A chat with HP’s Ifeyinwa Afe, managing director of Central Africa

Fresh off the stage at South Africa’s Global Citizen Festival, where seeing Oprah “made her entire year,” this millennial executive continues to rise.

By Sarah Murry — January 11, 2019

Ifeyinwa Afe never thought her corporate career would land her on the same stage as Oprah, Beyoncé, Trevor Noah and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but speaking at last month’s Global Citizen Festival turned out not only to be a personal highlight, but a high point in her career so far. At 31 years old, Afe is HP's managing director of Central Africa and the youngest managing director at HP EMEA. She moved into the post, which involves overseeing sales, logistics, financial reporting, employee engagement and human resource development, after the company split in 2015 and carved out new high-growth markets in the region. Afe is responsible for a large swath of territory, including Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Angola and Libya. “This is a huge market, because when you talk growth and development, Africa is really where you look to,” she says.

Afe in her traditional wedding gown made of coral beads, which symbolize beauty and pride in identity, took about two months to construct.

Afe in her traditional wedding gown made of coral beads, which symbolize beauty and pride in identity, took about two months to construct.

When urban planners and statisticians think of rapid urbanization  — a global megatrend that portends the skyrocketing growth of cities  — they often think of Lagos. The capital of Nigeria, Lagos’ population has swelled 100-fold in the past 30 years or so to nearly 20 million people, with some experts pegging its population at 100 million by 2100 — which would make it the world’s largest metropolis by the end of the century.

Not only is tech penetration of African countries on the rise, it’s where there are more young people than any other place in the world. By 2030, 32 percent of the population will be under the age of 30, and it will have the largest working-age population by 2035. “When we talk about capturing the millennial market and capturing Generation Z, this is where you really tap into,” Afe says. “It’s an organic opportunity here, and we're starting at the base.”

There’s an “unwritten” part of her job, too, which is being an ambassador for HP in the region, a role that “has no opening or closing times,” she explains. “I'm going into the fourth year in this role, and honestly, it feels like a new job because at every point and corner, it's always full of the right kind of surprises.”

Among those good surprises: Presenting at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 before a crowd of some 80,000 people in attendance and millions more who tuned in for the broadcast and live-stream around the world. Global Citizen is a launchpad for action with the end goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. 

“When I looked into everyone's faces just before it was my cue to speak, I knew that everyone there was going to be inspired,” she says. “Walking out that day, I felt like I was able to do justice to our mission at HP.”

HP was among the many other corporations and NGOs who collectively pledged more than $7 billion to help reduce global poverty. HP, a partner with Global Citizen since 2013, committed to reach an additional 100,000 learners across Africa over the next three years through the company's HP LIFE (Learning Initiative for Entrepreneurs) digital learning curricula, a program of the HP Foundation. This commitment supports a pledge HP made at the Global Citizen Festival in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017, to enable better learning outcomes for 100 million people by 2025.

The celeb-packed Festival, which featured performances from the likes of JAY-Z, Ed Sheeran, Eddie Vedder, Cassper Nyovest, Pharrell Williams and Chris Martin, helped Afe realize a lifelong dream of seeing one of her personal heros, Oprah. “I was overjoyed when I saw her at Global Citizen. That made my entire year.”

The Garage talked with Afe from Lagos, where she lives with her three-year-old twins and husband, who she calls her “Superman” and biggest support.

“When I looked into everyone’s faces just before it was my cue to speak, I knew that everyone there was going to be inspired.”

What was your experience like at Global Citizen?

When I stood in front of the empty stadium [at rehearsal] for the first time and I started to feel somehow, like an instrument. I felt like I was being used for something great. That’s what really gave me the courage and push to make sure my words — and the intent behind them — would be remembered by many.

Tell us about how HP’s pledge will improve education outcomes in the region.

I am extremely excited for the launch of the HP LIFE Center in South Africa. I think that's many steps closer to the people who need quality education. What follows next will be an establishment of similar centers across all the countries in Africa, and I think that will be able to help us put people in the right path, change the future of many.

Afe with her husband and twin son and daughter.

Afe with her husband and twin son and daughter.

Beyond education, what other sustainable impact initiatives are happening locally?

In Nigeria, we are in the final stages of establishing a producer-responsible organization where we can focus on e-waste management. In recycling a lot of our electronic devices, we want to make sure that we are putting them to good second-hand use and evading the dangers that are involved with people who handle these materials without the proper skills. Our ability to kick off the recycling facility as well as the organizational recycling program, that's pretty exciting for me, because e-waste is becoming even a bigger topic for us here.

What kind of kid were you?

Growing up I was incredibly reserved. You can call me an introvert. I loved reading. I loved disappearing into a fantasy world in my head.

What’s your favorite thing to do on a day off?

I do love watching movies, so you'll find me at the cinema a lot. I may not have as much time to read, so I get to watch a lot. I do love to spend time with my kids, maybe in the park or the clubhouse. I'm a bit of a food explorer, so my husband and I like to try new cuisines from different parts of the world.  I tried “bush meat” for the first time recently. It's a local kind of cuisine. It was smoked with firewood, so it was a cool way of preparing it. It was actually very tasty.

Do you collect anything?

I keep the ID badges that I have collected over the years from events and functions where I represent HP. It’s not like I'm in love with lanyards or ID cards or anything like that, it just reminds me of how far I’ve come and gives me a bit of confidence.

Who do you admire, either for personal or professional reasons?

The first would always be my mother, simply because of how strong and relentless she is. Another person I've always tried to be more like from a spiritual angle is Mother Teresa. She's really what love is, and that's what she showed all her life. Oprah is another. She's someone who I think is a can-do person. She believes she can do anything, and she believes that she's enough, and that's the kind of feeling I get from her.

If there’s one thing about running a technology business in Africa that’s different than any other part of the world, what would it be?

It's not that anything is overly particular or specific about the struggles in Africa, because we do have emerging markets across the world. However, there are some very specific setbacks and we have to live each day like they don't exist. I think that is important to know that we have very strong, focused people in Africa who are extremely proud of the company they represent.

What’s your best advice for young graduates or interns?

When I was a student, I was asked what I wanted to be in life, and I said I wanted to work in the tech industry for a multinational company. I cannot believe I literally ended up there. I always feel very close to young graduates or interns, because really, that's how my journey started at HP.

At that stage, I see a lot of vulnerability where they tend to often lean towards the impression others have of them, or what they think they need to be doing. It's important that each young person is comfortable in their own skin and thoughts. You do not need to look to people for approval before you go after what you believe in.


Follow Ifeyinwa Afe on Instagram.

Read how HP LIFE is helping to train Tunisian and Nigerian entrepreneurs.