OBBO: No Sankara, Collymore was still larger than life

Saturday July 13 2019

Safaricom Bob Collymore

Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore left a rich legacy. He died on July 1, 2019 after a long battle with cancer: Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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When Kenyan telco giant Safaricom’s CEO Bob Collymore died at the start of July, a pall of grief settled on Kenya – at least Nairobi – like one that had rarely been witnessed.

Safaricom, its shortcomings for which it is regularly panned on social media notwithstanding, seems to have grown into something bigger than a national institution – just that we hadn’t cottoned on to it yet.

A lot of it has to do its revolutionary mobile money platform M-Pesa, which has gone on to be a world leader.

A year ago, some estimates were hazarding that M-Pesa and its micro-lending spin-offs have enabled over one million Kenyans who would have been chased away by guards for looking too long at a bank on the street; who would only ever have saved money by hiding it in a tin and burying it under their beds; and who couldn’t borrowed a cent from any formal institution, to get in on the game. Globally, that number would be in the tens of millions.

M-Pesa started before Collymore took over at Safaricom. What Collymore did was to supercharge the innovations and to bring a pizzazz to the company that it didn’t have previously. And he was a people guy. It was a brand that extended beyond Kenya.

In 2015 while I was editorial lead at Mail & Guardian Africa, the company held a well-attended Kenya investment event in Johannesburg, at the Sandton Convention Centre. I had spoken to Collymore, and he agreed to come. The event ended on a Friday.


On Saturday morning, I got a call in my hotel room. People who couldn’t get away from work on the Friday had arrived at the Sandton Convention Centre in large numbers, and were “demanding” to see Collymore. The convention centre fellows were getting anxious.

I was not about to go there and tell them he had left Friday night. Our MD, who knew how to handle local sensibilities, went and sorted it out.

The last time I remember this deep sense of grief in Kenya was when Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, died in 2011.

But in some respects the grief over Collymore also represented a deeper socio-political shift. For example, outside of Eritrea, in most of Africa there has been much improvement in political freedom and rights.

Everywhere, though elections are stolen and rivals to incumbents are beaten and jailed, at least elections are held.

No soldier or policeman can brazenly park his car in the middle the road and shoot other motorists for “looking at him badly,” as they used to, and get away with it.

The political market has slumped. It’s very hard in Africa today to be a Thomas Sankara. The clamour now is for economic goods and opportunities, and the glory is to those who provide or enable them – like Collymore, Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu, Zimbabwean tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa, and Equity Bank group chief James Mwangi, the man who reinvented banking for the masses.

The symbols of national greatness are no longer outspoken and police-defying clerics, investigative journalists with a death wish, and democracy activists. It’s what you could call the “Wealth Makers.” And the charismatic ones like Collymore, as we found out, are actually larger than life.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]