‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Bob Collymore, CEO, Safaricom (Kenya)
1. What was your first job?
I first started earning money at the age of 12 when I was still living with my grandmother in Guyana. I would make art pieces from plasticine moulds sent to me by my mother who was then in the UK. I would also make little brooches from coconut shells and from these art pieces, I made some good money. Whether this was an endorsement of my talent or sympathy purchases, I can’t tell.
I landed my first ‘real’ job when I was 16. I worked in a department store in the UK, which was actually fun. I would report to work at 6 a.m. to open and would be the last to leave after sweeping and locking up the store. It was hard work and it was a long day for a 16 year old but it taught me valuable lessons that I still apply today.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I wouldn’t say that any one individual has had an impact on my life really. When I think about it, I am greatly inspired by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. My grandmother for instance who took in children from the neighbourhood and offered them love and affection.
My mother not only pushed me to get my first telecom job, but she also taught be a lot about the importance of resilience. And my colleagues at Safaricom who all go the extra mile every day in order to ensure Safaricom remains the crown jewel of the region’s corporate sector.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Our customers and their satisfaction with us, our products and our service keep me awake at night. It distresses me greatly when we experience any network outages as I am acutely aware of how destabilising this is to our customers for whom our products have become an integral part of their lives.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I am disciplined. I do not fixate on past mistakes; rather, I learn from them and move on. I am also acutely aware that learning never stops, and I am therefore constantly learning from those around me. I am a great believer in people and in team work. Only with and through people can one be successful.
5. What are the best things about your country?
I don’t really have a sense of ‘my country’. However, if you talk about Guyana or indeed anywhere in the West Indies it is the warmth and the hospitality of the people. It is also about the culture coupled with the most beautiful sceneries that comprise a mix of Amazonian rainforests, waterfalls and amazing wildlife. In a sense, it is pretty much like Kenya.
6. And the worst?
I try not to pick holes in a country. Nowhere is perfect.
7. Your future career plans?
At the moment, my focus is to ensure that Safaricom continues to be the provider of choice for Kenyans by enhancing the existing connection between Kenyans and the brand. As for my life after Safaricom; in an ideal situation, I would like to play a greater role in improving the health and welfare of the less fortunate. Charity work is very close to my heart having grown up with a grandmother who took it upon herself to foster neighbourhood children. Today I support a number of charity projects involving orphanages. In addition, I also hold the maternal health agenda very close to my heart and have used my various offices to champion this agenda. Nevertheless, as I have learnt from my past experiences, my plans do not mean much in the grand scheme of things. So, I wait to see what the future holds and I welcome any challenges therein.
8. How do you relax?
I like flying and I read a lot. I also have a deep appreciation for the arts and music.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
Hard work and a commitment to the things that are important in life. You also have to be patient. Success is a long journey whose path is wrought with missteps, wrong decisions, discouragement, skewed plans and sometimes, failure. Be flexible; if something doesn’t work out, learn from the situation and move on.
Never stop learning. One can never be too good and opportunities for learning are everywhere. Do not take anyone for granted. Treat everyone with respect. And importantly, give back to the community.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
Through good governance, proper management of resources and reduction of waste. I know I sound like a broken record, but this is at the heart of Africa realising her full potential. In addition, Africa needs to look at finding local solutions for local problems. The reason why M-Pesa, for example, continues to be so successful is because we identified a gap in the financial services sector and used an existing platform – the mobile phone – to fill it.