Meet the Boss: Jesse Moore, MD, M-KOPA

Jesse Moore

Jesse Moore

1. What was your first job?

In a bowling lane. I was probably 19, in my first year in university, and it was really low pay. I think it was just over US$4 an hour. But it was enough that if I worked a whole shift I might be able to afford two or three beers on Friday night.

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

Besides the lights? It’s the people that we haven’t yet met that we need to bring into the business, and how to find them and how to create the right roles to keep growing the business as quickly as we can. I know the business is successful and it will continue to be successful. But if we want to be successful in the millions of [users] rather than in the thousands of we still have, there are some big roles to fill and I want to make sure we find those people. We have 700 staff now. I think we should be 2,000 in two years.

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

My parents – they really encouraged me to take risks and do whatever I wanted. Growing up I was in a fortunate position of not having expectations of “you will be a doctor” – and I was able to find my own path. They have been very supportive to me moving far away and starting a business despite all the risks.

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

Work hard, enjoy what you are doing and everything will be okay. It’s very simple and I didn’t believe it for many years. I think there is truth to it [but] of course you have to make tough calls and things aren’t always easy. I think we tend to worry too much about everything working out – but if you work hard, you enjoy what you are doing and you treat people well, the world is typically okay.

5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I hope empathy is a quality that I have. It has helped me in the business in terms of understanding what it is our customers go through [and] why they want something better. As you build a business you have your customers, your employees, your investors and other stakeholders. Try to empathise with what it is people are looking to get out of the business. A staff member wants their salary but they also want to know how they can grow here, how they will become CEO of M-KOPA one day, and what is it they can do to advance their career. Those are totally legitimate concerns for our staff. So empathy, which is to say understanding the needs of all stakeholders in the company, is important.

I think it is also building a business that actually has purpose because it helps its customers. Our customers will save $750 over four years [using our solar products] compared with burning kerosene. Even though we make money they too make a lot more money. Focusing your business on helping somebody leads to success.

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

Not business school. I went to Oxford which was great for me because I met my two co-founders there. Business school has its benefits, but I would never make an MBA qualification a requirement for any job. On the job training is what matters. Even life experience matters to me a lot more than any degree.

7. How do you relax?

I have a three-year-old son and my wife so we spend time at home. I like to get out of the city whenever we can and do a little bit of camping and biking. Being in the outdoors – where there is not so much noise – I find that extremely relaxing.

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

Around 7 to 7:30am which gives me about an hour to get things done before the office heats up. But I’m not an early bird – I don’t get up at 4am.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

“How many matatus (privately operated public transport vehicles) are there in Nairobi?” The trick of that question is there is no correct answer. It’s more a logic test. How would you go about answering the question and you can’t use your phone or the internet. You have to use some logic. It was the first question I was asked in my first job interview although it wasn’t matatus. I was in New York so I was asked: “How many yellow taxis are there in New York?”

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

Focus on big problems. Big problems are also big opportunities. We had some guys come through here a few months ago from Silicon Valley who have been a part of some of the biggest companies the world now knows. One of the guys said to the crowd: ‘Back 30 years ago in Silicon Valley we had not done it either, now it’s your turn’. There is no reason to say that Nairobi or Kenya or Africa can’t build the next generation of Fortune 500 companies.

Jesse Moore is co-founder and managing director of M-KOPA, a Nairobi-headquartered company that offers credit to low-income earners to buy solar power systems. M-KOPA customers make an initial deposit of about $30 and receive a kit comprising a solar panel, charging outlets for mobile phones and a few ceiling lights. The balance of about $170 is paid via mobile money over a 12-month period. So far, M-KOPA has reached 250,000 homes across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and recently licensed its technology to a Ghana-based company. Moore is originally from Canada and has been living in Kenya for about five years.