that I have had to work harder to prove myself. I also feel that pregnancy, childbirth and childcare has reduced the rate at which I progressed in my role. For example, I had the opportunity to act as CEO when my first CEO went on maternity leave. This was a good opportunity for me to prove to the BOD that I could lead the organization. But I could not perform to the best of my ability because I was also pregnant at the time and was sick and too weak to take on the challenge. 


What have been the most significant challenges and/or obstacles on this journey and how have you dealt with them?

My most significant challenge in getting to senior management has been in developing myself and staying relevant within the business. The needs of a startup company change really fast and positioning yourself in a way that makes you relevant can be very challenging. I joined Clean Team as a Project Coordinator, but for the past eight years my role has changed several times. Within this period, I have taken on several additional roles such as HR officer, Health and Safety Officer, and so on. These roles helped me to improve my understanding of Clean Team’s business model. I also had challenges with people’s perception about working in the water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector and the stigma attached to it. I initially had a difficult time explaining my job or profession to my peers, because they either did not understand my work or thought it was disgusting. 

I always had an objective of working smart, so that Clean Team would succeed. Simultaneously, to also provide jobs for many people and a sanitation option for those who needed it the most. Thus, I prepared myself to not be bothered by people’s perception about the nature of my job, but to concentrate on the positive impacts my work has on the lives of people. This is also what I emphasize on when explaining what I do.  I believe that my resolve and passion have changed perceptions both within the business and internationally. I watch people’s perceptions change from disdain to appreciation when they see me (together with my team) in my overalls,  doing door-to-door waste collecting.


Which of your challenges were unique because you are female?

My responsibilities as a mother makes my work role more challenging than that of my male counterparts. This is due to cultural expectations, such as childcare, cooking, and cleaning. This puts an extra strain on my time and energy for work.  As a female, I had to work harder to win my team’s trust and commitment and to prove my competence, as the WASH sector is mostly perceived to be a ‘man’s job’. 


What has been your professional experience with male colleagues and how have they supported you or blocked your progress?

My male colleagues have been very supportive and helpful. They give me advice, suggestions and insights that enhance my work. They also value my insights and suggestions and we share mutual respect for each other.  They have not blocked my progress in any way — they have rather enhanced it. 

I believe, men can support women’s rise in their chosen professions by valuing their inputs and insights, as this gives women confidence to give their best efforts and believe in themselves. 


Please share how women have negatively impacted your career, if any, and how you navigate adversarial relationships with female colleagues?

I have had a mutually understanding and supportive relationship with the women I have worked with so far. Thus, we complement one another. 

I have learnt over time to appreciate and be empathetic of the challenges female colleagues face and to respect and treat them as I would want to be treated. I try to reach out to female colleagues when I note that they may be experiencing challenges. In order to provide them with the needed support.


What are the personal characteristics or skills that are vital to becoming a successful leader?

Emotional intelligence as well as people-centeredness are vital skills in becoming a successful leader. These skills are essential in understanding the people you lead, and also aid in developing policies and procedures that make staff welfare a priority. People-centeredness is also important in keeping people engaged and committed to their work. Additionally, being truthful and trustworthy are very essential as your team needs to know that they can rely on you to execute the things you say you will to a high quality. I think getting the best out of people you lead through encouragement, motivation, and education as well as offering them the opportunity to realize their potential, is also crucial.  

For example, I am very intentional in motivating my team by pushing a little hard to improve their welfare needs – especially during this COVID-19 era. I sometimes also invite my team to my house to celebrate special occasions such as Christmas.


Are there ways in which being a mother has enriched your journey to senior management, and ways in which your professional career may have enriched your parenting?

It is very challenging. This is especially so when your children are very young and often fall sick. I remember feeling guilty anytime I had to ask my CEO for days off to take care of my sick son. He was very understanding and empathetic and would always give me time off without complaining. But I usually felt as though I was not being efficient at work. However, I put in the extra effort and time to complete my tasks when necessary. Sometimes I also feel like I am not paying enough attention to my family, because I cannot spend enough time with them as I would want to due to work commitments. Striking that work-life balance is not easy. But I get around it by making good use of the time I spend with family, especially over the weekend. For instance, I usually avoid opening my laptop at home in the evenings and weekends unless it is absolutely necessary. This enables me to spend quality time with my family. My guiding principle is “Do not carry work home or carry home to work.” So, I make sure I am fully present at work unless there is an emergency at home.

I guess being a mother made me more empathetic to the challenges women and men face, especially in managing work and family and to make decisions that would help them keep a good work-family balance. My professional career helped me become a good listener and emotionally intelligent. This helps me resolve issues at home with the kids easily.


What do you believe are organizational structures or improvements that would make the work-life balancing easier for women? 

I think it’s important to create a culture of equity where everyone’s efforts, whether male or female, are given the recognition due, everyone’s views are valued and all are given equal opportunity to excel. I also think that programs should be put in place to support women especially during the pregnancy and lactating period, to take care of themselves and their babies. Some of these programs could include removing them from hazardous work environments, giving them the flexibility to work from home if that is possible, and creating a nursery to take care of their babies while they work. This would go a long way to give women the peace of mind they need to excel in their work.


Research has shown us that there are numerous benefits from having women in leadership positions. Do you think the same holds true for the urban WASH field? 

Yes, I think there are numerous benefits from having women in leadership and more so in the urban WASH field. This is because women have more practical knowledge about managing WASH. They manage most WASH issues at home and are the ones most affected by WASH issues. 


What are some of your greatest accomplishments (whether personally or professionally)?

Some of my greatest accomplishments include:

  • Growing Clean Team’s operations from 20 customers to over 3,000 customers and providing a safe sanitation option for over 15,000 people.
  • Establishing a Welfare Fund for the operations team, which provides emergency funds when they need it the most. 
  • Completing my MSc in Logistics and Supply Chain Management, whilst working and managing a young family.
  • Completing the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders
  • Being offered the position of CEO of Clean Team Ghana Limited – effective November 1, 202


Do you have any personal or professional goals that you are currently trying to achieve?

Currently, my greatest goal is to lead Clean Team Ghana into becoming a sustainable and profitable business. I am also keen on finding ways to add value to the waste which we collect, by converting it into compost or any other useful resource.


How do you manage stress – are there specific coping strategies that you use?

I usually manage stress by, firstly, acknowledging that I am stressed and then I try to find out exactly what is stressing me. When I am able to identify it, I find ways to deal with it or ask for help if I cannot handle it by myself. Sometimes I listen to music so I can stay focused on the present instead of ‘staying in the stress’. I also talk to my colleagues or spouse about the issues that are worrying me and receive their feedback and suggestions as to how to manage the situation. Sometimes just talking about what stresses me is relieving and gives me ideas of ways to resolve those stressful situations. 


What are some ways you manage time?

I keep a to-do list, which helps me stay focused and prioritize my work. I am also learning to say no to other tasks when I already have a lot of work to do. I delegate some of the tasks to my subordinates as a way of building their capacity to grow in their roles. 


 What are some activities you participate in outside of work – what do you like to do for fun?

I play volleyball and some indoor games like Monopoly, with my family. I also enjoy watching movies, reading and listening to music. 


What is your advice to young women who feel overlooked/passed by/sexually harassed in their career?

Being overlooked and passed by is bad and needs to be dealt with. I would advise any young woman who feels overlooked or passed by to prove their cynics wrong by working hard and giving them no reason to doubt your competence. Seek the appropriate redress by reporting your grievances through the right channel. 

If any young woman is being sexually harassed, do not tolerate it and report it immediately to Human Resources. If the issue is not handled to your satisfaction as demanded by law, seek redress and keep pushing until you get the right response. This can be very difficult, but remember that by fighting against sexual harassment in your work place you are making it safer for other women as well.

Additionally, remember that working in the WASH sector is not glamorous, but rather a sector where you can make a lot of impact on the lives of many people. It is a sector that is still developing and has the ability to give you opportunities to innovate. Making it quite interesting!  If you are aiming to improve lives and reduce diseases and epidemics caused by poor sanitation, then the WASH field is for you. There is a lot of work to be done to make sure everyone has access to a safe toilet and safe drinking water.


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