The Network Effects of Women in Green Infrastructure

May 13, 2024

In the Maldives, an archipelago of over 1000 islands, the ocean is part of the everyday landscape and at the heart of everything you do. In this episode, we chat with senior team members of Dhiraagu, the country’s leading telecom company, who are ensuring that women are a valuable part of the work they do in spreading network connectivity across this island nation.

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The Green and Equal South Asia podcast powered by ACSIIS, a partnership between the European Union and the International Finance Corporation. 

Shalaka Joshi: Hello, and welcome to the second episode of the Green and Equal South Asia podcast from the International Finance Corporation. I'm your host Shalaka Joshi, and this is where we talk about IFC’s work in solving the twin challenges of gender inequality and climate change. 

IFC is a member of the World Bank Group and is the largest global development institution that is focused exclusively on the private sector in developing countries. 

As countries around the world put in place policies and incentives to stave off the climate crisis, the private sector has an unparalleled opportunity to ensure green growth across complex industries like transport, infrastructure, manufacturing and energy. At IFC, we find ways to center both gender equality and climate resilience in our investments in South Asia. 

Shalaka: Today, I'm in bright and beautiful Maldives. A little outside the building where I am, the waves of the Indian Ocean are rippling in the mid-day sun. When you live and work in the Maldives, the ocean is part of your everyday landscape and at the heart of everything you do. The Maldives, an archipelago of over 1000 islands, is one of the lowest lying countries in the world. Because of how it is situated, Maldivians are greatly affected by climate change, including adverse weather events, severe erosion, destruction of coastal infrastructure, and of course, the ever-present threat of rising sea levels. In the background of these challenges, we bring you a story about climate resilience and gender equality from a Maldivian company that IFC has invested in.

My guests today are from Dhivehi Raajjeyge Gulhun, more popularly known by its acronym Dhiraagu. Dhiraagu is the largest telecom company in this island nation doing the crucial work of bringing high-speed internet to Maldivian homes. With me today are Ismail Rasheed, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at Dhiraagu, and Hazrath Rasheed Hussain, Director - Legal and Company Secretary, who leads the legal regulatory and Corporate Services functions. Ismail and Hazrath, thank you so much for joining me today. 

Ismail Rasheed: Thank you very much. Thank you, it is a pleasure to talk to you.

Hazrath Rasheed Hussain: Thank you. It's an absolute pleasure. And thank you for having us.

Shalaka: We recognize that Dhiraagu, and you both in particular, have taken on impressive commitments on development impact, particularly to further gender equality. And I'd love to know more about your motivation for this. As CEO of the company, Ismail, I think our listeners would love to learn from you about the why, what made you recognize gender as one of the key focus areas you want Dhiraagu to improve its metrics on... can you tell us a little bit more about the commitments that the company has made?

Ismail: We are a company that makes products and services to serve customers. You know, almost 50 percent of our population are women. And I also understand that 80 percent of the buying decisions are being made by women. So, there’s a business case for having more women’s participation in making those products and services right. Besides that alone, we have always believed it's crucial for women to have equal participation in the company. We have made no differentiation as to who can do what in Dhiraagu. Anybody can apply for any job and our recruitment policies, and all our internal policies, are designed for everyone, it doesn't make any differentiation.

We work very hard to ensure a safe working place for everyone. A safe and comfortable working place, especially for women; it is a priority to make sure that any difficulties they have in developing their ideas are removed. That is why some time ago, we established a women’s empowerment committee because we saw that some of the women who started working in Dhiraagu, had to leave early in their careers, because they were trying to start a family. Since this was happening, we formed a women's empowerment committee, and we tasked them to come up with actions so that we can remove any barriers to further the careers of female staff. And we have got a lot of good actions that came out of that which we have implemented. And I'm very pleased with the support that IFC is giving in terms of the consultancy on how we can further improve those actions. We have predominantly women, the ratio of women is much higher than men in many areas. So overall, in the company, more than 30 percent of our workforce is female, we would like to be more; and 25 percent of our managerial, including the junior managers and the middle management, 25 percent are female staff. So, we’d like to, again, bring more awareness to that as well. 

Shalaka: Indeed. And of course, IFC and Dhiraagu are working together to move that needle up, and I'm wondering Hazrath whether you'd like to come in on some of the very ambitious gender targets and gender commitments that Dhiraagu has taken on, on gender.

Hazrath: Like you said, they are very ambitious, especially because of the sector that we work in, in ICT (information and communications technology). Women in ICT are quite low even globally. So, it is a very ambitious endeavor, which we have agreed to. I think I wanted to touch on what Ismail was saying that the women's empowerment committee was looking at the actual issues women face at the workplace. And one thing which we did before our engagement with IFC and coming up with a Gender Action Plan, was setting up a mother's room here in Dhiraagu. So, this was one thing which we found new mothers were saying that they were having difficulty coming back to work and making that decision. So, we were the first company in Maldives to have a mother’s room on site. And we've seen other businesses and the government also follow this example. 

Having had this opportunity to work with IFC on a Gender Action Plan, we've been able to systematically look at things like the number of women we have in junior management, and what we can do to further help people achieve their management statuses. And we've looked at the succession planning processes. So, it's been a really eye-opening experience for us to actually look at operations and HR through a gender lens. Another important piece of work which we're doing is a flexible working policy as well as the returnship guideline, where we're looking at returning to work not only for women, but also as well for men who have taken career breaks.

Shalaka: IFC is honored to be partners with Dhiraagu in your journey towards achieving gender diversity. So, you've worked very closely with us in deciding which gender equality targets to set and how to go about achieving them. And we're very excited about the gains you've made so far and eager to continue to support you on your ambitious journey. Now, since this is the Green and Equal podcast, I'm going to shift gears a little bit and talk about the many initiatives that you are taking directly on climate and sustainability. 

The Maldives has been at the very forefront of the global fight against climate change. And this is the right moment to showcase what good adaptation and resilience practices can look like. As one of the foremost companies in the country, can you tell us about how Dhiraagu preserves biodiversity? How do you inculcate adaptation practices, even as you're developing technology, laying undersea cables, etc.? 

Ismail: Yes, that’s a good question because protecting the environment is one of the topmost priorities for any country. But why it becomes so important for the Maldives is because our tourism is basically dependent on clean beaches, and nice reefs and clear water and the beauty of the underwater world, right? So, in order to protect that, we have to make sure that we are conscious of our environment. We will look at it from a green point of view. Essentially, I think the biggest investment we have made would be on renewable energy. There was a necessity in the beginning, because there was no power in some of the islands then and the only way we could actually power our network was through solar so, by design, we have a large, I would argue the largest footprint of (solar power) in the country. And we continue to invest more on renewable energy. We now have commercial power in every island and the need, the load, or the power generation to cover it also has increased because our network has increased, the number of services we give has increased, the number of customers has increased as well. So, this becomes a very, very important area, not only for reducing costs, but also for us to reduce carbon emissions.

We want to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels as well. So, one of the key things we are doing is continuously investing in renewable energy; currently about 16 percent of our full load is on renewable energy. And we have net metering in some of the islands where we are feeding into the grid and sharing that with electricity providers. So, the second thing, obviously, we are doing is to make sure that our operations, whether it is air conditioning, gas use or other material use, we are consciously making sure that we avoid using things that are harmful for the environment. And whenever we go into a project, we make sure that we check those parameters to ensure that they have the least environmental impact to run the operation. To set an example to (other) corporates, we led the way in reducing single-use plastic within the company. So, we set an example in championing single-use plastic reduction in the country. More things are being done, I think, maybe Hazrath can add on. 

Hazrath: A lot of things which we have been doing, we've been doing, since maybe 20-odd years out of necessity, or because it made business sense. And through this exercise where we've worked with IFC, we've looked at ourselves, and we've been able to set up an environment social management system within the company. We've started to screen our projects and look at the environmental impact that we would have on this project. So that has been a key thing which has come through this exercise. Another great initiative, I think, which we're doing now is having a contractor management system, where we are looking at who we contract with and whether they have fair labor practices. Given the size (Dhiraagu is), it's easier for us to actually ensure that people who work with us have fair and good working conditions.

Ismail: Yeah, I think one of the recent projects that we have done, we did it together with UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) on Drones for Resilience, which is for mapping the coastal area. We did it as a pilot initiative; we are going to do more islands, hopefully in the future. We selected one atoll in the southernmost region and we did a mapping of the coastal areas, to see what the impact of erosion has been, what the effect of climate change has been there. We are going back to do this and have this mapping available so that communities can, first of all, be aware of what changes are happening. And secondly, those authorities can when they go and do projects, when they make decisions, they have important data, to both build infrastructure as well as protect the environment. So that's a project we did with UNDP.

Hazrath: So, Drones for Resilience is an example of where technology's actually helping governments and communities develop better evidence-based climate action plans.

Shalaka: You're listening to the Green and Equal South Asia podcast, powered by ACSIIS. ACSIIS is short for Accelerating Climate Smart and Inclusive Infrastructure in South Asia, a partnership between the European Union and IFC. It is a five-year program that runs until 2026 and helps spur investments in energy, water, waste management, transport, logistics and green buildings. The goal of this partnership is to benefit people and businesses across Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Altogether, ACSIIS will leverage over $850 million of private sector investments across the South Asia region.

Shalaka: Hazrath, as a Maldivian woman in a senior leadership role, when you look at your peers or women graduating from university now, what advice would you give them? For working women who want to grow into leadership roles, is there career advice that you'd like to share?

Hazrath: The lack of women in leadership has nothing to do with ambition or talent. I think the real barrier that women face in the Maldives, and other places I’d assume, is biases. So, I think the best advice I could give is based on my own experience. And it is to take up every opportunity you get for growth, for further educating yourself, and upskilling your skill set; these are things that you yourself can control. And then also advocating for yourself. Sometimes it's not a very easy thing to negotiate on what you're being offered or your working conditions, but always remember to be an advocate for yourself. And then finally, I think you should also look at examining any internal biases that you might have, and also being an ally for and mentor for other women who are coming up through their career path. 

Shalaka: That's beautifully said. And staying with the theme of inspiration, Ismail, who or what inspires you? 

Ismail: Okay, so I think my inspiration is the vision and the purpose we have for the company, which is to enrich lives. And this is the reason why I come to office every day. And I believe my team comes to office every day as well. We try to get everybody around this purpose. This is actually greater than all of us. Because this is about the country, this is about helping other communities and, through example, we have shown that with our work, we have seen how we have actually helped and been a catalyst for the development of the country. And we see that happening today even, whenever we go to a new island, and provide fiber to the home, and provide the service, on that island, we see the economy of that island prosper. So that's what drives us and that's just the inspiration and the motivation behind what I do, and I believe what my team does. 

Shalaka: Hazrath, pan out a few years into the future, you have been granted three wishes that will come true for the Maldives. What are they?  

Hazrath: More women on boards, more women in management. That's one wish. More women in ICT, more girls being brought up with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, and more parents understanding the importance of having girls in STEM. So that's again, one wish. And as the third thing, I think more accountability for suppliers and understanding how vulnerable we are in the Maldives. So, understanding the climate impact when it comes to suppliers.

Shalaka: That's well said, and I like how you snuck in many wishes under the umbrella of three. 

Hazrath: I'm a lawyer! 

Shalaka: Thank you so much, Hazrath and Ismail. It's been such a pleasure chatting with you and it is a privilege to work with you and the Dhiraagu team. We're very excited to see all the new initiatives play out and my team and I hope to continue to share your story globally to inspire other companies and other countries to learn from your championship with climate and gender. 

Ismail: Can I also say thank you for your support, for IFC’s support, in helping us with these important policies that will actually bring better gender balance into the company.

Shalaka: Thank you for joining us here on the second episode of the Green and Equal South Asia podcast. This was a summary of the twin challenges of climate vulnerability and gender gaps in the Maldives and how the country's leading telecom company Dhiraagu is working hand-in-hand with IFC to meet them. 

You can learn more about IFC’s work by heading to our website or on the social media channel X @WBG_Gender. You can also listen to previous episodes of this podcast on our website and on your favorite podcast platform.

Until next time, this is me, Shalaka Joshi, signing off.

The Green and Equal South Asia Podcast is powered by ACSIIS, a partnership between the European Union and the International Finance Corporation. This series is produced by Tanya Thomas for IFC, in association with Timbre Media, Bengaluru.