Savina Harrilall: championing purpose-driven HR leadership at Mukuru


My ultimate aim is to find ways to harness and celebrate the potential inherent in our people, says Savina

Savina Harrilall, the chief people officer at Mukuru, is a seasoned professional who embodies the evolving role of CHROs in today's business landscape.

Savina’s journey into the field of HR was not a predetermined path, but rather a discovery born out of circumstance and a desire to make a meaningful impact.

“For my undergraduate degree, I majored in psychology and law: psychology because it was what I wanted and law because it was what my dad wanted. At the end of my degree, the lack of funding to continue my postgraduate studies resulted in me seeking employment to save up. I got a bursary to study a short course, and I selected HR, which seemed like a good mix of people, processes, and policies, and still aligned with my degree.”

Her first role in HR was as a training coordinator, then in HR administration, before she moved to a generalist role, and later became a consultant. It was during these roles that she discovered that unleashing the potential in people and helping them deliver, energised and inspired her.

“I also enjoyed analysing, diagnosing, and implementing interventions that resulted in mutual benefit – for both people and the organisation. In the early years, I worked in the manufacturing and petrochemical industries and thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the semi- and unskilled workforce. It was humbling, and I think I deposited it into my empathy bank.

“It contributed to my resolve to make a people’s impact in the workplace, where they spend a large portion of their lives. In retrospect, if I had received funding to study immediately after my undergraduate degree, I may have been a clinical psychologist or a lawyer. I still think that HR would have found me eventually though!”

Navigating HR

Savina joined Mukhuru in April 2022 and so far she is relishing every single moment that comes with being part of one of the largest money transfer providers in Africa.

“A year and a half in, I can truly vouch for Mukuru as a purpose-led business. My ultimate aim is to find ways to harness and celebrate the potential inherent in our people to deliver business outcomes so that we (our people, our customers, and our business) can flourish.”
She adds that she was astounded by the work Mukuru did and the impact that they had had on helping the people she had engaged with, to achieve their dream of maintaining financial support for their families back home.

“Listening to people’s stories pulled at my heartstrings and I decided, before I had the interview, that this was the place I would love to call home because of its purpose and aim of wanting to serve the financially excluded and marginalised people across Africa.”

Before joining Mukuru she was the chief people officer at SA Taxi as well as a human capital executive at Momentum.

She earmarks implementing HR information systems in a business that had no system and introducing metrics and dashboards to reflect people’s data, aligning to the business outcomes as one of her career highlights. “I also implemented processes to reduce cost pressure on business by leveraging grants and improving reporting capability. Across most of the organisations, this resulted in a minimum 95% improvement in funding received for developmental programmes that did not have to be funded by the organisation.”

She, however, acknowledges that managing the expectation, that as an experienced human capital professional one can simply copy and paste the same solution into a different environment is a challenge that she often faces. “Context matters and solutions must be contextually relevant. Oftentimes, even though the answer or solution is obvious, ensuring that the timing is appropriate can determine success or failure,” she says. “I shudder to think of doing something as a tick-box exercise or showing a list of items that have been done without demonstrating to the business the value that has emanated as a result.

“We should not copy and paste international solutions to local challenges. One of the aspects that we must absolutely do instead of blindly following others, is to ensure that the solutions we need are those that solve challenges or give us the outcome we desire for our people, and our business. Sometimes we need to lead the charge so others follow because Africans know Africa best!”

Attracting and retaining skilled talent remains a major challenge across many industries in Africa, she says. “Human capital often faces difficulties in sourcing and acquiring qualified individuals due to skill gaps, competition, and brain drain. To mitigate this, we consider localised talent development strategies, which serve the outcome of addressing skills shortages, developing talent pools, promoting career growth, and ultimately contributing to the socio-economic environment.

“Within our African continent, there is a hunger to learn, be skilled, upskilled, and reskilled. We also partner with our CSI team to offer bursaries and internships to the children of our employees and students who meet certain criteria.”

She adds that within the backdrop of varying labour laws and regulations across different African countries, ensuring compliance becomes a real challenge for people managers within the African context.

“Staying updated with local labour laws, managing employment contracts, handling payroll, and addressing employee grievances requires a deep understanding of the legal landscape. We mitigate this as a multi-national human capital team, and closely partner with our legal and compliance teams. Additionally, the continuous upskilling of our leaders on labour law and regulations, ensures that the responsibility is shared with the HC team. The formation of partnerships with local legal experts also aids this.

“A key necessity for us is ensuring that our group-wide policies and procedures are aligned with the local labour laws in each of our operating territories. We aim for an inclusive, all-encompassing approach, with enough flexibility that allows for amendments, as they become relevant.”

Savina adds that although employee engagement is a universal challenge, it can be particularly pronounced in Africa due to factors such as limited resources, infrastructure gaps, and socioeconomic disparities. “Within the people function, it necessitates the implementation of strategies that promote employee engagement, job satisfaction, organisation commitment, and citizenship behaviours and well-being. This requires an inclusive approach, like the one taken at Mukuru,” she says, “where we elicit and value the voice of our employees.

“We recognise that our employees can choose to work in another organisation but choose to stay with us. Our employee feedback loops, and data mining from a variety of sources, allow us to identify areas for improving barriers to engagement.”

Beyond HR

Outside of her role as CPO, Savina finds purpose in her gratitude for life and her desire to be an inspiration to her children and those around her. Her life mantra is about never giving up and digging deeper when challenges arise.

“My mantra is: ‘never give up, and when you think that you have nothing else to give, reach a little deeper’. The human spirit is amazing. This has helped me realise how much resilience I have. Linked to this is taking accountability for what you can control and what you cannot control, relying on hope, and living in faith that it will all work out.”

In her downtime, she enjoys watching Formula 1, travelling, and spending quality time with her family.

“I have been a Lewis Hamilton fan since he entered F1 as the underdog. I also enjoy watching the talents of the rookies and younger drivers entering the scene develop. Weirdly, even my downtime is about talent. We have been to three F1 races already.”

Currently pursuing her PhD in the field of incivility and civility in financial services, Savina continues to be a lifelong learner, a quality she encourages in her team.

Her advice to young professionals aspiring to have a career like hers is to never underestimate any experience, surround themselves with knowledgeable mentors, and continuously strive for excellence in all endeavours, “No matter what you do, autograph your work with excellence!”

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