Why The Heck Did Kris Senanu Join Telkom Enterprise? – Part One
I have known Kris Senanu since he had a box cut in college that would be back to 1994 when we both attended the United States International University (USIU). Chris, as he was then known, was introduced to me through a mutual acquaintance and as it turned out he helped me locate a place to stay when the student housing was completely full. This led to us living in the same apartment complex in Parklands for a period and as fate would have it we became good friends from that time onwards.
After University, Kris and I went on to start our careers in the Internet space. He at Swift Global and me at Form-Net Africa, two of the very first Internet service providers in Kenya. Kris went on to join what would become AccessKenya and after fifteen years made the bold move to join Telkom Enterprise in July 2016. Kris, being Kris, has been a busy body, working to bring to Telkom Enterprise that unique mojo he has that seems to turn everything he touches into technology gold!
I met Kris recently at Radisson Blu in Upper Hill for a candid chat as to why he opted to join Telkom Enterprise and what he feels the future holds for him there? I must confess that when I first heard of Kris’s move I felt it was the craziest decision, but given the fact that Telkom Kenya had been acquired by Helios Investment Partners last year I thought that this might suggest the beginning of the massive and much needed change coming to what is often referred to as the sleeping giant.
During our chat, Kris gave me an insight into the reasons that led him to make the decision to join Telkom Enterprise. This is the first part of a three part blog post on what we discussed:
Moses Kemibaro: So, Kris. Thanks for meeting me today. I am going to jump right into it if you don’t mind? After over 15 years at AccessKenya, why the heck did you join Telkom Kenya? Many people look at Telkom Kenya and think it’s ‘dead’ and therefore after an upward mobile career this eemed like you made the worst possible decision for you? So, please, enlighten me!
Kris Senanu: Thanks, Moses. I think there are three things that led to me making this decision. The first is a personal, deep rooted desire to create impact in the telecommunications industry in Kenya. In the last 20 years I had massive impact at both Swift Global and AccessKenya but I always felt that there is more that I can do? So, that’s the first reason.
The second reason had to do with the issue of challenge. I have been very lucky in that from 1st August 1996 when I walked into Swift Global it was madness from day one till the 28th February 2001 when I opted to leave there.
Moses Kemibaro: Hang on! You still remember the exact date when you left that job?
Kris Senanu: Yes, I do. I then walked into a little-known company called LCR Telecom on the 1st March 2001 which was also madness and we grew like crazy and we launched the AccessKenya brand and went public on the NSE in 2007 and then sold out to Internet Solutions in 2013. At that point the real challenge stopped!
Moses Kemibaro: So essentially everything was set at AccessKenya?
Kris Senanu: Yes. Everything was set. You find yourself just managing someone else’s strategy and systems and that’s not me. I’m a dynamic person and I thrive on massive challenge. I thrive on adrenaline. I thrive on chaos.
Moses Kemibaro: The fear of failure, even?
Kris Senanu: Yes. That too. It’s all of it. So, that’s the last straw which truly got me to make the move to Telkom Enterprise.
The last bit of it or the third reason is, around 5 or 6 years ago? I just felt this annoyance and/or irritation that we were quickly becoming a country of a single telecommunications provider at least on the Voice side of things. I noted this simply because that I like everyone else had a Safaricom mobile line. I used and I liked it.
I then noticed that there were too many places that you would go to and if you did not have M-Pesa people would look at you like what’s wrong with you? I would then ask them what’s wrong with you? M-Pesa is NOT the national mode of payment. It’s not about Safaricom bashing – I just felt that as a country we needed to have a more inclusive ecosystem for mobile money.
I strongly felt that we needed to de-risk the country’s over-reliance and over–dependence on one provider simply put I felt unlike the Tier 2 segment of the market the Tier 1 didn’t have any proper competition.
Moses Kemibaro: These thoughts were running in your mind even before you eventual move to Telkom Enterprise? So, this was something that at an almost philosophical level you needed to consider?
Kris Senanu: Yes. I had a massive argument once with some friends at the time when I told them that M-Pesa is not the be all and end all. We need to provide people with other payment options at scale like VISA, MasterCard, Airtel, Equitel, Orange and all other modes of payment. But people in Kenya seem to have assumed that it’s either M-Pesa or nothing.
The worst experience for me was when I went to South African High Commission in Nairobi once and to pay for my visa they said you had to use M-Pesa. I asked if I could use my credit card and they told me no! They told me if I needed to pay I could go to the lady in the corner who could use M-Pesa to pay on my behalf if I paid her. I refused. I told them that they would have problems with me if they did not give me other payment options.
Ultimately, I felt that they were forcing people to make payments using a single payment provider and told them that I would call the authorities on them. Anyway, so those are the buckets. Those were the main reasons.
Moses Kemibaro: OK. Got it.
Kris Senanu: However, you cannot take what I have shared with you out of context? In every such move there are push and pull factors. I had reached the pinnacle at AccessKenya. We had the South African investor buying into AccessKenya. I did not ‘feel’ the whole multinational environment that took hold thereafter.
The ‘push’ for me was that I was bored and did not like the set-up after AccessKenya was acquired by Internet Solutions where you find yourself spending more time in South Africa in meetings where half the people don’t understand your local situation but want to tell you what to do. I am very much a ‘local’ person? I like to believe that strategy needs to be fully localized and decision making should be decentralized.
Moses Kemibaro: So many decisions at AccessKenya started being aligned with the business in South Africa?
Kris Senanu: Of course, it had to and that’s the right thing. We built the business to sell it and we sold it. So, when the new owners came in they had a different strategy and direction in which they wanted to take the business and that’s perfectly fine. On one level I simply did not feel that I wanted to be the face of their new brand Internet solutions. I had been face of AccessKenya. I wanted to do something else!
Moses Kemibaro: People are wondering, me included, about the elephant in the room? That Jonathan Somen had always been the CEO at AccessKenya and perhaps that was the reason you left? To be a CEO somewhere else where you would get the opportunity? Was that one of the issues that perhaps that made you leave?
Kris Senanu: Moses, you know I am simple and straightforward. Yes, it was a factor. But, here’s the thing, fifteen years, there’s lots of questions that could be asked about that. How did I last fifteen plus years? Why did I stay at AccessKenya that long? The bottom line is that for around fourteen years of that time AccessKenya was run by three people. Yes, Jonathan had the title of CEO but the truth of the matter is that we were a trio. Jonathan Somen, David Somen and myself “Kris Somnanu: as I was refered too” .
We ran the business from the point of view of personal strengths of what it needed at every stage of its growth. Jonathan’s strength was technical and operations David’s was finance and strategy and I focused on the clients service and bringing in the revenue and it worked like magic we were a great team working together and strategizing together. Bottom line I had a wonderful boss in Jonathan and that’s how we worked together for 14 years.
Moses Kemibaro: Yes, I remember it being very personal, even at the start? It was more like buddies instead of your typical employer to employee relationship.
Kris Senanu: Exactly! When people asked me about my time at AccessKenya I always tell them I did not work for AccessKenya but instead I worked with Jonathan to create a superior LOCAL brand that corporates would love to connect to.
Therefore, when the opportunity came to be CEO of Internet Solutions I did have some concerns. Did I really want to do this? Was I simply taking the next easy and logical step or should I re-evaluate what I truly wanted at this stage of my life ? People told me I had ‘paid my dues’ so why Join a madhouse like Telkom Enterprise to have to roll up my sleeves and get back into the grind?
Moses Kemibaro: Kris, let’s be honest, we all thought it was a bizarre decision you made!
Kris Senanu: Yes, People thought Kris is going crazy! But you see, that is the same reaction I got when I left Swift Global for little known AccessKenya. I left Swift Global when it was at its peak when it was the number two Internet Service Provider in Kenya. We were growing like crazy on dial-up Internet. I left because we had a fundamental difference in strategy with Richard Bell who was the CEO at the time.
My Grandfather had told me years ago that the best dancer is the one who leaves the stage when the crowd is still enthusiastically clapping and cheering. One of the challenges we have in leadership in Africa is that many a time our leaders are still trying to cling on to the stage when the times have changed and their usefulness in that position has diminished. I try to follow my Grandfather’s advice in my career.