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New Safaricom CEO: Yes, where you school matters

By XN Iraki | October 29th 2019
A Starehe Boys Centre alumnus will head Safaricom, Kenya‘s most profitable company, from April next year.

One local daily had an unusual headline on Friday last week. It stated that a Starehe Boys Centre alumnus will head Safaricom, Kenya‘s most profitable company from April next year.

After the return of the founding CEO Michael Joseph on an interim basis following the death of Bob Collymore, Safaricom now has a substantive executive, Peter Ndegwa.

Rarely has such an appointment attracted so much attention.

When did the appointment of a chief executive become a national headline?

One reason is that in its 19-year history, Safaricom has been led by a non-Kenyan.

Two, it could be that the Government, a major shareholder, is now flexing its muscles. While we love bashing the Government, does anyone congratulate it for being part owner of Safaricom?

Three is the strategic resources one controls by heading Safaricom. This includes the spectrum and money through M-Pesa.

Add the fact that we have become addicted to the Internet, and everyone wants to know who leads the firm. The fact that many Kenyans own shares creates further interest.

It is also possible that we all want to be associated with success. We could also speculate without evidence that some senior media personalities went through Starehe.

Ndegwa is an alumnus of Starehe Boys Centre, London School of Business and an accountant.

But why has his former high school overshadowed his other alma mater like the University of Nairobi or London School of Business?

Did we expect an alumnus of other schools in the same league such as Alliance or Mang’u  to take over?

Did we expect an alumnus of an international school? Or did we expect a non-Kenyan again? It had even been speculated that a lady would head Safaricom.

Barefoot boys

Such headlines highlighting the former school of successful people should become more common. They create competition and should be encouraged. They inspire our young men and women to aim higher.

But I wish his primary school was mentioned too. Pupils in his former primary school probably need more inspiration now. Why did the media indicate he comes from Ol Kalou and lived in an old colonial house near Happy Valley that is still frozen in time and prospects?

With so much unemployment and disillusionment, the elevation of “village boy” to the helm of one of East Africa‘s top firms could make a big difference. Young barefoot boys across Kenya can now see possibilities given a chance. Teachers know that inspiration is joining land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship among the scarce resources.

We could ask a more pertinent question: does it matter where you go to school? Would Ndegwa have become the CEO of Safaricom if he schooled at Mung’etho instead of Starehe?

Definitely. Most schools have a history that either inspires or depresses. If Cabinet secretaries and captains of industry went through your school, it could inspire you to follow in their footsteps.

If none of your former school mates ends up anywhere of note, you will probably see nothing wrong with that.

The great impetus to success in school is who you interact with. Books can be read, but experience can’t be googled or bought.

This is why good schools seem to remain good as is the case with the bad ones.

A good culture serves as a bedrock of excellence. The missionaries did their best to establish such a culture in our schools. Geoffrey Griffin did the same for Starehe.

In all other schools our kids fight to get into, there is a man or woman who established a culture of excellence.

Many outsiders, including regulators, do not understand the school cultures.

For example, why were Carey Francis and Geoffrey Griffin buried in their respective schools? Would you mind if your former headmaster was buried in your school?

Would I be unfair to say that we never did a good job after the missionaries left?

Their place is slowly being taken over by private schools. Do they have the cultural bedrock of missionaries? We could argue that most such schools are not old enough to build such a culture like Eton in the UK or Philips Academy in Massachusetts. These schools produce the movers and shakers in the public and private sectors.

The private schools in developed countries are bastions of privilege and a hunting ground for both private and public sectors. It matters where one goes to school.

Kenya is just catching up. Does it surprise you that the most prestigious high schools are the oldest?

They have a history of successful alumni. Could the focus on Ndegwa’s former high school simply mean that Kenya’s higher education has no elite schools? 

In other countries, elite universities matter.  So much so that even South Africa left them intact despite the end of apartheid. Elite universities will eventually emerge in Kenya, driven by the invisible hand of the market, not the Government. Congrats Peter Ndegwa, go and inspire the next generation.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi.

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