Interview: Safaricom CEO on management and challenges of the job

When Bob Collymore last year took over the mantle as CEO from Michael Joseph at Kenya’s telecommunications giant Safaricom, the industry was at the height of a vicious price war that threatened to cripple the entire sector. All eyes were on Collymore to steer the globally acclaimed company to the next growth phase. How we made it in Africa’s East Africa correspondent Regina Ekiru spoke to Collymore about his management style, the telecoms industry and the future of the company.

Bob Collymore (right) in discussion with former Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph.

Bob Collymore (right) in discussion with former Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph.

Describe your management style?

I am more of a consultative manager. I talk a lot to staff. The staff know the solutions customers want, I do not. I am not a boardroom kind of leader. I am easily accessible on social media. I use it not to broadcast but rather to have conversations with our customers.

Explain some of the challenges you have faced on the job as CEO of the biggest telecoms operator in Kenya?

One of the challenges would be the price war, which greatly increased network traffic in a way that we had not anticipated. It was hard to cope with the doubling up of traffic on the network. We never predicted traffic would be congested that much.

Another challenge we are currently handling is minimising the number of calls to the customer care line. We are putting measures in place to reduce the reasons why customers call 100. We have launched Twitter and Facebook customer care accounts, which we believe customers will prefer as opposed to trying to call 100. We are also trying to find structural solutions to deal with M-Pesa reversals when customers send money to the wrong number.

What are some of your achievements as CEO?

Our recent end year result was a major achievement. The majority of our shareholders were impressed and surprised by the company’s performance given the challenges that rocked the industry last year. The quick and smooth restructuring was also an achievement. We needed to restructure. What worked in the last ten years would not work now, and we need a much leaner company because it would be cost effective in the deployment of capital and operational expenditure.

What are your thoughts on the recommendations by a Central Bank of Kenya taskforce that mobile operators should share agents?

This will kill innovation. If you invent something and someone else takes it from you, you will not innovate again. We need to respect people’s innovation. If we do things (share agents) that please our competitors but displease our customers, then we will be doing it wrong.

What is your take on the President’s move to intervene on further call price cuts?

We expect that over time prices and termination rates will come down. It is important for the industry to take a pause because the price cuts were a shock to the system and definitely a shock on investment. Kenya’s call rates are currently the lowest in the Sub-Saharan region, yet operating here is more challenging than in any other African country. The high power and fuel costs have hampered our efforts to cut down the cost of operations. We are currently conducting experiments and deploying renewable energy such as wind and solar and other hybrid solutions. We have several base stations that are entirely run on green energy. We intend to pursue this with great passion. We cannot afford to run this company at the mercy of oil prices.

Safaricom is known for innovation; give us an insight into some of the new innovations are you pursing?

Areas like telemedicine, e-learning and efficient financial services for the unbanked are [important] to us. Today’s customers are more demanding. If they are dissatisfied with your services they will tell you to your face. Their needs are changing with time, becoming more complex, as they want services such as voice messages and efficient money transfer. It is not good enough to just sell minutes, we want to add value to our stakeholders. We want to make life easier for SMEs. Safaricom is about trust, admitting when we are wrong, and being open and honest.

Your thoughts on mobile number portability?

It has not affected our customer numbers. The process has spent an estimated Ksh.1 billion (US$11 million) so far, yet only 30,000 people are documented to have changed networks. Our focus is on the 50% of Kenyans who don’t have mobile phones. This is where our interest lies.

What do you dislike?

I am very impatient. I don’t understand why things take too long to be done. I believe in speed, simplicity and trust.