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Jazz-loving CEO of Kenya’s Safaricom dies of cancer

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 1 July 2019 17:22

Robert Collymore, chief executive of Kenyan telecom operator Safaricom, died on 1 July 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Bob Collymore, the highly successful, jazz-loving CEO of Safaricom, died of cancer on Monday, 1 July 2019. He was 61 years old.

Collymore had been battling acute myeloid leukaemia since October 2017. He took a nine-month medical leave of absence, resuming his duties in July 2018. His contract was renewed for a year in May but, as the treatment had battered his immune system, he reduced his public engagements and worked mainly from home. Although his death was surprising, the company acknowledged that his condition had worsened in recent weeks.

At a briefing on Monday, Safaricom board chair Nicholas Ng’ang’a described Collymore as “brave” for sharing his diagnosis publicly, saying that he fought the cancer with “great fortitude and courage”. He also said the telecom’s board would hold an emergency meeting to chart the way forward and decide on a successor.

Collymore’s predecessor, Michael Joseph, who serves as a non-executive director on the board, said that “whoever we select as the next leader of Safaricom will continue with Bob’s work, and the DNA of Safaricom will continue”. He described his successor’s leadership style as “bigger and more human” than many others.

Collymore, a Guyana-born British and Kenyan national, took over from Joseph as Safaricom CEO in 2010. Over the last nine years, he grew the company’s revenues from KSh83.96bn to KSh 224.54bn. Profits grew four-fold, mainly due to the runaway success of Safaricom’s flagship mobile-money platform M-Pesa and despite flattened growth in revenue from other key products.

State House Kenya tweeted its condolences on Monday.

This was echoed by chief justice and president of the Supreme Court of Kenya David Maraga.

Apart from being the CEO of the most valuable company in East and Central Africa, Collymore was an ardent art and music lover. Among his biggest cultural successes was the launch in 2014 of the Safaricom Jazz Festival, an annual live music extravaganza that drew inspiration from his love for music. During his reign, the company also upped its sponsorship in sports and made its annual calendar a collaborative effort with photographers, writers and artists.

Party leader and author Boniface Mwangi also tweeted his condolences:

As did marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge:

Apart from serving as the telecom’s CEO and on the boards of Vodacom subsidiaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lesotho, Collymore served on several local and international bodies, including:

  • UN Global Compact board;
  • UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children;
  • Kenya Vision 2030;
  • and the National Cancer Institute.

He was a vocal supporter of the anti-corruption efforts in Kenya. In 2015, Collymore and his friend Joshua Oigara, Kenya Commercial Bank Group CEO, declared their wealth as a step towards public accountability.

As Safaricom CEO, Collymore fended off monopoly claims and several attempts by the telecom’s competitors and the legislature to break it up. While he was largely successful, the company had been losing market share. In 2017, opposition leader Raila Odinga called for a boycott of Safaricom and other companies, saying they had been complicit in the manipulation of the August 2017 presidential election results. The boycott and aggressive competition cut the telecom’s market share from 71.9% in September 2017 to 63.3% in April 2019.

On Monday, Odinga shared his condolences.

Collymore’s legacy

Collymore told The Africa Report earlier this year that Safaricom’s real competition was “big tech”, which has been increasingly getting into the payments business.

While the Safaricom board searches for a successor, Collymore had already outlined what he would expect from whoever took over. “I have never been a good mergers and acquisitions person, but we will need someone who can spot a deal and grab it. [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,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with The Africa Report in March.

Also pending is the telecom’s plan to venture out of Kenya, with its initial target market being Ethiopia. The company and its parent firm, South Africa’s Vodacom, were already in advanced preparations for regional expansion.

Collymore’s contract was soon to expire, and the hunt for his successor had already pitted the company’s two largest shareholders — Vodacom and the Kenya government — against each other, primarily on the subject of the nationality of his successor.

The shareholder confrontation was halted after the board agreed to extend Collymore’s contract to August 2020, which Collymore said made sense because he “owed” the company nine months. The clash will most likely resurface, and Safaricom’s board must find common ground as soon as possible.

Replacing Collymore is a complicated task not just because of the company’s size and his legendary success and future vision, but also because he was — and will remain — a cultural icon.

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