Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore: M-Pesa could have conquered the world, but we didn't — and this is why

Africa must find solutions that go on to be leaders in any territory, not just on the continent- like Uber is doing, he says.

The phrase “African solutions” has in recent years taken major meaning on the continent, but it unintendedly creates a canvas that is short of conquering global markets, the chief executive officer of Safaricom, east and central Africa’s largest telecommunications firm, has said. 

Speaking at at the Kenya Trade and Investment Summit in South Africa’s financial and business hub, Sandton, Bob Collymore used the analogy of how well US car-booking firm Uber has been adopted across the globe to illustrate that business success is not a function of a currency or locality, but of a can-do attitude.

“We need to change our mindset as Africans - both as Kenyans and South Africans. We need to set out to conquer the world, and we can. M-pesa could have conquered the world, but we didn’t,” he said of the globally-recognised mobile money transfer service that is now synonymous with the success of Kenya’s technology innovation.

“We need to think stop thinking about ‘African solutions’, we need to go beyond simply building a global brand through partnering with other companies and finding solutions that will go on to be leaders [in any territory] but you can only do that if you work together. Don’t think about it as going across a boundary.”

Collymore was referring specifically to tech innovation and the problems that many startups face in developing solutions that address global problems and have the ability to scale.

The sentiment, however, reflects the recurring theme of the one-day summit organised by the Kenya High Commission in South Africa and supported by Mail & Guardian Africa which attracted close to 200 Kenyan and South African business and political delegates. It was meant to market Kenya to potential investors in South Africa, with a memorandum of co-operation signed mid-conference between the Kenyan and SA chambers of commerce & industry.

Read: ‘There’s no better time to be in Kenya than now’ - analysts look beyond market losses, bullish on east African economy

Trade between the two countries is already strong, but is heavily tilted in favour of South Africa, which exported goods and services valued at $67 million compared to the return trade of $2.9 million in 2014.

Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Trade, Amina Mohamed, during her opening address said that its southernly neighbour had been one of Kenya’s most valued trade partners since 1994 and that more than 60 South African companies were already operating in Kenya.

“But both countries face serious challenges to create job opportunities. Enhancing trade and investment is one of the best ways to address these challenges. And although much more remains to be done, I’m encouraged that our two governments have taken steps to address the challenges that constrain business between our countries.”

Kenya’s foreign minister Amb. Amina C. Mohamed during her opening address at the Kenya Trade & Investment Summit in Sandton, South Africa. (Photo/Johann Barnard)

The ambassador reiterated that Kenya was ripe for business, which was evident in the country attracting $97.8 billion in foreign direct investment in 2014, a 95% increase over the previous year.

“We expect this performance in 2015 and 2016 to be much stronger, considering that we  overcame some of the key challenges previously discouraging investors,” CS Mohamed said. “In the long and medium term, manufacturing, agriculture, energy, mining, real estate, as well as IT and construction will be the leading sectors in FDI inflows.”

An issue reiterated all day - by both political and business leaders - was the stringent visa requirements introduced by South Africa earlier in this year. These new regulations have been roundly criticised not only by business and tourism visitors to the country, but by South African businesses as well.

The regulations have resulted in increased delays in visa applications being processed and are clearly a deterrent. More than one delegate said publicly that the consequence of this was that Kenyan business leaders were preferring to do business in counties with lower entry barriers.

Tedious visas
Thomas Konditi, president and CEO of GE South Africa, said that travelling to a ‘neutral’ country such as the US was both easier and preferable to having to undergo the tedious visa application process.

“The important thing to realise is that there 170 countries I can go to other than South Africa,” he said.

South African political leaders are not unaware of the debilitating effect these requirements have had on tourism numbers but appear powerless to overturn the regulations with any urgency.

Apart from this bureaucratic oversight on a move that has had clear negative impact on the economy, the summit revealed a great willingness to improve trade between the two countries.

The last word on the matter, and opportunity, was left to CS Mohamed who said: “We are where we are as Kenya because we carried out domestic reforms, and we have reaped huge benefits from putting place the right policies. South And Kenya are natural strategic partners and we must do much more together and focus on removing those barriers that still exist to us.”

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