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The chief executive who built up one of the world’s leading mobile money services has died

REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Bob Collymore.
By Abdi Latif Dahir
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Bob Collymore, the Guyanese-born British businessman who oversaw the expansion of Kenyan telecoms firm Safaricom into East Africa’s biggest mobile network operator, has died.

Safaricom confirmed that the 61-year-old had passed away from cancer while at home this morning. Collymore had been receiving treatment for acute myeloid leukemia in the UK and in Kenya for almost two years.

Collymore took over as CEO of Safaricom after nine years in Africa and Asia with British telecom firm Vodafone, which partly owns Safaricom together with the Kenyan government and South African mobile operator Vodacom. He helped expand the company’s focus to include digital services, most notably developing the popular mobile money transfer service M-Pesa, and overseeing support of the company’s rapidly growing customer base. During his tenure, Safaricom grew into one of the largest and most profitable companies in East Africa.

Collymore was adamant about making M-Pesa available to consumers and businesses on a variety of platforms. In recent years, Safaricom opened up M-Pesa’s application programming interface to simplify integration with mainstream financial transactions. The company introduced cross-network transfer systems and made it easier for users to transfer cash worldwide using Western Union and China’s digital payment system WeChat Pay.

The Nairobi-headquartered firm also developed a range of apps for music streaming (Songa), ride-hailing (Little), e-commerce (Masoko), and launched a platform allowing customers to send and receive money while they chat (Bongo).

Collymore also resisted breaking up M-Pesa from the rest of the business after the company faced accusations from lawmakers, regulators, and rivals like Indian-owned Bharti Airtel and Telkom Kenya that it was too dominant. Safaricom is by far Kenya’s biggest telecom operator, claiming 31.8 million out of the country’s 51 million mobile subscribers.

Collymore announced in May that he would step down as CEO by August 2020. Company sources, however, told Reuters in April that he had planned to step down this August for health reasons, but that the appointment of a successor was being delayed over the Kenyan government’s insistence on a local for the role. The Kenyan government didn’t confirm or deny this assertion. Safaricom has yet to make an announcement on an interim CEO; it said in late April that a decision on Collymore’s successor had not yet been made.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta described Collymore as “a distinguished corporate leader whose contribution to our national wellbeing will be missed.”

Collymore reflected on mortality in a candid interview with Kenyan newspaper Business Daily last year, saying cancer had forced him to prioritize at work.

It has allowed me to let more people manage me. It’s made us focus on the things that are important, because not everything is important, not all arguments are important to many. You do not always have the last word on something and you do not always have to be the first person to say something. Just shut up and listen. When you spend a lot of time on your own, you realize that silence actually is a pretty good thing.

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