Bob Collymore, the chief executive of east Africa’s largest and most profitable mobile network operator Safaricom, died on Monday aged 61, after a two-year battle with cancer.
Tributes poured in from across east Africa for the Guyana-born British businessman, who steered Safaricom through nearly a decade of innovative expansion during which its user base doubled and profits increased 380%, turning it into a $10.8bn company. According to the company’s most recent annual report, Safaricom’s business contributed 6.5% to Kenya’s total GDP in 2018.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, said: “Although Bob Collymore has left us, his inspirational life will remain a great legacy, not just to Kenyans, but also to the whole world.” The Kenyan government has a 35% stake in Safaricom.
Safaricom’s products allowed millions of Kenyans who were excluded from the banking system to pay for everything from groceries to taxi rides, turning Kenya and east Africa into pioneers of cashless payments, long before Apple Pay and Google Pay.
The company’s products include the flagship M-Pesa service for mobile payments, now used by 20 million people. Although launched before Collymore joined the company, under his tenure it has become an essential part of Kenyan life. Collymore, who was appointed CEO in 2010, also oversaw the launch of a string of new products, such as the overdrafts service Fuliza and micro-savings service M-Shwari.
Dubbed “bubbly Bob” in Kenyan media for his sharp-witted and jocular media appearances, Collymore was praised for promoting gender equality at Safaricom, where almost 50% of staff are women.
Collymore had been receiving treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia in the UK. In a press conference announcing his death, Safaricom’s board chair, Nicholas Ng’ang’a, said that Collymore had continued to play an active role in guiding the company until the end. “He has continued even from his bed and from his house to give leadership to the company, for which we are truly grateful.”
In a television interview with Kenya Citizen TV in 2018, Collymore joked about his cancer treatment, saying that when his doctors told him chemotherapy would last six to nine months, he considered that “being a Safaricom person I thought we could probably do it in five”.
Wallace Kantai, head of comms at Central Bank of Kenya, described how loved Collymore was in Kenya’s business community, in an interview with KTN News. Referring to Collymore’s willingness to engage with various people he said, “You feel like you’re the most important person in the room … Bob always made you feel larger than you were.”