Bob Collymore, the CEO of Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest telecommunications company, passed away on 1 July. Tom Collins pays tribute to a man whose talents went far beyond leading one of the most profitable firms in the region.
When Bob Collymore passed away on 1 July after battling acute myeloid leukaemia for several years, Kenya, East Africa and the world mourned the death of someone who had come to represent so much more than just the boss of Safaricom, East Africa’s largest company.
Waiting outside his top-floor office at Safaricom HQ in Nairobi, your correspondent remembers a feeling of slight nervousness as the towering figure opened the door. But sitting on a comfortable leather sofa, Collymore allayed all fears as he proceeded to cannily dissect the telco’s successes while making frequent forays into the world of philosophy, music, art and the spirit of entrepreneurship in Kenya.
In what we now know was his last magazine interview, Collymore revealed to African Business in May that he would like to be remembered for more than his ability to grow shareholder value and increase profit. These interests – ideas, music and art – were the lifeblood of this business executive, who, like the conductor of an orchestra, introduced different tones to the Safaricom symphony that have now been etched into the memory of Kenya’s private sector.
Growing up in Guyana, Collymore turned seashells into jewellery, which he would then sell, in a precursor of his later ability to merge business and art. The Safaricom Jazz Festival is a coveted date on any Nairobian’s calendar, and Collymore was frequently spotted sitting on the grass with his wife Wambui, also an artist.
Wandering into Nairobi’s slums, the music aficionado would round up a group of children and place a variety of musical instruments in their hands. The result was Ghetto Classics, a programme that encouraged Nairobi’s impoverished youth to join orchestras and start performing for their local communities and at Safaricom events. This creative spirit stayed with Collymore until the very end.
During our interview, the executive joked he had “fooled everyone” by staying alive after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. Presumably, Collymore must have known that his days were numbered even as we spoke. Yet his playful spirit endured and he convinced the press that he would lead Safaricom until August 2020.
Pulling the wool over our eyes, this theatrical spirit reflected a man who was determined to give every ounce of passion and energy till the very last.
On the day of his death, Kenyans mourned Collymore like they had lost a great movie star or pop singer. It’s not often a business executive has that impact.