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Tuesday, March 20, 2018


They say there are four reasons to build a company -- to support a lifestyle, to live something for your children, to sell it and for philosophical reasons.

Each reason creates a different kind of company and may very well determine its longevity.
Last week former Kenya telecom company boss Michael Joseph was in town to talk about building a legacy.

While Safaricom, for which his name will be forever linked, is barely 18 years old, the impact it has had on the Kenyan economy and society, is such that it is not too soon to talk about legacy.

Safaricom, with a market capitalisation of about $12b as of the close of the NSE on Thursday, is currently the most valuable company on the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE), in Kenya and in the region.

It has a network of almost 30 million subscribers and its M-Pesa, mobile money platform also boasts a 25 million subscriber base. In addition Safaricom is a near monopoly in the region’s biggest economy commanding a 80 percent of the voice market.

So if Joseph, the founding boss of Safaricom has something to say about legacy he is hard to ignore.
They say you can only make sense of your life events, join the dots, looking backward. Joseph's life and career are testament to this....

A trained engineer, Joseph was born in South Africa, worked in the US and Europe, and at what would have been the evening of his career at 55 Joseph was shooed off to set up Safaricom in faraway Kenya.

With only $20m – the price of two mobile switching stations, he set about building Safaricom in 2000.

He thought London, home office of Vodafone which had gone into partnership with the Kenya government to start Safaricom, gave him less than a 50-50 chance of success. A situation which may have been discouraging but which played nicely to his advantage, allowing him to push through innovations without much interference.

He found existing players were pandering to the elite but he quickly made the decision that he wanted to build a business that catered to the matatu commuter. In that line Safaricom introduced per second billing, lower scratch card denominations and 24/7 customer care service centers.

The numbers jumped rapidly, breaking the million subscriber mark within three years. Caught by surprise by speed of growth and the bureaucracy of getting money for expansion from the shareholders, Safaricom quickly developed a reputation for less than ideal service.

They soon got over that debacle and went from strength to strength.

But what has set the apart and made the world leaders is the introduction of mobile money, under their M-Pesa brand. As Joseph tells it the software that kicked it off was a quick and ready solution that had been developed in Cambridge with funding from the UK government under a program to increase financial inclusion.

No one else wanted to try it out. But having lived in Kenya for almost decade, Joseph had an inkling how such a product would work in a mostly informal economy like Kenya.

In explaining why while the product has been widely successful in Kenya and has fallen flat in South Africa, Joseph said that for innovation to take hold it helps if it is championed by the top leadership in the company.

They spent $10m on promoting M-Pesa in the first year and if it had fallen flat he wouldn’t have been in Kampala to share his story last week.

And the rest is history. Last year total transactions off the Mpesa platform came in at Kshs 6.87 trillion or about the size of Kenya’s $70b economy...

The company has gone on to launch a host of services – data, micro loans and insurance, its growth seemingly not about to run out of steam.

Joseph who by his own admission is hard task master, eventually stepped down from the helm of Safaricom in 2010. His thinking was that as the company had grown and become more bureaucratic it needed a more consensual management style.

While there is no fear of losing his shirt, his legacy is now being severely tested as the chairman of the ailing Kenya Airways. But it is a challenge he says he could not resist when it came up.

Joseph says he did not start Safaricom to create a legacy. But he thinks we were not put in this world to be consumers, but to make a lasting difference and that forms the basis on which legacies are built.
The story of Joseph and the Safaricom he built points to another truth. That the business success as measured by the financials are a by-product of a genuine desire and drive to provide a good or service to the customer’s satisfaction.

That if you focus on the end-game, customer satisfaction through improving service the bottom line will take care of itself.

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