Bob's women empowerment project bore great fruits

Monday July 01 2019

Despite the many strides that Safaricom has taken to make the workplace attractive to women, Collymore was aware that there was still much more work that needed to be done to ensure that women were treated as well as the men. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Bob Collymore was passionate about the need to empower women in entrepreneurship and the ability of businesses to transform the lives of Kenyans.

But he was also alive to the fact that businesses need people to drive the transformation agenda. He believed that there are three things that drive business success at Safaricom; purpose, people and profit.

“The first thing is purpose. You have to have (a positive) purpose, even as an individual,” he said in a recent interview with the Business Daily.

“If you want to deliver that purpose, you have to make sure that you are taking care of your people.”


In his experience as CEO, many of the companies that Safaricom engaged in business with, and which were led by women, cared more about their staff compared to those led by men.


Over time, and as the chair of Safaricom’s tender board, he made deliberate decisions to work with more businesses driven by women because, in his view, they also had better integrity scores.

When Collymore looked at the financials, it dawned on him that women were accounting for less than three per cent of Safaricom’s spending.

“The big problem is that women businesses tend to provide table clothes and flowers. That does not really generate much income,” he said.

“What we said was: ‘We need more women in technology’”.


So the company started encouraging women business leaders to go into technology, laying fibre and other technical contracts.

Where necessary, it trained them or paired them with contractors so they could come in as sub-contractors.

“Eventually, we want to move them away from being sub-contractors and become direct contractors,” Collymore said.

But he did not just look outside Safaricom to drive diversity and inclusion, especially the inclusion of women in senior positions.

At the time of his death yesterday, the second senior most employee at Safaricom after the CEO was Sylvia Mulinge, the director of the consumer business unit, although Mr Joseph Ogutu, the director of strategy and innovation and also the chairman of the Safaricom Foundation, stood in for the CEO on some of the occasions when Collymore was away.


Despite the many strides that Safaricom has taken to make the workplace attractive to women, Collymore was aware that there was still much more work that needed to be done to ensure that women were treated as well as the men.

“There are some cultural and intellectual things we need to get through before they will (be treated as well as the men),” he said in the May interview.

Getting this right would ensure that Safaricom, or any other business for that matter, would align its people with its purpose of serving the community. Once the people get behind the purpose, the profit would flow automatically.

Today, Safaricom is one of the few companies in Kenya that has more women than men in its workforce at 51 percent.


“If you go up the ranks, you find that this gets narrower and narrower and our intention is to get to 50 percent men and 50 percent women at senior manager level by 2020,” he said.

To achieve that number would take a deliberate effort, such as ensuring that in every shortlist of candidates for any position, at least half are women, and also ensuring that the company retains the women it hires, especially those of child-bearing age.

One of the things that Safaricom does is to give new mothers four months of maternity leave and flexible working hours when they resume work even as they earn full pay.

But it also has a place for children to play as they wait for their parents to clock out, and if any were to fall sick, the company has a clinic within the premises.


Given all this, does that mean the next Safaricom CEO will be a woman? Kenyans will know before the end of the week.

However, mainstreaming women was not the only idea that Collymore was particularly partial about.

He also believed that businesses have a responsibility to play a bigger role in society, such as combating climate change or fighting single-use plastic bags.

“If you have a failing society,” he said, “you cannot have a thriving business.” That was why one of his vision was to plant a forest.

“We will announce in the next months or so our intention to plant a large forest,” he said.

Collymore, who died Monday, did not live to see that aspiration come true. Kenya will.