Bob Collymore is the CEO of Safaricom Limited, a position held since 1st November 2010. Previously he has worked in the UK, Japan, and South Africa in a number of senior executive roles in Marketing, Purchasing, Retail, Governance and Corporate Affairs. He has more than 30 years of commercial experience working in senior executive roles in the telecommunications sector.
Bob serves on the Board of Acumen, the United Nations Global Compact Board and is a member of the B TEAM, a not-for-profit initiative formed by a global group of business leaders to catalyse a better way of doing business, for the wellbeing of people and the planet. He also serves on the Kenya Vision 2030 board, is a Founder Trustee in the National Road Safety Trust and Chairman of the TEAMS Board. He has recently served on a UN Commission on Life Saving commodities for women and children.
Q: In an interview you gave last year on KTN, you said the following: “I think the most important thing is we stay true to our purpose as a company”. As the CEO of East Africa’s largest company, could you please describe what that purpose is to you?
Well, we prefer to think of Safaricom as the largest company in terms of impact, though you are correct in your description.
To answer your question, we use two words to describe our purpose: “Transforming lives”, which is a little vague but we know what it means. We probably fail to explain it perfectly across the whole range of our stakeholders, because when we use the expression people usually think of what our Foundation does.
What we mean by “Transforming Lives” can maybe be best explained through an illustration. Take a base station we set up in a place called Kapedo. It is an area subject to intertribal clashes. This base station not only allows people to speak to one another, it allows them to call for help. This increases security. By putting a base station there, we also bring electricity to the area. By doing that, you now give people access to mobile health solutions, you allow children to be connected to the internet, you can bring mobile money and increase cash velocity. This is just an example, but we don’t install base stations just to make revenue out of phone calls. When you look at our financials, you find that actually less than 50% of our revenue is made by traditional voice calling. We start with the purpose, by wanting to change the situation.
Another example is putting a base station in Dadaab refugee camp. Again, you build it there because you think you can transform the lives of people living there. All of which are somehow separate from their base. Now the result of doing that, is that Dadaab has become the first or second largest revenue earning city in the country. A lot of people go there and just look at ROI but it isn’t only about ROI.
We put this proposition at the heart of the business, in every decision we make. Take the picture which hangs behind my desk, it reminds me of the people whose lives we are trying to transform, it is not the view of the CBD out of my window.
I enjoy managing a phone operator in a Kenya, I wouldn’t like doing it in the UK for example. Here, at the end of the day, you leave a footprint on the country. If I were in Britain, I would just be managing a phone company.
Q: You mentioned many fields that you affect in one way or another. Today, Safaricom is a phone operator and a financial institution. Where do you see your business moving to in the future?
So, we see ourselves as a company that develops a product, as a pipe if you will. You have a product, you put it through a distribution pipe and somebody consumes it at the other end. However, today we are in the process of shifting from that pipe to a platform, or more specifically, from that pipe to a raft. The problem with a platform is that it is anchored in the sea-bed. We want to be able to move because the water we tread is itself very fast-moving.
We also like the idea of a raft because it can carry people with us. If you are a small farm, or an SME, or a large corporation, we want to help you to achieve what it is you want to achieve, by making available to you our platform, our base stations, our money platform, whatever it is. Again, all this is not there for its own purpose. It is there as a mean for you to achieve your goals. We are open to business, whoever you are.
Q: Perhaps most famously you are known for creating M-Pesa (Mobile Money). What is the most important change M-Pesa has brought about in Kenya or even East Africa?
There are a few things. The biggest change is increasing the velocity of currency.
Once upon a time, when you wanted to send back money from say Nairobi to Eldoret, it could take you a few weeks. Because you have to wait until somebody you know goes there, you give it to them, then they need to find the person at the other end. Sometimes, it gets stolen.
We haven’t done much research on this, but two years ago, we hired KPMG to do a study and they found that for every 1 KES of transaction fee using M-Pesa, 4,65 KES is saved in terms of security, efficiency and time.
The second thing, M-Pesa has changed is that it has given Kenyans a sense of achievement. Wherever we go, people say “You’re the M-Pesa guys, right?”. If I run into Bill Gates, he will say that. It gives Kenyans the sense of being world leaders, having set the stage for this thing. Kenya still has the largest and most efficient mobile currency system in the world.
That, in itself, has led to Kenyans feeling that they are innovative.
Q: Coming back to the question of development of the country, and more broadly the region, I have heard mixed views on “Africa Rising”, since the beginning of my week here. What is your point of view?
On the Africa Rising narrative, one mustn’t forget that we are talking about 54 different countries and 54 different states of evolution. For this reason, you cannot say Africa Rising. You can say, Kenya Rising yes, or Ethiopia Rising, but not Africa Rising. That is the first point. Even Europe is not rising uniformly.
The second point, is that there are a number of bumps along the road. The biggest challenge is probably corruption. Actually no, though corruption definitively is a huge problem, the biggest bump is the demography.
Today, in Kenya, there are about a million children sitting their KACE exams. That means that one million people come into the workforce every year. We are not creating a million new jobs every year. So how do you think that is going to work out? People should stop thinking of these people as a market, you must think of it as a real problem.
It’s been two days and most people haven’t gotten over the shock of Trump being elected. I say most people because I wasn’t surprised. On the African continent, we have a similar situation developing. If you drive in Africa, you will see a lot of kids on the side of the road and they are waiting for one of two things:
Opportunity – but that seldom comes along – and if doesn’t, then a demagoguery comes and it comes very easily. Youth has an energy and a power that it needs to be spent somehow. If that energy doesn’t go into the creation of something, then it will be a problem.
On this continent – this is not only about Kenya – we have to start finding solutions to this issue. Part of the solution is that we need to start making things. We don’t make anything. Our clothes are made oversees, 30% of our food is imported. That needs to change.
I prefer to say, Africa could rise. There are real fundamental difficulties and even curing corruption would not be an overnight fix.
Q: Continuing within this idea of unemployment, automation is predicted to perhaps destroy up to 80% of jobs worldwide in the next few decades. You explained yourself that work is important for Africa to grow. If these predictions are accurate, as an employer in the IT sector – which is particularly prone to automation – what are your thoughts on this topic?
We try and balance it. If you take the tea industry for example. We are still picking leaves by hand where machines do it in other regions of the world. In South Africa, when we were installing fibre, we had a big machine that dug the trench, laid the cable and put back the soil and tarmac on top. Here we hire a hundred workers with pick axes to dig the hole. It is slower, I am not sure how much cheaper it is, but it creates jobs.
I think automation is slower here for social reasons. That itself will hold Africa back. As I said, demographics are a problem here.
I am actually reading a very interesting book called Technology vs Humanity and technology is solving some issues in the First World because of its ageing population, though it may also be dehumanising us to some extent as well. And yes, I see it as a problem, in particular being in an industry that takes away existing jobs. Yesterday, we sent off a tender for a Voice Biometric tool which will cut the 90 seconds on average it takes human operators to establish your identity. On average, calls to our operators are usually 3 minutes long, so effectively you are taking away half a job. Not officially because we still have operators answering calls after identification, but effectively yes.
Q: What didn’t I ask and should have?
I think we covered most of the big issues. I will add that I believe businesses need to take a different view of their role and I do not see that happening much in Africa.
They need to look at their role as a development partner. When people think of development, they believe it is the responsibility of NGOs or governments and as a businessman I find that very disconcerting. For me, businesses have a critical role in development because otherwise you face major problems. That is why we spend so much energy and time dipping in other people’s dockets: we invest a lot in child healthcare and human right. I don’t see many businesses across the continent, caring about the Sustainable Development Goals. SDGs are a big deal and I can only see a few multinationals embracing it such as Unilever or Nestlé, but no indigenes business leaders. Hopefully, they will do so soon.
I admit business guys in New York don’t talk too much about this stuff either but here in Africa, it is a question of rise or fall for the continent. We need to do more here. I don’t need to give examples but Kenya is currently facing a drought, the second since I have been in the country. Rising sea level, deforestation and climate change will affect Africa much more than anywhere else. Arable land will shrink; yields will shrink and for a continent that already imports 30% of its food, that is a big problem.
Even if we look at jobs being exported out of China. If we do not address the Human Rights issues and protect those rights, then we will just start a new form of slavery.
Africa has an urgency to change its business practices much more than anywhere else.