“Bubbly Bob”, a modern day African and Caribbean success story

Kenyan leaders and members of the public are mourning the passing of Africa’s top CEO, as Marc Wadsworth, a regular visitor to the country, reports.

Guyanese-born British businessman Bob Collymore embodied Africans and Caribbeans together making a success story.

The tale of the chief of giant mobile phone company Safaricom reminded me of RAF officer Ulric Cross, about whom the brilliant film Hero is being screened. Cross, a Trinidadian, was a black squadron leader – a rare sight during world war two. After the conflict, he qualified as a barrister in England and went on to become a leading government lawyer in newly independent Ghana and West Cameroon’s attorney general.

Modern day icon Collymore is a popular household name in Kenya, where most people use Safaricom. Yet few people in Britain have heard of him. Collymore helped make Safaricom the most profitable company in East Africa. It pioneered cashless M-Pesa phone payments long before Apple Pay and others in the West. African Investor named Collymore 2017 Chief Executive of the Year.

For two years Collymore battled cancer, dying last month [July] at his home in a posh Kitisuru, Nairobi suburb, aged just 61. He was married three times, leaving behind Kenyan wife Wambui Kamiru, four children, and his mother.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who appointed Collymore a Moran [Warrior] of the Order of the Burning Spear, said: “We've lost a distinguished corporate leader whose contribution to our national well being will be missed."

Robert William “Bob” Collymore, was raised in Guyana by his grandmother. He described her as the biggest influence on his life.

Good at art, from the age of 12 he made models from plasticine, sent to him by his UK-based mother, Sonja Beverly, and beach shell jewellery, selling them to earn money and nurture his business skills.

When he was 16, he left Guyana to join his mother, attending Selhurst High School, south London, where he suffered racism as the only black student. After leaving school, he was offered a place at Warwick university, but had to turn it down because, as a foreign born student, he couldn’t get funding.

Instead, still a teenager, he landed his first job at a departmental store, where he worked from 6am until closing time, when he would sweep it clean.
Collymore did other jobs, including train announcing, before, from 1993, working in telecommunications, including at Cellnet, Dixons, BT and 02.

He became Vodafone UK’s high-flying purchasing director. In 2003 he moved to Japan to manage the merging of the country’s J-Phone 3G network into the Vodafone Group.

Three years later, he moved to South Africa to become Vodaphone’s governance director for Africa and the Kenyan subsidiary Safaricom.

He said:  “I left the UK for Japan and then to South Africa, where I started to gain a defined sense of purpose, began to understand there is privilege in working in an environment you can make a difference in.”

In 2010 he was appointed Safaricom’s chief executive officer.  Journalists dubbed him “bubbly Bob” because of his sharp-witted, charming media appearances. He was praised for promoting gender equality. Almost 50% of Safaricom staff are women.

Michael Joseph, his white predecessor as CEO, who’s now back as the acting boss, said, tearfully: “You’ve all experienced Bob, his largeness, his enthusiasm, his greatness, his affinity with people and I think that’s what has driven this company and what Bob has done for it.”

Collymore could be a ruthless operator. He took over Safaricom’s at the height of a price war sparked by arch-rival Airtel, refusing to slash prices in his drive to provide better services. Subscribers stayed.

Collymore staunchly defended Safaricom against attacks by powerful opposition politicians who accused him of helping the government, who part-own the company, to rig the last election. They called a boycott, which damaged Safaricom profits. But Collymore was known as a warrior against corruption in his company; a colourful character in Kenya’s corporate forest of dark suits.

A keen piano and saxophone player, Collymore frequented Nairobi’s music scene. He helped raise funds for drought victims in 2011 and started Safaricom sponsored big-name jazz concerts. He also appeared in Kenyan music videos.

Prominent broadcaster and friend Jeff Koinange, said: “Bob grew up poor so he had a soft spot for the downtrodden.”

A spokesperson for London’s Guyanese High Commission, said: “Bob Collymore was the embodiment of what is best about Guyana, Britain and Kenya and we applaud him for that.”

 Patricia Wanjiru, a PR undergraduate in Kenya, told the Voice: “Bob Collymore taught us young people it's not just about company profits and meeting presidents. I remember he ran a promotion for the under 25s. We were offered cheap minutes. It made him really popular.”

Collymore’s words in his final, hospital bedside newspaper interview, were: “Can I sway people or government to do the right thing for them? Can I make business deals that will look at climate change or impact it in a good way? Can I do more to encourage greater transparency and reduce fraud and corruption?”

He added: “I started to think about the society my children were living in and the future they were going to occupy and my role in making it better. That was my turning point. Life was never going to be about the size of car I drove.”

*Marc Wadsworth produced and directed a film about Second World War African Caribbean volunteers, which he remade for BBC TV. It’s available for screenings. Contact: latesteditor@gmail.com