The first time KCB Group Chief Executive Joshua Oigara met former Safaricom boss Bob Collymore, a mobile lending and saving platform was born.
And KCB, one of the oldest local banks, was reborn.
So by the time Oigara was reading Collymore’s eulogy at All Saints Cathedral on July 4 last year, KCB M-Pesa, the idea birthed in the first meeting between the two executives, had already catapulted the lender’s customer base to 22 million from 4.4 million five years earlier.
KCB M-Pesa is as much a product of the partnership between KCB and Safaricom as it was of the friendship between Oigara and Collymore.
“One of my greatest inspirations to build a stronger bank was because of our engagement with Bob Collymore,” says Oigara, adding that talking to Bob, as he was fondly known among his friends and peers, gave him a “compass.”
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“And you know with a compass you don’t really get lost.”
Mentor and coach
Oigara’s firm belief in practice over perfection was also bequeathed to him by Bob, a man he calls his mentor and coach.
“I did not know him that well,” said Oigara of his first meeting with the former Safaricom CEO.
“But we thought that we can expand … we can create a different model of a product that can give customers a much-needed credit facility when they are in need.”
His face is bereft of emotion as he reminisces on the life-long lessons he got from his mentor. It was Collymore who founded the famous Boys Club, where Oigara was and remains its youngest member. Until his death, Collymore was its captain.
Other members of the club, which still meets once a month, include Citizen TV anchor Jeff Koinange, Radio Africa Group CEO Patrick Quarcoo, politician Peter Kenneth and Scangroup CEO Bharat Thakrar.
Bharat is the new captain.
Oigara talks animatedly but maintains a studious posture and a probing look.
Being a Friday, my colleague and I had expected to find him in casual or semi-casual attire, like khaki pants and a plaid shirt. Instead, he is wearing a plain light blue cotton shirt, auburn tie and dark grey trousers. Perhaps it is a case of once a banker, always a banker.
His corner office on the eighth floor of Kencom House is spacious, airy and uncluttered.
“We are always working on the go. If you look at my office today … you can check it,” he said spreading his arms. “There is really nothing here. My tablet and my phone; that is what I use. Everything is here.”
On his first meeting with Collymore, he recalls, they immediately embarked on creating an algorithm and got a robot, critical items for credit-scoring borrowers.
“We were able to score five million clients. We told them (clients): ‘If you are ready tomorrow, get your funds’.”
Since then, said Oigara, KCB has grown more than two and a half times.
Today KCB not only has the biggest customer base – having overtaken NCBA and Equity Bank – but it also has the single-largest asset portfolio.
But Oigara’s legacy, as the banking hall migrates into the mobile phone, will be carved on KCB M-Pesa.
The value of mobile loans that the bank has doled out via KCB M-Pesa has also grown 353 times, from Sh600 million as of 2014 to Sh212 billion by the end of last year.
It is not just KCB that gained from the good numbers – the partnership also meant more for Safaricom.
The telco was yearning for KCB’s massive balance sheet with which it could comfortably come up with a mobile loan product that is relatively cheap for its more than 30 million subscribers.
The deal gave it a foothold in the lucrative financial space.
With a top player on its side, the new financial products that followed the deal have helped Safaricom disrupt the market that was previously dominated by banks.
Friends aside, the idea was an exciting moment for Oigara, who wanted to chart his own path.
He remembers being asked whether he would fit into Martin Oduor’s “big shoes”.
“What we forget is that everybody sets their own journey. We are stuck in the past and we forget the future,” said Oigara.
He went on to downplay his sceptics, noting: “There is this cotton wool in our eyes; we rarely can see the future. Instead, we focus on the past. If you want to drive your life using your rearview mirror, you know you can’t go far. You need to be courageous enough to ask: Can I disrupt?”
Not everything that Oigara and Collymore did together had a sweet ending, but their friendship, he said, helped him through the difficult times.
With the benefit of hindsight, Oigara calls their decision to go public with their assets in late 2015 “foolish.”
“I call it a foolish action because we then remained the only two people who were willing to stand firm. And the conversation then changed.”
On December 8, 2015, Collymore made a public declaration on what he owned and had earned that year.
And because Collymore was his compass, Oigara followed suit.
At the time he put his net worth at Sh220 million. He valued his assets at Sh350 million and loan obligations at Sh130 million.
The assets, he said, were in the form of land, buildings, motor vehicles, cash bank balances and shares.
His monthly salary and allowances totaled Sh4.9 million. Last year, his monthly salary and allowances amounted to about Sh6.9 million.
“My public declaration is driven by the need for us as private sector players to initiate greater transparency,” said Oigara in a statement at the time.
He explained that the country was bleeding from corruption mainly driven by secrecy in organisational operations.
But many Kenyans were not impressed by his well-meaning gesture.
“People then said: ‘by the way … how can you be paid that much per second, per minute …’ It became a joke!”
Despite the success of KCB M-Pesa, the two firms’ joint venture on Pepea, a card that allowed commuters to load cash and pay for their bus fare, flopped.
“We put in a lot of money there. We spent between Sh200 million and Sh300 million in the business. It failed.”
But the strong friendship helped him absorb the shock of failure and soldier on in search of new opportunities.
“Amid failures, sometimes you need a bedrock of friends,” said Oigara.
Good friends, he said, help you keep building on your knowledge, making baby steps that culminate in progress.
But what irks him is the obsession with instant gratification by many young people.
Some of them, he said, believe that they can join KCB today and become its CEO the following day.
But that looks like what he did himself. Aged 37, Oigara became the youngest CEO of a Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed company.
“This is the wrong view for Kenyans. Nobody understood that at 37, I was probably a 50-year-old,” said Oigara, explaining that his vast experience put him in good stead to take up the job.
His CV, he said, is a better indicator of his age than his national identification card.
Before he became the bank’s CEO, replacing Martin Oduor, Oigara had a two-year stint at the bank as its chief financial officer.
Earlier, the University of Nairobi alumnus had served as Bamburi Cement’s Group financial director and chief financial officer for the East Africa region.
The father of three has also had the privilege of being involved in a number of global engagements, including at the United Nations Security Council.
“I did not sit there because of age. I sat because of what I was bringing to the table. Age is the most useless and irrelevant measure of abilities,” said Oigara.
Pettiness and perfectionism
He said he loathes pettiness and perfectionism, which is why he deleted all his social media accounts, although he still maintains his profile on networking site LinkedIn and messaging platform Whatsapp.
“I have not been on social media for two years now. Do I look like I am missing something?” he asked.
Not that he does not have the thick skin necessary for a public figure like him in a digital world where an ordinary Kenyan can send a message directly to their president, in the paraphrased words of American author Thomas Friedman.
“I don’t want to live my life being abused,” said Oigara. “As a country that is trying to grow, we can’t spend all our time being abused for making progress.”
But he also blames the rise in cyberbullying on a dearth of opportunities for the youth.
“When you are busy, you have no time to abuse another person.”
In April, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranked Kenyans “the worst bullies on Twitter”.
And unfortunately, Kenyans, according to Oigara, are not churning out as many innovations as they are hurling insults on the internet.
This is surprising given that Nairobi has been hailed as a ‘Silicon Savannah’.
He said Nairobi might as well be called an innovation desert, to borrow the words of poet Taban Lo Liyong.
Oigara, who oversaw the unveiling of the KCB Lions’ Den competition for budding entrepreneurs, expressed disappointment at the quality of the innovations, insisting that Kenyans need to do more to improve their crafts.
Not only have the few good innovations been restricted to the financial sector, but a lot of them have also been what he called “me-too innovations”; copycats of an original.
“Me-too basically reduces the value of an enterprise. It does not give the benefit to the owner of intellectual property.”
Even in the banking sector, the KCB boss said, copycats exist.
“Others are saying let us try and become an M-Pesa. You can see that we are not good at that,” he said.
The veiled jibe appears to be directed at competitor Equity Bank. Equity is the only local bank with its own Sim card – Equitel – a mobile virtual network. As at June 2019, it had recorded 101 million mobile money commerce transactions.
Indeed, journalists have tended to reduce the competition in Kenya’s banking sector into a two-horse race between Equity and KCB.
This corporate rivalry has implicitly snowballed into a battle of egos between Equity boss James Mwangi and Oigara.
But Oigara insists the idea of rivalry “is a creation of disingenuous journalists”.
“Race for what? The two biggest banks in China collaborate.”
The banks in question are the National Bank of China, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).
He described his relationship with Mwangi as cordial.
“I look up to James as a person because he is a leader in the industry,” said Oigara. Occasionally, he said, their routes cross as they are in the same industry.
Indeed, another lesson Oigara learnt from Collymore is the need for more collaboration.
“We compete, but there are areas to collaborate in,” he said.
Through an industry-wide collaboration, Oigara said, they would achieve economies of scale in areas like big data, artificial intelligence and robotics.
He revealed they are working on a collaboration between KCB, M-Shwari, M-Pesa and Fuliza to create a common pool for lending products.
“I think it will be the best innovation ever for customers in the market.”
But are bankers getting more than their fair share of economic output?
“People say banks make a lot of money – banks make a lot of money because they hold the single largest asset.”
For example, should KCB’s plan to acquire two banks from Rwanda and Tanzania go through, the lender’s assets will cross the Sh1 trillion mark.
“There is not a single other organisation in our market that has reached a trillion shillings, except the government, in terms of assets.”
While banks were guilty of causing a recession in 2008, they might have redeemed themselves in the current Covid-19 crisis. Kenyan banks, in particular, Oigara said, have reached out and supported their customers during the crisis through restructuring of loans.
Banks have restructured loans valued at Sh1.38 trillion since March.
If Martin Oduor is like the Bible’s Moses who led KCB from the bondage of mismanagement, Oigara believes he is like his namesake Joshua, and will lead the lender into the promised land; a digital revolution.