By Prudence Minayo
Safaricom is the leading mobile service provider in Kenya that has been synonymous with Michael Joseph. It all started when MJ, the founding Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Safaricom, who took over as interim CEO in 2019 for a while after the demise of the late Bob Collymore, came to Kenya in 2000 to launch the giant telco with 5 Vodafone employees. He is credited for building the telcos to one of the biggest companies in East Africa. The South African born businessman has shown grit and is one of the best CEOs in the country if what he did with Safaricom is anything to go by.
With all the success he enjoys now, you would think he has never had failure and disappointment but that is far from the truth. Before reaching where he is today, he passed through a number of challenges and as a young man never dreamt that he would achieve the success he enjoys.
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Michael was born in 1946 in South Africa. The Safaricom chairman is 76 years old. Growing up he wanted to become a veterinary officer or a ranger.
In School, he was not among the smartest kids. In an interview published by “The Standard” two years ago, he is quoted saying,
“ I wasn’t a star in school. And in University I struggled in my first two years.”
He joined technical colleges as he did not perform very well in his school years. This helped him get a chance to join Cape town University and he also did the compulsory military service.
He decided to move from South Africa to the United States during the apartheid period in South Africa. Life was not easy and he thought the US would be better.
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“ I moved for several reasons,” he said, “ I had gone through divorce, I had two young daughters to take care of and South Africa was in the depth of apartheid and I wasn’t too sure what would happen,” he is quoted by The Standard.
The astute businessman has been married four times. In a past interview published by Citizen, he said he has no regrets for all of his marriages as he learnt something from them.
“Divorce is always a difficult, sad and tragic thing to do but if I look back, I think I had an extraordinary life,” he said.
His fourth wife is named Sian and he met her in Kenya. Michael secured his Kenyan citizenship in 2014.
The former Safaricom CEO relocated to the United States in 1986 at the age of 40 after some American friends had promised to invest in a company they had planned to start. However, when he arrived in the United States, the friends failed to provide the investment as agreed upon. He ended up losing a lot of money and to add salt to injury he was in a foreign country coupled with the fact he had children back in South Africa to feed.
Michael got into the telecom industry by chance. Despite knowing nothing about workings of the industry, he applied for a job advertisement in a newspaper and the rest was history.
“I saw this job ad in the newspaper for an international project manager. Even though I was a telecom engineer I’ve never worked in the mobile industry and didn’t know anything about it. I went to the library to get books and magazines to read and went for the interview. The guy who interviewed me had just come back from a trip in South Africa so all he talked about was his safari in South Africa and then he gave me the job (laughs). And that’s how I started in the mobile industry,” he said. (quoted from Citizen digital).
At the age of 55, he came to Kenya as a Safaricom employee. He launched Safaricom with 5 Vodafone employees in a three-bedroom apartment in Norfolk Towers, Nairobi.
In a previous article by the Nation, the growth of Safaricom is explained better, from 16,000 subscribers in 2000 to over 15 million in 2010 when he was handing over to Bob Collymore. Mr. Joseph spearheaded the innovation of M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer that changed the transfer of money in Kenya. This was one of Safaricom’s biggest innovations that has helped millions around the region transfer and receive money with ease.
In 2010, he handed over the mantle to Bob Collymore. At the time, the company was valued at kshs.250 billion at the Nairobi Stock Exchange and had already established itself as the biggest telecom providers in the region. On his departure, he said:
“Safaricom now needs a different kind of leadership. I have done what I wanted to do. And it’s time for someone else. Bob is a smart guy and I don’t think he wants to say one day ‘ I’m the man who brought Safaricom down,” he is quoted by Nation.
After stepping down as CEO from the company, he still had other duties within the company. In 2019, when Bob Collymore passed away, he took over as the interim CEO and in April 2020, handed over the mantle once again but this time to the first ever Kenyan national to become the Safaricom Limited CEO, Peter Ndegwa.
Selling All His Safaricom shares
Michael Joseph sold all his 1.17 million Safaricom shares sparking wild speculations from business pundits. The new chairman of the telcos told BusinessDaily in 2019 that he was selling the shares inorder to fund the construction of his retirement home.
He told BD:
“When you invest in a company like I did with Safaricom you invest for a reason.
You invest at some point because you want to invest. When you take the money out you want to spend on something. In my semi-retirement I am building a house and I needed the funds”.
Appointed as Safaricom CEO
News that Michael Joseph had been appointed as the new board chairman of Safaricom after the retirement of Nicholas Ng’ang’a was received with mixed reactions from social media users. Some questioned why Nganga, who had served as the chairman and non-executive director of the telcos for 13 years, had not been replaced by a Kenyan. This was countered by a section of Kenyans who felt Joseph deserved the position given his role in making Safaricom what it is today.
Michael Joseph’s role will include but not limited to overseeing the operations of the telcos and providing leadership and governance of the board.
Currently, he is the chairman of Kenya Airways among other positions he holds. He also acquired Kenyan citizenship years back.
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