Faces of Safaricom - Benjamin Makai

Our article this week leads us to Benjamin Makai, who describes himself as a social innovator, interested in creating solutions that are targeted towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

30 Oct 2019 . 1,617 Views

With that very ambitious challenge, Benjamin prides himself in the fact that he leads the Technology for Development team, which has provided various solutions to local challenges.

1. How would you describe yourself and what you do at Safaricom?

To many, Safaricom is a mobile service provider. Over the seven years I have been around, I have been fortunate to be a part of teams changing this narrative. We are more than a core mobile services provider. I lead a team known as Technology for Development (T4D) which innovates to address real issue affecting the society and not in a philanthropic way but in a way that makes business sense.

I am also a husband to one wife and a father of 3 lovely girls.

2. What does Technology for Development as a department focus on? What does it really mean to be a social innovator?

 We are fortunate to sit in a department which has a well-known sibling- the Foundations (Safaricom and M-PESA Foundations), and of whom we share lots of ideals; they have done quite a lot of commendable stuff to transform lives of Kenyans.

As social innovators, our role is creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.  Our approach is not philanthropic but a new way to achieve economic success be it in health, education, agriculture and other areas aligned to the SDGs. We also incubate products and services and drive them to attain social impact and commercial viability then scale them through the business units, either by partnering with external entities, internally or via bespoke solutions addressing a certain need at that moment.

3. Having worked at Safaricom for over 7 years, what insights have you derived from your experience with developing solutions for public good?

 I’ve had the privilege of working in a business unit when I rejoined Safaricom in 2012.  The most powerful insight I’ve had is that when you are purpose led, when you identify and satisfy a pressing need within the communities you operate in, couple the same with the right mix of people (employees, partners etc.), you will eventually be able to make profits.

4. How does your team come up with such solutions? Do you have to start with research, or do you observe common problems / challenges with the society, and then provide possible solutions?

We always have our customers at the center of what we do, and this defines us. We empathize and develop solutions with the end user at the back of our mind. This calls for design thinking approach and lots of iterations before the final product gets to the market.

Over years, we have found ourselves coming up with solutions in a number of unique ways. The work goes through three key processes: research to inform us and identify pressing needs, walk-in partners who have a solution, but need a platform to ride on, and lastly, bespoke solutions targeting a certain need or constituency.

5. What has been your greatest success, based on the solutions you provided? Do you have a particular example where one person or a community was transformed?

 There are a number of interesting success stories to date. Mobile phone usage spans across various geographies and it is single most tool that has been highly been adopted.

Digifarm is on such an example. What started as a trial to validate how small holder farmers can get out of subsistence farming, produce quality produce and have access to best agronomic practices has now evolved to one stop shop where farmers can also access credit facilities, can have guaranteed access to market among other benefits. It wasn’t easy but an effort that saw us pilot it for close to two years, before transitioning it to our enterprise business unit where it currently sits. Both farmers and enterprises have been impacted by this platform.

Other successes include MTIBA, which is Africa’s leading customer-centric health finance platform, and Shupavu 291 is a study revision tool in partnership with Eneza. I recall an exciting story about a student in a refugee camp who was a loyal user of Shupavu 291, enabling her to garner high scores that enabled her to join a national school.

 6. What has been your greatest challenge (or failure) in the same? How did you overcome these challenges when faced with such moments?

As our late CEO, Bob Collymore (may his soul rest in peace) used to put it, success may look effortless for companies like Safaricom, but many are times when we encounter failure.

To me failures and faults are not necessarily the same thing. We are wired to believe that if we fail we have done something wrong. Failure doesn’t necessarily mean that you have done something wrong. Over years I have embraced both Good Failure (Thoughtful Experimentation) and Bad Failure (Reckless Negligence).

I am fortunate to have very supportive leadership team of whom once the vision is articulated, they walk the journey with you all the way. We try, fail, learn and eventually succeed.

7. You’ve worked across Africa in various capacities and roles in your career. Are our challenges the same? Do we have similarities? Or are we quite different?

I have been fortunate to have worked in over 10 African countries implementing social good solutions, from Eastern, Southern and West Africa. As the cycle goes, we have Technology Enthusiasts (Innovators), Early Adopters (Visionaries), Early majority (Pragmatists), Late Majority (conservatives), and Laggards (Skeptics).

I realized that there were many early adopters. A case to point was a simple solution I worked on in Zambia called Zuba Box. Zuba is a Nyanja local word for ‘sun rays’. The solution entailed leveraging on refurbished computers powered by solar and connecting a local community to the rest of the world, similar to the Safaricom 1-in-47 initiative. Within 6 months, we had many success stories of how people were able to connect to the rest of the world via the internet, social media and even access to job opportunities. This was in a remote village and clearly demonstrated the power of connectivity

We also have similarities. Across the continent, reputation is everything.  Reputable brand names are preferred and trusted more.

8. Did you envision this as your career trajectory as you completed your BSc in Computer Science, or did the journey morph as you worked?

 To be honest I wasn’t so sure what I was getting myself into after I completed my degree.

Computer Science was not my preferred degree course as I went through my high school studies. I never knew what computing was all about. I really admired thoughts of being a medic, inspired by my brother’s friends. As fate may have it, I never qualified for the medical course.

So, I ended up being called to study BSc at Egerton University with an option of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. When I joined the university grudgingly, I was informed that they had started a degree course in computer science and all that was required was good grades in mathematics and physics. And with long holiday stints as a result of riots and such, I found myself working for an ISP in Mombasa.

With my first stint at Safaricom in 2001, I got a contract to streamline a financial system, upon which I was permanently absorbed as an application support analyst. I left then to run the first ever ICT project tasked to help Kenya have an ICT Policy through funding from the Canadian government agency, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

While there we designed an ICT web-based discussion list (KIPlist) and upon completion of the project was handed to the stakeholders. It currently is one of the most vibrant and active multi stakeholders ICT discussion list in Kenya, KICTanet. I then came back to Safaricom and took on my role at T4D

 9. Have you taken any risks or had any failures in getting to this point of your career? What are some key decisions you had to make for yourself, which others can take as a lesson in their journeys?

 I must admit that I took a lot of risks career wise but fortunately all paid. While on holiday in 1998, I saw a bill board along Kibarani road in Mombasa from Swift Global, announcing themselves as the first ISP in Mombasa. I called the number and even decided to visit the office. The receptionist didn’t allow me in but she gave me the manager’s name. I went down stairs to a phone booth, called and requested to be put through to one Ms. Annabel. She was so interested that she invited me to come to her office the following day.

We had 30 minutes chat and next I was in my first flight to Nairobi the following week. I just admired my courage and call to action. That is how I got my first real job.

In 2003 I left Safaricom to pursue project management at National level a role which ignited my current interest in development. In between I did technology jobs in a startup local loop operator, had a short stint again at a European Union project as an ICT Manager, and tool on a 6 month contract as a programme manager across 10 African countries, a daring and daunting task.

I ended up really getting excited by the outcome of those social good initiatives and by the time I rejoined Safaricom, I had done more than 5 years in a charitable organization.

Careers do evolve and it is always advisable to take chances and grab opportunities. Always follow your heart and do your best. It is always good to get out of your comfort zone and explore new opportunities. The degree you specialized in is just a raft to take you across the river and the skills learned can be applied in various ways.

 10. What do you do when you’re not working? Any hobbies, part time hustles, etc.? Who is Benjamin outside the office?

I do rain fed farming in a place called Kanyuambora in Embu. Two years ago, I had a bumper harvest of water melons and tomatoes which I proudly supplied to my colleagues. I also volunteer at a community technology Centre in Meru called Thiiri Cultural Centre.

I spend a lot of time also with my family, who love travelling; once in a while we will find ourselves doing road trips in new areas at the countryside. The only challenge is my daughters’ preference can at times be overwhelming and conditional… I love it though.

 11. If you had a day to change the world, what would be the first three things you would do?

  • Start small- you don’t have to take on everything at once. Start small and take the first step. Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus is a good example
  • Pay it forward and practice random acts of kindness. Create that ripple effect associated with doing good to brighten many lives
  • Be Authentic in everything you do.

 12. What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in life and through your career?

Three very important ones that I carry with me always:

  • Do your best and don’t be up to impress.
  • Be driven by desire to do good
  • Never shy from telling the truth, for you tell the truth, you shall never need to remember what you said.

 

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