From hardship to insurance CEO: Hassan Bashir’s extraordinary story

Hassan Bashir

Hassan Bashir

The idea of an insurance company modeled on risk sharing and grounded in Islamic moral and ethical principles came to Hassan Bashir, a Somali-Kenyan, while he was studying for his MBA. As part of his degree Bashir completed a project on consumer behaviour in the insurance industry. While conducting research for the project, he realised that Muslims were not buying insurance.

In 1997 Bashir founded an insurance brokerage company. Later on, after completing his MBA in 2002, he divested from the brokerage business, and, together with a friend started a company called Soliton Telmec, which provided the background research, initial training and financing to create what would become Kenya’s first registered fully Sharia-compliant insurance company, Takaful Insurance of Africa (TIA), in 2011.

Bashir spent years developing the model for TIA and fundraising, eventually pulling together Ksh.600m (US$6m) from individual and institutional investors, and obtaining approval from regulatory authorities.

Today Bashir heads the Takaful Africa Group, which has since expanded to Somalia and is eyeing other markets in the region. Last year, the firm recorded Ksh.810m (about $8m) in premiums. In 2016, Bashir expects that number to grow to Ksh.1.2bn ($12m).

In addition to TIA and the dozen or so other businesses he has founded with partners, Bashir is also a herder – he has 500 goats – and a PhD student at a Nairobi university.

Committed to going to university

Education has always been a passion for Bashir. “The thing I remember most about my life as a young boy was the dreams of going to university. I did not have this gut feeling that I was going to succeed. But I did have the feeling of going to university,” he says.

It wasn’t an easy journey. Bashir grew up in northern Kenya, a region with high levels of poverty and illiteracy. He excelled during primary school, but his parents could not afford secondary school tuition, so Bashir left school to work odd jobs in hospitality, transport and construction.

After eight years of work, one day he decided to go to the offices of the United States International University – Africa (USIU-Africa) in Nairobi and seek admission. He was confident that his years of work experience would make up for the lack of a secondary school certificate, but the university would hear none of it. Instead, the admission officer advised that he complete secondary school. So, Bashir enrolled for secondary school certification examinations as a private candidate. Two years later he returned to USIU-Africa and was admitted for an IT degree, later transferring to international business administration.

Having obtained his childhood dream of a degree, Bashir wondered what he would do next. “I had reached the ceiling of my dreams,” he says.

Starting a business in uncertain times

It was then that Bashir developed an interest in starting his own business. Shortly after graduation, he quit his job at the university, where he had been working in order to earn financial aid for his studies.

It was 1997 and Kenya’s economy was struggling, which meant companies were not hiring, foreign investors were exiting and banks were not lending. “It was a very difficult time in Kenya. There was no opportunity and people from my own ethnic community were leaving Kenya and seeking asylum abroad,” Bashir recalls.

So Bashir founded his own insurance brokerage firm. A friend gave him some money to pay for a licence to operate, and another offered him a room in Nairobi to use as his office.

“I started marketing floor by floor, building by building,” says Bashir. “In the first three months I wrote 1,500 introduction letters addressed to the people in the Nairobi directory. Those days we had call boxes and each had a directory chained to it. I found a directory whose chain had been removed, so I took it to the office. I wrote to everyone listed in the directory. Those first three months were painful. We did not insure anything.”

But as time went by his networks grew stronger and he started signing clients. “People came to know me. When their policies expired, they would say, ‘Call that woria (a term used to refer to Somalis)’.”

In August 1998, just as his business was taking off, the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed. Bashir’s office was located nearby. “The files were sucked out. Fridges went out. Computers went out. I had about 170 files that were destroyed. I was on the streets for about three or four months before I found another office,” Bashir recalls. “But we rebuilt the business. Five years later I had 16 employees, a number of corporate clients, roughly Ksh.20m in savings, and a 140m2 office.”

Confidence, reputation and staying power

Bashir explains that the insurance brokerage business helped him to build a reputation and establish contacts that came in handy when he decided to start Takaful. “I raised Ksh.600m ($6m) for Takaful on the back of previous successes. It is the history and reputation they were buying,” he says.

The businessman attributes his success to believing in himself. “I had that belief that I could start a company and that I would employ people and succeed. I had that confidence when I finished my degree,” says Bashir.

“I think the rest is sheer hard work, persistence, a lot of honesty and integrity,” says Bashir. “Succeeding in business also requires you to stay there. If you can’t stay there, you can’t succeed. There are many times that you will face regrets and think, ‘this is not working’. You will have those low points. I frankly think you have to decide and you must stay at it. Nothing is more important than hard work, honesty and the ability to be there next year and the year after.”