• Wednesday, December 06, 2023
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From oil painter to the C-suite


Bob Collymore almost likes all the abuse he gets. It is a tribute, says the smiling chief executive of Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest mobile phone network, to the fact his customers have no intention of switching provider.

When he stopped unlimited data use last year, he received “offensive” messages. Some customers bombarded him on Twitter; others set up hate websites. His decision was partly to limit the scope for “hate speech” ahead of this year’s elections on March 4. “For two weeks I was spawn of the devil,” he says. “Two years ago I would have been a little bit upset about it and taken it personally. But people have short memories – I’ll move on and tomorrow I’ll be a hero.”

As head of Safaricom, which is 40 per cent owned by Vodafone of the UK, the 55-year-old leads a company seen as a national institution but that is often accused of monopolistic tendencies. Collymore uses the word “dominant” before correcting himself. “Why don’t we call it ubiquitous … I think that’s a nice word.”

For the Guyana-born Collymore, this means he is a celebrity. “They put this whole celebrity thing on me here … you don’t have a choice. I can’t imagine many corporate leaders in any other part of the world – Richard Branson maybe – who are instantly recognised,” he says.

The same was true for his predecessor, Michael Joseph, whom Collymore describes as a “benevolent dictator”. He says he was “a little more inclusive” but soon found himself adopting a similar approach. “Michael and I are worryingly similar.”

Safaricom has 19m customers in a country of 44m, which translates to nearly every adult. It reported revenues of KSh116.5bn ($1.3bn) last year and has developed an international reputation for innovation.

One reason is that for many Kenyans a mobile connection is much more than a telephone. It is also a substitute office and bank account, thanks to Safaricom’s M-Pesa, a money transfer system named after the Swahili word for money that allows customers to send cash via text message. The service is used by 15m customers to buy everything from sugar to flights, at an average 80 transactions a second. It is so successful that 31 per cent of Kenya’s GDP washes through the system, and it has been exported to India and Qatar.

The company’s latest initiative is M-Shwari, a savings and lending service. “There’s KSh200bn-KSh300bn sitting in mattresses or locked boxes. At the moment, if your shack goes up in flames so does your money,” he says of the appeal of interest-earning M-Shwari accounts.

His statement may be all too prescient. Five years ago, 100,000 homes were burnt or looted when disputed elections sent the country into a tailspin. Allegations of vote-rigging triggered violence that killed more than 1,100 people and displaced more than 660,000. Growth in east Africa’s biggest economy plummeted to an annual rate of 1.5 per cent from 7 per cent a year earlier.

In the hope of avoiding a repeat of such chaos, Safaricom expected it would for the first time relay results directly from polling stations to tallying centres, and had sent out election education messages to some of the country’s 14m registered voters ahead of this year’s election. “We are a huge part of democracy,” says Collymore.

While his biggest nightmare is always the outage of M-Pesa, which slows when demand spikes, prior to the election, he was worried that the entire network might overload during the election. “We’ve got a plan of action … we have to keep the country communicating … and we have to keep money flowing,” he said.

The greater risk for the country is a political deficit, and after the election he says he will focus on combating corruption. “We have to get rid of corruption in Africa – Africa could be such a great investment destination if we can just deal with those issues,” he says. “Young people feel economically, politically, socially disempowered – and that is being vented in a few places but not vented in the places it should matter.”

He points to events in the Middle East and north Africa as a potential harbinger of what could happen in Kenya. “The thing that triggered the Arab spring was not political; it was social discontent. The gap between rich and poor here is growing … and that, I think, presents us with a bigger challenge.”

Collymore, who watches Kenya’s evolving political scenarios as if he is a citizen himself, has made quick work of becoming a national champion, and regularly appeals to national sentiment despite his British-Guyanan background. “Now I say, ‘me I’m Kenyan, me’,” he says, teasing out a typical turn of phrase. Many Kenyans seem to appreciate his efforts: he was awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear by the president last year – a prize rarely given to foreigners – was presented with a goat for his birthday and is often urged to get “a piece of land” in keeping with local tradition.

Collymore’s ability to adapt to new contexts was nurtured from an early age. He was raised by his grandparents in Guyana for 12 years and when he was 16 his mother, who had moved to the UK, brought him to join her in London. As the only black child in his class, he tried to be “wallpaper” to avoid getting beaten up. “I didn’t even know what the word ‘wog’ was until I got there. I didn’t know what racial abuse was,” he says.

After school, he had to forgo a place at Warwick University because he was not eligible for funding. “I wanted to go to university and I disliked not having gone and for some years after I wished I’d gone,” he says. “Now it doesn’t matter, [but] I would always advise a young person to go to the best university you can find.”

When graduates ask for his advice, however, he preaches the value of being able to adapt, an attribute that has driven his own career. Unable to pursue a degree, Collymore spent his time filling forms as a junior underwriter and working as a train announcer while pursuing his passion for “surrealist stuff”.

Were it not for his mother, he might still be selling his oil paintings along the railings of Hyde Park. But she joked she would evict him unless he got a serious job and got him an interview at British Telecom, where she worked. He was given an entry-level job as a clerical officer.

His career took off when he joined the UK’s Cellnet in 1993, just as the corporate world was starting to venture into mobile telephony. “I was walking down a path no one else had walked and I thought, ‘this is good because the rules aren’t written and I’m just going to make the rules up as I go’,” he says. “We took some risks. This change thing – it is actually quite exciting, it’s good, and you will make mistakes and you will stumble and fall and that’s quite neat.”

The hankering after new ground and love of adaptability has served him well. “I didn’t go to the smart university; this is probably the only thing which has ever distinguished me,” he says. “Nothing beats this job.


Culled from FT