‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Kris Senanu, deputy CEO, AccessKenya
1. What was your first job?
I don’t believe in jobs. I believe in seeing opportunity. I sold clothes when I was in university. After campus I was hired as an intern doing accounting, but hated every moment. I couldn’t stand sitting behind the desk between eight and five looking at numbers generated by other people and was going to go to other pockets.
However, the internship was good for me because it made me understand what I did not like in a work scenario. At that point I was debating whether to stay in a secure job or go into business.
And after two-and-a-half months I quit and went back to selling clothes. My objective was to make ends meet. I think people who cared for me would’ve preferred I had a job because at that time it was appealing to wear a tie, and say you worked for company A.
But it never appealed to me. When people ask me what drives me I tell them hunger. When you are hungry you will make very smart decisions based your tummy rumbling. Your focus is to silence the tummy. So I sold imported and second-hand clothes. I don’t discriminate because the dollar is always green.
2. Who had the most impact on your career?
I have an uncle in Ghana who was the sales and marketing manager for Unilever. Right from my high school days I found massive inspiration in his work. I was fascinated by the branding and differentiation of the company. That is the reason why I actually did business in university and went on to study to become a chartered marketer. I noted very early in my life I was a salesman. Give me whatever title you want to, but at core I am a salesman. I am good at communication, negotiation and convincing.
3. Does your job keep you awake at night?
I hardly sleep. I am an insomniac. I sleep in two instalments of two-and-a-half hours each. For me a good night sleep is five hours.
Business wise what keeps me up at night is the general fear of failure. I think you get to a certain point in life where it is not really about failure, but more about striking a balance between time and value. Strangely enough I worry about whether I am using my time on earth the right way and best way. I am always thinking about what I can do differently so I am more efficient. I’m very clear on my purpose in life: it is to impact people. I review my day every night, looking at what I have achieved, and where I can improve.
4. The top reasons why you have been successful?
I have never had an employee mentality. I was hired as sales executive at AccessKenya 14 years ago and I have served in different capacities. I have always looked at this as my business. I have always been careful about who we hire. I have always worked long hours, not because I had to but because the clients needed me to.
As an investor I would say I have the ability to spot opportunities and gaps in the market, and back the right entrepreneurs.
5. The best things about your country?
Now, which one is my country? (Senanu was born in Ghana, grew up in several countries in Africa and Europe, and currently lives in Kenya). I’m pan-African. I’m waiting for my African passport so I can proudly travel through 54 countries without feeling like a foreigner or having to justify to somebody why I am visiting.
The greatest thing about my continent is the people; we have soul, we have heart, we are kind and we are generous. We are a people determined to take ourselves to the next level no matter what you throw in front of us. That spirit of Africa is what gets me excited because I always know, no matter what happens, you will always find people who have a passion to live, or rather in my case, passion to keep the stomach quiet.
6. And the worst?
A lot of us are mental slaves. Bob Marley sings about emancipating ourselves from mental slavery. When the colonial masters came here they totally messed up our brains. They got us to think that we are inferior, that we can’t make it. Our spirit has been chained. It is in mental shackles. We can’t open up our mind’s eye to see things in different ways because we have been taught and educated to see things in a specific way.
7. Your future career plans?
I will retire in 45 months when I turn 45. I want to go into lecturing. I will be lecture on marketing and strategy on the continent. The apple never falls too far from the tree. My father is an academic. My whole younger life I always said I wouldn’t become like my dad. Actually I am very much like him in many ways even though I have no career in academia. I would definitely like to mentor people and impart knowledge… specifically in entrepreneurship, strategy and marketing.
8. How do you relax?
Reading. Yes I have entertainment clubs (through his investment company) but nine out of 10 times I’m there I am actually working. I am an observer, so I sit and watch whether we are doing things in the right way, and where we can improve. So it is not relaxation for me. Travel and reading is what I do to relax.
9. Your message to Africa’s aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
First I would say read. Sometimes you can’t get access to people, but there is so much wealth of knowledge in reading. Second, be confident to approach people who have done it. Those people typically do not have any issue telling you how to do it. Third, be passionate and go for it.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
So 50 years ago we got political independence from colonial masters. In the next 50 what I’d like to see is mental independence. We need to free ourselves from the mental shackles which make us think we can’t make it. That is actually the beginning of our second liberation. It is not about roads and infrastructure. It is about us changing our mentality so politicians don’t steal money and hide it in Europe; they can start thinking abundance instead of scarcity so there will be no point to steal.
Once they know that being in power is to be there to serve the people you start changing the dynamics. It is about people stopping the habit of looking up to politicians for handouts. It is about people knowing that elections are an issue of right and obligation, and they don’t have to vote for someone who gave them money.
Kris Senanu is the deputy CEO of data and IT solutions provider AccessKenya Group. The Kenya-based company is a subsidiary of South African IT group Dimension Data Holdings. The Ghanaian-born entrepreneur is also co-founder and chairman of BlackRock Capital Investments, a company that has invested in several businesses, including leading entertainment clubs and restaurants in Nairobi.