Eulogised for his support for the arts, the death of Safaricom chief executive officer Bob Collymore on Monday has left a big void in the creative art sector in Kenya.
With arguably the largest marketing budget, the giant telco has in the past decade set the agenda for corporate spending on the creative arts.
Collymore’s personal endorsement of music concerts and programmes and art exhibitions sparked investor confidence as fellow industry titans took the cue from him.
As debate on who will succeed him at Safaricom rages on, many in Kenya’s art sphere hope that his successor will be as passionate about the creative sector as Collymore was.
A member of UN Global Impact, Collymore espoused the principles of the double bottom line that seeks to achieve positive social impact while attaining traditional financial goals.
Picking up from where his predecessor Michael Joseph left off, Collymore took a personal interest in ensuring that corporate sponsorships had a long- term impact that surpassed immediate commercial interests.
From the Timothy Brook original painting that hung in his office, to the musical extravaganzas that he inspired and supported; the social impact of his leadership was clear.
“Bob Collymore is a man who not only led his company but was also an inspiration to other corporate leaders,” said the founding director of PHAT Entertainment Mike Strano, adding, “the double bottom line was not just a catch phrase that he signed up for but a legacy that he lived.”
Having worked closely with Collymore, Strano says he gave Safaricom a human face by investing in projects that directly touched the lives of many at community level.
Community development was made a major component of the key performance indicators for staff involved in the various brand and marketing initiatives that the company undertook.
Collymore also broke down community development into social components that actually brought people together by using music and art.
In 2014, Collymore launched the first jazz festival—headlined by Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona supported by Kenyan bands—which later grew into the Safaricom International Jazz Festival.
Since then, the festival has built demand for jazz music, helping several local bands grow into commercially viable businesses.
To spread the benefits wider, all festival ticket sales have been donated to the Ghetto Classics music programme. So far, almost Ksh60 million ($6 million) has raised and donated to the programme.
Ghetto Classics is a community-based programme that aims to transform lives of over 650 children in Nairobi’s slums through music education and skills in live music performance as a means of breaking the circle of poverty that many of them are born into.
The jazz festival not only provides a platform for bands to showcase their creativity but backs them with branding, marketing and the publicity machinery of the telco. The exposure also goes a long way in launching them in the market.
Mackinlay Mutsembi of Nairobi Horns Project says, ‘‘Bob knew me long before I was famous and he was a genuine fan who enjoyed what we do. Towards the end of his life, he actually picked playing the saxophone and was getting pretty good at it. He legitimised our craft by associating with musicians who had long been looked down upon by corporate Kenya.’’
The Nairobi Horns Project burst into the Kenyan music scene after their appearance at the Safaricom festival. Mutsembi currently serves on the audition panel that curates music for the festival.
He remembers Collymore as a visionary leader who recognised the transformative power of music.
“I am already touring extensively, thanks in part to the infrastructure Bob helped build. As we eulogise him, let’s not forget the scourge that is cancer—three of my band members have lost their parents to it and it is an ever present threat in our lives.”
Niko na Safaricom Live
Before the Safaricom International Jazz Festival, Collymore had launched the Niko na Safaricom Live campaign earlier in 2012 and it changed the industry for the better.
Comedians started looking at their craft as a profession, they learnt what it means to have a stage presence and how to build a following by going round the country performing for, meeting and talking to their fans.
Comedian Jalang’o recalls: ‘‘The cheetah print shirt was my trade mark until one day Bob walked back stage at an event in Eldoret and asked me why everyone except me was dressed up. I told him it’s because of my character. To which he then said. ‘Don’t you think you would look better in a suit?’ He then asked I be give a green suit. I liked it and as they say, the rest is history.’’
To Collymore’s credit, some of Kenya’s big-name musicians made money as a result of participating in the Niko na Safaricom Live events.
Musician Linet Munyali aka Size 8 is on record saying that she bought a car after Safaricom engaged her for the campaign. Musicians and comedians benefited from the marketing, PR and publicity machinery of Safaricom.
While most companies treat branded merchandise as mundane items to be given away to customers, Collymore took it as an opportunity to showcase Kenyan art.
During his tenure, the company commissioned numerous works of art by Kenyan artists that were then fashioned into gifts for corporate clients.
Safaricom’s annual calendar project has grown into a showcase for Kenyan art that inspires patriotism.
Under the banner #thisismyKenya, the company has created a platform for photographers, painters, 2D illustrators and bloggers to not only showcase their work but also earn from it. It means a regular income for these creators once on the periphery of the economic spectrum.
“Corporate investment in art largely depends on the personal interests of the person at the top and we were lucky to have the support of Bob,” said visual artist Dennis Muraguri. “He was a regular visitor to art galleries and his wife Wambui runs an art space that promotes local art.”
If anyone doubted Safaricom’s commitment to the arts, they just need to visit the company headquarters in Nairobi’s Westlands.
The lobby of the building, later named after Collymore’s predecessor Michael Joseph who conceptualised it, was converted into an auditorium.
Collymore built on Joseph’s legacy by equipping the Michael Joseph Centre with acoustics, audio and visual equipment to showcase all kinds of artistic expressions.
The facility is open for use for free to all artists looking to showcase their craft and is staffed by qualified personnel to ensure professional event execution.
Designed as an incubation hub, the Centre has become a launch pad for careers in the creative economy.
Collymore was a regular visitor to the centre, attending concerts, art exhibitions, fashion shows and cocktails. It is a space that embodied his open door policy, his passion for the arts and his quest to inspire creative artists.
As the Kenyan creative sector celebrates the life of Collymore, it is not lost on them that he was one of the few important men who had a special way of making the least important person feel important.
In a country that puts emphasis on academic excellence, Collymore proved that there is more to life than financial profits and targets.
He will be remembered as a visionary who led his team to the pinnacle of corporate success by empowering the community they served by giving back in a way that touched every life—through creative art and music.