News Column

Interview - Power partnership

June 5, 2014

Alecia D. McKenzie

Robert (Bob) Collymore, the CEO of Kenya's largest mobile network company, Safaricom Ltd, was a guest speaker at the "6th International Parliamentarians' Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action" held in the Swedish capital. The meeting reviewed the advances and setbacks of the 20 years since the landmark 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) that took place in Cairo, Egypt.

That summit led to ambitious development goals, and in the two decades since, a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, while human rights have been firmly placed on the development agenda. But much more remains to be done, particularly regarding reproductive health rights, and women's advancement, according to the UN. As a keynote speaker in Stockholm, where parliamentarians also discussed the post-2015 development agenda, Collymore gave an eye-opening presentation on how mobile technology is transforming lives. He stressed that corporations can help in the promotion and protection of human rights through community projects and in other areas. Safaricom, which started as a department of Kenya Posts and Telecommunications and launched operations in 1993, had revenues in 2013 of $1.42bn, and currently employs some 3,000 people. It is 40% owned by the UK-based Vodafone plc. Along with M-Pesa, the world's most developed mobile-phone-based money transfer and microfinancing service, the company has a programme that allows the transmission of health information to women and children, and it is pushing into social spheres in other innovative ways. Guyana-born, UK-raised Collymore, who has been the CEO since 2010, campaigns for corporate responsibility and official accountability, and along with his many supporters, he appears to have made a few enemies judging by the criticism on some social media sites.

In an interview after his presentation at the Stockholm conference, Collymore described his vision and concerns for Kenya and for Africa's development as a whole.

NA: How do you see corporations helping with the issues of population, development and human rights?

BC: Firstly, the private sector needs to be brought into the conversation before decisions are made because the private sector has a massive role to play. The days of everyone trying to do things for themselves are gone, including in the private sector.

As a mobile phone company, once upon a time we were able to do everything - we'd build our own base stations, etc. Now, in order to deliver some of our solutions, we have to work in partnership ... with development partners, with NGOs, with governments, and we're finding some interesting experiences. We're getting some really good and useful solutions, but we're also learning a lot.

NA: How will such partnerships evolve?

I will declare that I'm a member of the UN Global Compact Board [a voluntary UN initiative that encourages businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies] and therefore the first thing is to advocate that the private sector gets involved because then the four major pillars [of the Global Compact] will start to be addressed and companies will start to understand why it is they need to deal with human rights, why they need to deal with labour rights, why they need to deal with the environment, why they need to deal with ethics and to work against corruption. Once you get that message, once you understand it, your whole mindset changes.

[According to UN SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon, the Global Compact "asks companies to embrace universal principles and to partner with the UN. It has grown to become a critical platform for the UN to engage effectively with enlightened global business. By being involved in the policy initiative, " business, as a primary driver of globalisation, can help ensure that markets, commerce, technology and finance advance in ways that benefit economies and societies everywhere."]

NA: Is there an environment of entrepreneurship in Kenya, a movement that's different from in the past?

Some people say that Kenya is blessed with having many problems. Because we have so many problems, we have to find solutions. And because most people are from villages in Kenya, very few people are born in town, they understand those problems very well and that pushes them to find solutions. Whether it is a big fancy solution, like M-Pesa, which is now a world leader, or a simple solution, like how to find a safe taxi, or how to find renewableenergy solutions, there is an environment, a tone - if I may use that word - in Kenya, which is very conducive to that innovative spirit. I would be doing them a disservice if I did not say that Kenyans are very entrepreneurial people; very, very hard-working (amongst the most hard-working I've found), and I think all those things add up. And, of course, having a strong ICT sector, which is being led by the mobile industry, I think that has helped.

NA: Rural areas in Kenya and in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa have a problem with energy and electrification. How does one charge one's mobile phone when you are not connected to the electricity grid? Are these issues part of your sphere at Safaricom?

Because we say our purpose is to transform lives, then anything that transforms lives is part of our sphere. We look at a country where 70% to 80% is off the electricity grid and we see that as an opportunity to provide renewable energy solutions.

So you take solar panels, you take some LED lights, you take a mobile charging unit, you take a SIM card, you take M-Pesa. You take all of that together and you give a poor rural Kenyan the opportunity to buy renewable energy at an affordable price that is cheaper than kerosene, and much safer than kerosene. After a year of paying micro payments, the product is then yours and you no longer pay for electricity to have your phone charged. You and I would love that.

NA: What, in your view, are some of the most pressing issues facing Africa?

I think that across Africa, the themes are pretty common. The first one is corruption, and I think we can never shy away from addressing that issue. The second is the absence of infrastructure. A stable regulatory environment is something most CEOs will tell you is something they'd like to see and that's varied across the continent. In some countries, it's great and it's predictable. And what you need with a regulatory environment is you need predictability. It's not whether it's harsh or not. So we'd like to see more predictable environments across the continent.

We'd absolutely like to see corruption eradicated. Not reduced, but eradicated because it's the poor who suffer, and it is development that suffers at the end of the day. And more and more shareholders need to be building confidence and investing in the continent, and they're not going to do that if you have a high level of corruption as you do.

NA: Is this level so much higher than in other regions?

It doesn't matter. It shouldn't happen at all. It's not a question of what degree of corruption is okay. A zero degree of corruption is what's okay. NA

We'd like to see corruption eradicated. Not reduced, but eradicated.

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Source: New African

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