Meet the Boss: Hassan Bashir, CEO, Takaful Africa Group

Hassan Bashir

Hassan Bashir

1. What was your first job?

During the school holidays when I was in class three (third year of primary school). In my neighbourhood there was an orphanage that was building a secondary school. So I got a job moving building blocks to the construction site using a wheelbarrow. I was moving one block at a time. At the end of the month I earned Ksh.150, a third of which went to my father, and some of the remaining paid my boarding fees for the next school semester. I also bought my first pair of shoes and my first set of a shirt, pants and vest.

2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?

It is often different things, maybe an HR issue or a model that is not working. But when that happens I get out of bed, grab my laptop and I try to write down that item. I have realised that when an issue is bothering you, the night is when the most ideas come to you. I generally wake up at 3am, so I do much of my reading around that time.

3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?

If you asked for an institution I’d say the United States International University – Africa (USIU Africa). As a kid I used to dream about going to university. (Bashir did not attend secondary school because his parents could not afford tuition. After primary school he did odd jobs for nearly a decade to raise enough money to sit for secondary school exams, and pay tuition for the first two semesters of university.) So somewhere towards the end of my undergraduate studies at USIU I thought I had achieved my childhood dream but didn’t know what else might follow. I had reached the ceiling of my dreams. I told one professor at USIU my ambition was to go to university, and I am in campus, so I am done.

Prof. Afrifa Gitonga then lectured me about the attitude of failure. I was surprised because I was a kid who didn’t go secondary school yet here I was in university. What more could I have done? He told me that I had set a ceiling that was too low and advised to me to set my ceiling on something that has not been achieved by anyone else. He lectured me for about two hours.

4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

This was from Nelson Kuria (a retired veteran insurance manager and former CEO of Kenya’s CIC Insurance Group). He told me, “Go rest, take this week off, we will pick up next week”. CIC is one of the shareholders of [Takaful] and Kuria was one of our founding directors. This journey took us from 2002 to 2011. We had to do knowledge gathering, draft a business plan and get regulatory approval. From 2006 we started engaging the regulatory body and it took us up to 2011 to get the licence. Every time I came close to giving up Kuria would say: “Bashir go to Mombasa, take a break, let’s meet next week.” I would come back the next week fired up, having totally forgotten the disappointments we had encountered.

5. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I think I appreciate that assets without human input will fail. You can assemble all the money you want and put together all the equipment and tables and computers – but if you don’t work with the people, you are bound to fail. The systems and tools are good because they enable us to spend our time more intelligently rather than on basic brute functions. But it is people who make your capital work. I think I work well with people.

6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?

I think business school is needed because it gives you tools. I am now writing a paper on the review of the theories of leadership (Bashir is a PhD candidate) and I see the 200-year argument of ‘born’ or ‘made’ when it comes to leadership. I personally like a leader who can pick the average performer and turn them into a confident, excellent person. Some leadership qualities are inborn, but we have also seen potential good leaders who lack basic tools to be able to deliver. So I think business school is critical.

7. How do you relax?

I spend a lot of time with the kids. I have five children – four daughters and a son. I try my best to go home early before they are asleep. I also like going to national parks with the family, which is fairly unusual for my community [where] a lot of people, with a lot money, don’t find the time to go to parks. I like to leave Nairobi on Friday afternoon, spend the weekend at a national park and return on Sunday afternoon. I do quite a bit of that. It is fairly relaxing and it gives you time with the kids.

I read a bit too. Right now I am also forced to read because I’m doing a doctoral programme. My area of interest is leadership, and business and management – so I read a lot on these.

8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?

I leave home around 6am to drop my kids at school. Then, as I’m generally near the office, often having a first meeting by around 6:20am.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

Why did you choose to apply to us? You can assume that this person has been jobless for years since graduation and is willing to take any opportunity, but that could also be false. There are graduates who might choose a company to work with for specific reasons. These days information about companies is available on the web so you can screen a company and say: “No, I don’t want to work here.”

So I am always curious to hear people’s answers even though the question is not a determinant on whether or not they’ll get the job. Sometimes you hear things about your company you had never ever heard. One candidate told me he wanted to work with us because he’d heard our company is Shariah-compliant, and as such it would have a certain working environment (different from other companies).

10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?

First, current leaders should influence how business is done, and try and improve the morality and ethics of business. It saddens me that because of the systems we have built over time, business in Kenya has lost its soul. We have taken everything to a dubious level. We need to do business on a platform different from the one we are doing.

Right now… there’s a lot of corruption that is done by business. This actually makes it harder for people who are aspiring to be business leaders and entrepreneurs. If you are coming into an environment where business is bought, and you are running a start-up with limited capital, how do you survive?

Hassan Bashir is CEO of Takaful Africa Group. In 2011 Bashir founded Takaful Insurance of Africa (TIA), the first fully Shariah-compliant insurance company to be registered in Kenya. The company has since expanded to Somalia.