On building a superstar company...

Monday July 01 2019

As was evident in the comments on social media after his death, Bob struck a certain chord with Kenyans as he tried to give Safaricom a human face. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Whenever Mr Robert Collymore visited the M-Pesa Foundation Academy, he would allow himself one indulgence — some sweet pastries made by a student at the school in Thika.

Bob, who passed on Monday morning, would buy the pastries made by Chris Mwaniki, who is now a Form Four student.

The young man would also sell them to his fellow students as he nurtures his ambition to be, in his own words, a future Cake Boss.

His cake business has already made a cumulative profit of Sh200,000 in two years, and by the time he graduates, he expects to collect half a million shilling from his school.


The school will allow him to keep his profits after school and use it as seed capital to set up a business in the outside world.


It’s the policy for all students who make a profit from the capital issued to them in Form Two to try some form of business.

“There is Chris Kirubi,” the young man said of the successful billionaire industrialist and investor, “and one day there will be a Chris Mwaniki. I would like to be a good entrepreneur who can make a difference by building a business that will employ Kenyans and transform their lives.”


It is not every day that you encounter a teenager talking in business buzzwords like a corporate chieftain, but this is the reality that Mr Collymore helped create for hundreds of young boys and girls attending one of Kenya’s most ambitious education experience at the Academy.

This is the story that you hear across the country from Kenyans who have been touched by Mr Collymore’s work.

“We are striving to mould young people who are focused on making a difference in the world, by nudging them to follow their passion and stride into the real world, secure in the knowledge that they have been equipped with the right academic credentials and mental state to face the world,” said Mr Collymore just under a month ago.


I have had a ringside view of corporate Kenya for nearly 20 years.

First as a pesky business reporter and editor covering Safaricom from its rocky beginnings in 1999, documenting its dramatic rise in the noughties under Michael Joseph and when Mr Collymore was appointed as the new boss in 2010.

At the time, the company seemed to be headed for turbulence but then it embarked on a path that would transform it into super-star company.

Then one day, as it also seemed to be headed to the bottom in 2012, I unceremoniously found myself on the other side of the ring standing by as “Bob’s PR man” as he once called me.

Coming to Kenya to work at Safaricom in 2010 closed a significant loop for the man whose ancestors had probably left Africa centuries past, bound for Guyana, where he was born 61 years ago.


However, he learnt early on the need to adapt to new realities and pulling himself up by the bootstraps after his mother jokingly threatened to kick him out of their house if he failed to get a real job that could pay bills.

And then began an illustrious career spanning the globe.

When he got to Safaricom, Bob found a company wondering what direction to take.

On the one hand, he was managing restless investors and long-suffering shareholders who were wary that a devastating price war initiated by one of the company’s rivals was hurting the fortunes of the company.

The company’s share price, after a much-hyped share sale on the Nairobi Stock Exchange, was at its lowest and its profit had dipped the previous year.


This is where Mr Collymore’s power of righteous conviction and enduring quality as a great leader would emerge to the rescue.

He took a contrarian view, and refused to engage in the price war, which he viewed would be a race to the bottom.

“At the time when one of our competitors was offering free calls, and the others were at rock bottom, we came to the realisation that he had hit a sweet spot,” said Mr Collymore, “This was the fact that our customers will not talk for longer on their mobile phone if the calls cost Sh2 per minute, and then they started feeling the pinch when it hits Sh4. The most ideal pricing was Sh3.”

Anything beyond that meant that the company was either leaving money on the table or hurting the customer.

This brave decision, among other factors, started reversing the fortunes of the company, and restarted a journey that would see Safaricom make over Sh1 trillion of new wealth for shareholders during his tenure—more than the value of the next twenty listed firms on the NSE.

The company’s M-Pesa platform become one of the world’s largest and most famous mobile money rollout.


However, as the big money started rolling in, Mr Collymore would cringe in interviews with journalists when they tried to corner him to brag about the kind of profits that the company was making.

As an executive who is easily drawn to self-deprecating humour, he radically started re-orienting the vision of the company.

From one that was mostly driven at growing revenues at all costs, to one that was purpose-driven and connected to the needs of the common man.

This is how, through his convictions of how businesses can contribute to reducing income inequality, services such as M-Pesa Kadogo, Digifarm, and Masoko were born.


M-Pesa Kadogo aimed at helping millions of Kenyans sending less than Sh100 access mobile money at no cost.

With Digifarm and Masoko, Mr Collymore saw a world in which a beekeeper in Kitui could not only get access to cutting edge tools on their mobile phone that would enable them to manage their apiaries, but also give him access to global markets through e-commerce at the same level like a wealthy farmer with a lot of resources.

“The direction of the company is to become a platform,” he would tell Reuters in an interview, citing the partnerships with local banks and other corporate player that were beginning to use M-Pesa to lend money on mobile phones or buy goods.

The man who had spent time selling oil paintings along the railings at Hyde Park in London before he was threatened with eviction by his mother was seeing Safaricom as a useful intermediary, enabling people to not only reach each other on phone but to help start-ups such as Little Cab take on global brands like Uber.


Mr Collymore understood quite well that in the digital age, the strategy has shifted to the demand side.

Mr Collymore was also a big believer in women empowerment—he had promised to increase the number of women in his executive committee to 50 per cent and committed to a goal getting 15 per cent of the goods and services the company buys from women in business.

Yet, despite all the success he and Safaricom enjoyed, he was emphatic that the company needed to have a human face, thus the massive investment in the Foundations, of whom the shining star is the ultra-modern M-Pesa Foundation Academy.

“Our business models need to be equipped to deal with today’s realities, especially on matters sustainability,” he wrote in the publication by the organisation’s foundations.

Mr Collymore drove Safaricom to approach sustainability not in the old hackneyed approach – switching off lights, using low-energy bulbs and using less water – but to good business practices.


“My understanding of sustainability is about being ‘able to sustain’ a business responsibly with a deep understanding of how our actions and decisions today affect the world in the future,” he wrote.

As was evident in the comments on social media after his death, Bob struck a certain chord with Kenyans as he tried to give Safaricom a human face.

In one poignant moment, he stands at the door of a bus at the Kencom bus stop, holding up a sign in the manner of a tout.

He understood that some viewed him as a celebrity.

“They put this whole celebrity thing on me here,” he told Katrina Mason of the Financial Times in 2013. “…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 maintained that touch to the last, one of his last public statements a reply to a disappointed customer on Twitter whose experience after porting to Safaricom from a rival network had not gone well.

“Sorry about this, it shouldn’t be your experience. Please give us a chance to fix it, you won’t regret it.”

Mr Wachira is a former business reporter and editor with NMG