Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore dies of cancer

The CEO of Kenya’s largest telecoms company, Safaricom, has died aged 61.


Bob Collymore, the CEO of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecoms company, has died. He was 61.

Collymore, who returned to lead the firm in July 2018 after several months of treatment in the UK for acute myeloid leukamia, died at his home on July 1 after treatment in several hospitals, according to a statement from Safaricom, who said that he served the firm and Kenya “selflessly and with joy.”

“It is with deep sorrow that we announce the passing away of Robert (Bob) William Collymore CEO of SAFARICOM.PLC, which occurred at his home in the morning of 1st July 2019… In recent weeks, his condition worsened and he succumbed to the cancer at his home in the early hours of Monday 1st July 2019. Bob Collymore leaves behind a wife and four children.”

Board member and former chief executive Michael Joseph, the current chairman at Kenya Airways, has been named as interim chief executive. 

The death of Collymore brings an end to one of the most successful leadership tenures in Africa’s dynamic telecoms sector. Collymore’s career coincided with an explosion in the ownership of mobile telephones and smartphones on the continent, and he positioned Safaricom to capitalise on a booming market for data and mobile-based financial services.

Over nine years as CEO, Collymore consolidated the firm’s position as a dominant player in the domestic market, where it today commands a market share of over 64%, and oversaw a successful regional expansion. 

Collymore also helped to oversee the dramatic growth of M-Pesa, the mobile phone-based money transfer service that was launched in 2007. While Safaricom’s success delivered a nearly 500% increase in its share value to shareholders – which include the Kenyan government and Vodafone Group – its dominance also attracted the scrutiny of lawmakers. Last August, Kenya’s Competition Authority advised that no action should be taken against the company.  

In recent months, Collymore spoke of the need to diversify revenues and expressed his regret that the firm had not expanded more aggressively outside its home market.

“My biggest regret is that we haven’t moved forwards into other parts of Africa,” he says. “I’m a little bit of a timid merger and acquisition guy; I’m not the sort of person who wants to rush out there.” 

“If you look at our telecom growth outside of M-Pesa it’s shocking – it’s at 2.4%. This is a general trend you find with telecom companies. Data prices are coming down. [With] Voice we are at 0.3% growth – that’s called flat. SMS is declining. So if you don’t diversify your revenue streams you have a problem coming.” 

New products intended to diversify the firm’s revenue streams included Fuliza, an overdraft facility for M-Pesa users struggling to make payments, and DigiFarm, a platform that provides credit and yield-boosting information via an app. Yet Collymore’s ambitious plans for a new era at the firm were hit by his cancer diagnosis and treatment plans. Following his stay in the United Kingdom and return to the helm of the company in July 2018, rumours swirled that he was preparing to step down at the firm.

Speaking to African Business Magazine in one of his final press interviews in May, Collymore insisted that he was eager to continue leading the firm.

“No, I’m not stepping down. I never said I’m stepping down. People say, ‘Well, your contact runs out in August’, yes, but my contract ran out in August two years ago and two years before that.” 

Away from Safaricom, Collymore, a jazz-enthusiast, led community outreach programmes including a Saturday youth orchestra in Safaricom House and classical music lessons for children in Kenya’s slums. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta led the tributes. 

“Bob Collymore was an accomplished corporate leader who steered Safaricom to a position of great admiration as East Africa’s most profitable company. Besides his role at Safaricom, Mr Collymore served on our Vision 2030 Board where he offered his managerial expertise in pursuit of our national development agenda. As a country, we’ve therefore lost a distinguished corporate leader whose contribution to our national wellbeing will be greatly missed.”

Read Bob Collymore’s last magazine interview here.

David Thomas

Additional reporting by Tom Collins in Nairobi.

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