It is the first media interview Mr Peter Ndegwa is having in his Safaricom House office since taking over as the telecommunication company’s CEO on April 1.
He has just attended the company’s annual general meeting, the first at Safaricom, where shareholders have been informed – through a live link – of Mr Nicholas Nganga’s retirement as the company’s board chairman, and the appointment of Mr Michael Joseph to succeed him.
Mr Ndegwa is not the tallest of men, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in courtesy. He welcomes us to his office and willingly takes the seat deemed best for lighting by photojournalist Jeff Angote.
For the next hour, we discuss the recent M-Pesa overnight outages, his love for Arsenal Football Club, how Starehe Boys School shaped him, family, a request made last year by residents of Nyandarua County where he comes from, and his company’s plan to place a 4G-enabled smartphone in the hand of every Kenyan currently owning a “mulika mwizi”(feature phone).
A major system upgrade, he says, was the cause of the recent M-Pesa outages that left Kenyans on social media speculating about the causes. For more than 10 months, Safaricom was planning for the biggest modification of the M-Pesa systems since 2015 and the overnight outages in June and July were in preparation for the main operation.
“It was what we were calling dress rehearsals, to know if we could actually pull it off,” says Mr Ndegwa.
D-day was the night of July 18 when all M-Pesa services were scheduled to be off from 10pm that Saturday to 10am the next day.
“It involved about 100 people, between a cross-functional team,” says Mr Ndegwa. “Normally, that kind of change would take days if, say, a bank was making that level of change.”
He goes on: “We were making a material upgrade to the actual system to give us much greater functionality to be able to do more for customers, ability to drive more innovative products, but also more importantly, in future we can do system maintenance without necessarily affecting service.”
Being a believer in a hands-off approach to let “people do their job”, he was at home that Saturday night, getting periodic updates. He says the exercise ran so well that M-Pesa services were actually restored at 7am, three hours ahead of schedule.
“I know there was a bit of an interruption at around 10.30am or 11am that Sunday, but that was expected. It lasted almost 45 minutes, but we put the system down and then brought it back up,” he says.
The upgrade took care of a number of issues, among them the resilience — such that other sites hosting the M-Pesa servers can pick up if one fails.
“Going into the future, instead of having M-Pesa down for five hours (for maintenance), we’ll probably have it down for half an hour. Or we’ll do it without customers realising,” he says.
Then we draw his attention to his home village of Mumbi in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County. When his appointment as Safaricom CEO was announced in October 2019, the village burst into excitement. Villagers told the Nation then that Mr Ndegwa was a local role model, a man of the people who visited his parents three times every year and treated people well.
“Of course there is a real sense of pride, given my own career journey,” Mr Ndegwa says.
One of the requests made by Nyandarua residents was that the county’s poor network connectivity be dealt with. That came from no less that Governor Francis Kimemia in his congratulatory message. So, will Mr Ndegwa grant the governor’s wish?
The CEO says he will not necessarily oblige the request, but uses the chance to talk about Safaricom’s plan to have 100 per cent 4G coverage in Kenya by the end of the year. It currently stands at 77 per cent.
“There will be 100 per cent 4G network coverage across the country, not just Nyandarua,” he says.
It is in that village where he grew up and went to school, maintaining a vision at Nyahururu Primary School that earned him a place at Starehe Boys Centre and School, where he spent six years being mentored by, among others, the legendary Dr Geoffrey Griffin.
Most of the students mentored by Dr Griffin left the school with a deep sense of admiration for the educationist who died in 2005.
“One of the things that Griffin taught was that if you get the right foundation, the rest is history,” says Mr Ndegwa.
“Starehe was much more than just academics. In fact, we used to have something we called a charge; that ‘you are charged to do the following’. We read the charge when we were leaving. One of the aspects of the charge is to do for others what has been done to you; because you’ve benefitted massively from the school,” he adds.
He goes on: “That is why, one of the reasons I am so pleased to have come back at this stage of my life is that I have the ability to lead a company that makes some material difference to this country and to ordinary people.”
The return to Kenya came at an interesting point in his career journey. For more than 14 years, he had worked with British beverage company Diageo, rising through the ranks to senior leadership. By the time the Safaricom appointment came, he was a managing director at the company, tasked with overseeing Diageo’s operations in more than 50 countries from his office in Amsterdam.
Before that, he had worked with Diageo in Ghana (three years) and Nigeria (three years), not forgetting the seven years he spent in Kenya at East African Breweries, a Diageo subsidiary.
He says he knows there was more he could do at Diageo, but the prospect of heading Safaricom was great. He also reveals that he was “approached” for the post.
“What better way of being back than to come and run Safaricom?” he poses. “If there was a business that was going to bring me back here, they don’t get better than Safaricom.”
Mr Michael Joseph, the new Safaricom chairman, said in an October 2019 interview that Mr Ndegwa was picked on account of his multi-national experience at a big organisation.
We are having the interview on Mr Ndegwa’s 120th day in office, and from the passion with which he speaks about Lipa Mdogo Mdogo, a recently unveiled product that will see people buy a smartphone by depositing Sh1,000 and paying the rest in Sh20 daily instalments, you can tell he wants this initiative to succeed.
“Especially during this Covid period, we’ve seen a significant number of kids trying to learn online. But only about 20 per cent are accessing education material during this period,” he says. “So, our objective is to make sure that we have universal access to a network that enables people to access 4G data … and to upgrade most of our customers who today own a 2G phone to a 4G phone.”
The service, designed in partnership with Google, has a set of eligibility criteria which once met, a person gets a phone costing around Sh6,000 for Sh1,000 then pays the rest of the amount in instalments. If they do not pay, they are barred from using most features of the phone. The company also says the phone cannot be flushed.
“Internet access is going to be an important enabler of social and economic empowerment,” says Mr Ndegwa. “If you assume that we put two million users every year on this that will be 10 million in five years. That is a significant number of people being enabled to access services which they would not normally be able to access.”
With all these initiatives he is pushing for, the meetings, the complaints he has to handle and all, does he ever have time to unwind? He says yes; that he travels with family whenever a chance arises, watches football (especially his favourite team Arsenal), is good at taekwondo and sometimes climbs mountains.
“You have to make sure that you’re healthy and fit, both physically and mentally,” he says. “One of the things I’ve learnt is that managing self is as important as managing the organisation. You will find that even today, there are two days in a week that I will have an afternoon that doesn’t have any meetings. And part of that is to catch up.”
He notes that at home, he has a room dedicated for exercise and that he walks to keep his body in shape.
During the transition period from Diageo to Safaricom, he spent six weeks travelling the world.
“I travelled to Asia, I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro to the peak. You have to do things that get you out of work,” he says.
His love for English Premier League side Arsenal is also a way of refreshing. But the team is not known for consistent results and he knows it.
“I have to say supporting Arsenal requires patience,” he says, drawing laughter in the room. It is just two days before the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea. Somehow, Mr Ndegwa says, Arsenal is always lucky with the FA Cup and he is thus not worried about the result.
“Arsenal is out of every cup,” he says, laughing. “Probably, this is the only window that could help us get anywhere near. When you talk to Arsenal supporters like us when it’s an FA Cup final, that’s fine. We’re in good shape.”
Mr Ndegwa is married with an 11-year-old son, who incidentally supports Liverpool. Many are the times he has gone on trips with the family.
“Because of being in Europe or in West Africa, we would choose to visit countries which we would probably not have got the opportunity to visit,” he says.
In the latter stages of the interview, he looks back at his first 100 days in office, which automatically raises the issue of Covid-19, which saw him get his induction virtually. He thinks Safaricom has fared well in its partnership with the government to assist Kenyans deal with the pandemic in various ways.
“Feeling a sense of responsibility to serve the country during this period has been a real moment of pride,” he says.
The interview over, he can now take a heavy gulp of water from his glass as he returns to his regular chair.
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