Bob Collymore, who gave millions of Africans banking access, dies

The 61-year-old led Safaricom, East Africa’s most profitable company.

Bob Collymore
By fostering the development of mobile banking services, Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore helped millions of people across the globe gain access to financial services [File: Jeenah Moon/Reuters]

Kenyan mobile network operator Safaricom has lost its CEO, Bob Collymore, to a long-standing illness. The 61-year-old succumbed to a two-year battle with cancer on Monday morning at his home in Nairobi.

Collymore led East Africa’s most profitable company, which announced a 63.4 billion shilling ($617m) annual net profit in May. He spearheaded Safaricom from 2010 onward, and helped grow its subscriber base from 17 million to more than 30 million, according to data from the company’s recent financial statements.

But Collymore may be best remembered for marshalling Safaricom through its development of mobile applications that helped millions of low-income people in Kenya and across the globe gain access to banking services for the very first time.

Legacy of leadership

Born in Guyana in South America, Collymore moved to the United Kingdom as a child and eventually became a businessman in Europe. He had a stint at Vodafone before being appointed to head Safaricom. After moving to Africa, he married a Kenyan woman and settled in Nairobi.

In 2017, Collymore developed acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and travelled to the UK for treatment. In July 2018, he returned to Kenya to resume working for Safaricom. 

This May, while spearheading his company and fighting AML, Collymore took on a new challenge: accepting the Kenyan government’s request that he chair the board of its National Cancer Institute.

Specialists at a variety of different medical facilities – most recently Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi – treated Collymore for his illness.

“Collymore had been told by his doctors that he would not make it past the month of July,” said Jeff Koinange, a Kenyan journalist and close friend of the CEO.

Koinange last saw Collymore on Saturday afternoon, and said the business leader told friends during that visit, “I’ve lived a good life … I have some regrets … it’s not a perfect life, nobody is perfect, but I’m ready now.” 

Koinange said, “I have never seen anyone more prepared for death than I did this man.”

Impacting millions of lives

At a press briefing where he confirmed Collymore’s death, Safaricom Board Chairman Nicholas Ng’ang’a said it was “a very sad day” for the CEO’s friends and business colleagues alike.

“Bob has fought this cancer with great courage, [and] all that time, he has continued to give leadership from his house,” Ng’ang’a said. “For nine years since he joined Safaricom, Bob has provided the company with visionary leadership. And he was always passionate at whatever he did.”

Collymore led Safaricom through a period of exponential growth as it moved into financial services and impacted the lives of millions of Kenyans. The telecommunications company launched mobile applications including M-Pesa, M-Shwari, Fuliza, and M-Tiba – a health-payment application or “e-wallet” that enables low-income earners to save towards their healthcare expenses.

Through these services, customers who had never before engaged in formal banking were able to make payments, save money, get loans, and even split medical costs. In effect, Safaricom gave low-income people and those in rural communities their very first access to financial services.

Bob Collymore
Late Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore was born in South America but made a name for himself in Africa [File: Jeenah Moon/Reuters]

In the beginning, traditional financial institutions criticised Safaricom’s forays into mobile banking, which they saw as a threat to their businesses. 

Some companies tried to edge out the competition by emulating Safaricom’s example. Equity Bank, one of Kenya’s largest financial institutions, obtained a mobile virtual network operator license for its Equitel platform so it could compete directly against Safaricom.

Other banks eventually teamed up with Safaricom. One was Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), which partnered with Safaricom to create M-Shwari – a deal that propelled CBA from a small, up-market financial service provider to one that serves more clients than any other bank in Kenya.

In 2007, Safaricom joined forces with Vodacom – the parent company of Collymore’s former employer – and launched a mobile phone remittances application. To date, it has more than 21 million active users, according to data from the company’s latest earnings report.

Operating independently of the banking system and covering services that range from person-to-person transactions to ATM withdrawals to bulk payments, the mobile services that Collymore championed allow users to pay bills and transfer money with just a small fee and a few taps on a mobile phone.

Surging ten percent from 2017 to 2018, mobile cash transactions in Kenya now boast an average value of 10.92 billion shillings ($108m) per day, according to data from the Central Bank of Kenya.

“This literally revolutionised Kenya’s financial services sector,” said Kwame Owino, CEO of Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs. “Before M-Pesa, in 2006, only 27 percent of the population had access to formal financial services. Thirty-two percent relied on informal services, and over 40 percent was fully excluded. But by 2016, 75 percent of Kenyans – most of whom had never banked – had access to formal financial services.”

Kenyans moved nearly half the equivalent of their country’s gross domestic product through their mobile phones last year, underscoring the critical role of M-Pesa to the economy.

Global reach

Under Collymore’s watch, M-Pesa won international recognition for financial inclusion. And today, its business model is being replicated around the world.

In South Africa, Vodacom and Nedbank launched mobile banking services in 2010. Tanzania and India also followed suit. And today, e-wallets are used across the globe.

“M-Pesa catapulted Kenya into the international limelight as a leader in mobile money services,” said Owino. “M-Pesa enriched the logistics of moving money, offering far more gain for the economy.”

Collymore contributed so much to his adopted country’s development that even Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta shed a tear at the news of his passing.

“It is with deep sadness that I have received news of the death of Collymore to cancer,” Kenyatta said. “As a country, we’ve lost a distinguished corporate leader whose contribution to our national wellbeing will be missed.”

Source: Al Jazeera