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In conversation with Bob Collymore, CEO of Safaricom

By Nicholas Norbrook, in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 25 March 2019 12:43

Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore

The Africa Report sits down with the retiring boss of Safaricom, Kenya’s dominant telecoms player and creator of the widely popular M-Pesa mobile-money platform.

“I highly recommend this lifestyle,” says Bob Collymore, sitting on the veranda of his imposing house in the affluent Nairobi suburbs. “This morning I woke up and had the 8:15am call. Then I caught up with some emails, then I have you and another media engagement after […] I don’t actually need to go to the office.”

With the gentle chirrup of birdsong and the jazz radio playing in the large sitting room behind, it is hard to disagree, though the less well-organised might see their productivity suffer. “And it occurred to me,” continues Collymore, “that we all get into this funnel, to commute and get into the office by 8-9am. Whereas, I could easily do the interviews here, go into the office by midday and miss the traffic.”

Nairobi is blessed with an abundance of cars, which can render the smallest commute unbearable. So it is no surprise to hear an executive plan around it. But Collymore is not being boastful about his terrific life; he has a different problem to steer around. Treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia has stripped his immune system of its former strength. “I’m starting over from scratch,” he says. Until it returns, he is forced to limit his interaction with people.

Collymore is a ‘silver linings’ guy rather than a ‘dweller’. One of those silver linings is the ability to put more time into his music.

“I do have a saxophone addiction, yes. It’s gotten worse in recent times. The saxophone shop was right across the way from the hospital in London, so I bought myself a new Conn-Selmer saxophone. And I’m very diligent. I manage to get in seven or eight hours a week.”

It makes sense to have a stronger player as competition to Safaricom

That does not mean he is any less in touch with the office. The launch of Safaricom’s mobile overdraft facil­ity, for example, has been at the forefront of his days. And he has had to fend off a recent polemic in Kenyan public life surrounding Safaricom’s dominant position.

It is one of the reasons he is so sanguine about a merger between two rivals, Airtel Kenya and Telkom Kenya. “Telcom operators need to get a certain critical mass to work,” he says. “So this will create a player with 33% market share. That makes sense. For the market it makes sense, too, to have a stronger player as competition to Safaricom.”

But that is not where he believes the real competition will come from. For all the kudos Safaricom won worldwide for its mobile payments platform M-Pesa, “you can pay for things with your Fitbit now,” says Collymore.

And in the future, the real challengers to telephone companies like Safaricom will come from ‘big tech’: Amazon, Google, Facebook, as well as Chinese challengers like Tencent. WhatsApp has launched a payments trial in India involving tens of millions of participants. If WhatsApp gets into payments and comes to Kenya, what will Safaricom do? “We don’t get complacent about these things,” says Collymore. “For sure, we believe we need to evolve, and quickly. The thing that we have today was designed 11 years ago.”

That evolution is being helped along by a strategic partnership with Vodacom, the South Africa-based telecoms company, in particular with its data capabilities. And Safaricom is looking for new revenue drivers. “The shareholders are certainly looking for this,” says Collymore. “And we think that you can bolt a few things together – e-commerce, payments and data analytics. Most people are using data to gauge whether you are a credit risk or not. But look at the Chinese, they are not looking at whether you have money or not – they are looking at whether you are a good guy or not. They look at intent. If I know that your intent is good, then I can rent you my apartment.”

That gives companies that sit on piles of information an advantage. “We have access to a pool of data, and not just our own but publicly available data, which can help us to start to profile people much better and to monetise that by how we develop our own products for you and individualise it,” says Collymore. “But then also, how do we move into other markets which are not our legacy markets, voice and SMS. And not many operators can say that, because they are just voice and SMS.”

E-commerce is certainly an obvious choice – with a trusted brand, a payments platform and new logistics partner Sendy, Safaricom is stealing a march on other retailers seeking online customers.

Amazon doesn’t just sell books. Google is putting balloons up in the air, it’s not just a search engine.

But the strategy, like big tech’s, is to be the platform, says Collymore, “whether it was for the banking industry, the healthcare industry, the agricultural industry. And we have our sights on the education sector. Look, at Amazon, it doesn’t just sell books. Google is putting balloons up in the air, it’s not just a search engine.”

Take, for example, DigiFarm, Safaricom’s new agricultural initiative. The company will be able to give loans to a smallholder, source cheap inputs from iProcure – an agricultural start-up Safaricom invested in – deliver the latest agronomic expertise by phone, and then connect the smallholder to specific off-takers. All of this is in the Safaricom ecosystem.

Like all good musicians and chief executives, Collymore understands the importance of timing, for a company and for a career. He looks at the way his predecessor Michael Joseph hewed Safaricom out of the stubborn potential of the market. His own tenure – which comes to an end in August 2019 – has been about consolidation and profitable pivots to M-Pesa and data: investing $100 in the company when he began would have seen that money grow nearly tenfold.

And he is clear that the company needs a successor with yet another set of skills, as the chapter of the ‘ubiquitous platform’ begins. “I have never been a good mergers and acquisitions person, but we will need someone who can spot a deal and grab it,” concludes Collymore. “[We need] someone who understands the financial sector a lot more, if we are to occupy the fintech space, and someone who is not going to be scared of going into other markets.”

Collymore says he is leaving with few regrets: a small number of missed opportunities and a regretted comment or two about the quality of Kenyan food, or about whether Kenyans trusted Safaricom more than the church. His greatest triumph? The team he has assembled. “Finish your tea,” he says. “Let me just go get an injection pumped into me, and I will be back.”

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