Safaricom's CEO explains Kenya's mobile magic

May 22, 2012

Iconic red telephone boxes, and old dial up landlines featured heavily in Bob Collymore’s work the first time he worked in London. Now he’s passing through on the way to a UN summit in New York with, amongst others, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, looking at ways to transform life for women and children in the developing world – and running an African telecoms company that he admits is a bigger, and more trusted, brand than the church.

“How does that make me feel?” he asks, laughing and rolling his eyes, “It makes me feel a bit like a crusty old man actually”.

Collymore took over the reins as CEO of Kenya’s Safaricom in November 2010 when he was 52. Not really so old, but he does have more than 30 years industry experience under his belt: “I can honestly say that this is the most exciting time for our business, and it has changed beyond recognition. When I started working with BT our main concern was how we could help people make landline calls, and how we could secure telephone boxes. Now we’re looking at how telecoms is transforming health, education, business and agriculture – and I’m working in Kenya which is the heart of the new ‘Silicon Savannah”.

Before joining Safaricom, Collymore worked in South Africa for Vodacom (and before that around the world in the UK, Japan and Europe.) Scrolling through the photos on his tablet he shows me a picture taken with Nelson Mandela at a Sunday lunch. “When you’re working in countries like South Africa you do feel like you’re walking in the shadows of these heroic men and women – these great ‘statesmen’ like Madiba and Desmond Tutu.” But you don’t have to be President, or a politician, to transform Africa, he says. The next photo is of a woman with a group of children outside a neat one-storey building. “That’s Tanzi, she asked me to help her build a school for orphans in Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. Now that school has doubled in size.”

For his 50th birthday Collymore banned his mother from throwing him a surprise party, and took 84 orphans to the zoo for the day instead. More widely though he sees his role as a builder, rather than a patron, working to grow a community that can do things for themselves. In particular, Collymore is focused on the role of women and girls, making a presentation to the UN General Assembly last year on the UN Every Woman Every Child Initiative:

“I don’t know if its because I come from a family of strong women,” he says, “but I believe woman are absolutely the future of Africa, and all the UN statistics about the positive effects of girls’ education, reducing maternal mortality and so on, bear that out. Talk about heroes – Tanzi with her school in Kwa-Zulu Natal is one of my heroes. All those women doing that kind of service, contributing what they can are my heroes. ”

No woman should die in childbirth, he says, but in Kenya as many as 21 a day still do. No girl should go uneducated, but for many staying in school is a challenge. All women and girls should have access to safe contraception, protecting them not only from pregnancy but also HIV – yet this remains a huge issue.

Collymore is committed to transforming Kenyan communities by empowering women through mobile technology: “Traditionally money has been in the hands of men in Kenya, but we know that things work better when women control and have access to money. One of the ways that we’ve been able to do this is through M-Pesa.”

Money transfer service M-Pesa has become one of Safaricom’s big success stories, with more than 14 million subscribers and 40,000 agents. Being a trusted brand, with a large market share, accounts for the huge take-up, according to Collymore.

Much of the day-to-day family and business transactions of Kenyan life can now be conducted through M-Pesa and, as we speak, Collymore gets an email about whether M-Pesa can be used to claim court fines.

Some question whether the idea of a ‘mobile magic remedy’ for Africa has been overplayed. Collymore thinks not. Yes, the issues can be complex, he agrees – but then points to health and education as two other areas where mobile technology can have a crucial role.

Collymore recently met Stephen Elop in Nairobi to discuss working with Nokia on health services, and he enthuses over SMS messaging for health campaigns on illnesses like Malaria, and a dial a doctor service where Kenyans can get medical advice.

“Of course it would be better to see a doctor in person,” he says, impatient of critics of the scheme, “but in Kenya doctors and medical clinics can be many miles, and hours of travelling, away. We have one doctor for every 10,000 patients, and only 450 hospitals. But we also we have more than 25 million mobile phones. This is giving medical advice to millions of people who wouldn’t have access to it otherwise.”

A recent visit to a UK branch of McDonalds with his son, only emphasized the yawning opportunities-gap between Africa and other parts of the world.

“When I went into McDonald’s I saw all these kids tapping away on wifi, for free. They could get any information they wanted – and the answers to all their questions. In Kenya I still see our kids heading off to school with all their knowledge held in a backpack. Kenyans are innovative, educated, people – and when we can get tablets and mobile technology in schools so that our children can have access to that same world of education, then we’ll see a bloom in our economy, a true middle-class, and a real ‘Silicon Savannah.”

Watching him shuttle between UN task forces (Collymore serves on the United Nations Global Compact Board, as well as a Commissioner on a UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children) and hearing him focus on national transformation, it’s almost easy for observers to forget that Collymore has a business to run.

In that regard, he says he’s pleased with the company’s “prudent” performance that means this year Safaricom have paid Kenya’s biggest ever share-holder dividend.

“There are always going to be tensions,” Collymore says. “There are tensions between what makes commercial sense for shareholders, and what makes sense for customers. We have a Safaricom 2.0 strategy to take us forward over these next years, and we’ve identified how we want to develop. We want to be less arrogant, and we want to be more respectful to all our stakeholders.”

Maintaining trust, and improving reliability, are key – and to that end Safaricom are now laying their own fibre optic cable to provide better data after they found current cables, owned by other companies “stretched over trees” rather than buried underground.

Collymore stresses: “It’s about having a constructive edge, not just a competitive edge. We engaged in a price war for a short while, and then we quickly stepped away from that. Yes, its about price, yes its about voice – but its about what value add through constructively contributing.” And that is what gets him up in the morning.

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