Kris Senanu is the Ghanaian-born Chief Executive Officer of Access Kenya, a successful IT firm in the Nairobi. Business World sat down with him to talk how he ended up in Kenya, IT in Africa and what he plans to do for Ghana and Africa once he retires at 45.
Business World: How did you come to live and work in Kenya?
Kris Senanu: After my “A” Levels in 1992, I came to Nairobi to visit my father who was lecturing and living here with the rest of the family. I planned to spend six months here before heading to the United States of America for my undergraduate studies.
Three months into my time here I was bored so I started taking some courses. We also discovered that I didn’t cope too well with the cold weather. So my dad suggested that I wait to go in the summer instead, meaning that I could stay an extra nine months in Nairobi or come back to Accra. A neighbor suggested that I attend the local American University so I could transfer credits. As it happened, I never left but rather finished my undergraduate studies in two and a half years instead of four.
I came back to Accra where most of my mates were just entering university. This made it impossible to find a job because employers didn’t understand how I could claim to have a degree when I’d left Secondary School only two and half years earlier. So I returned to Nairobi after Easter in 1996 with a USD 100 and a suitcase of clothes that I planned to sell. Basically, I wanted to pass the time and maybe go on to do my masters. Then I met a friend who said there is a telecom company that has started – then called Swift Global – and I joined them to do sales. I spent five and a half years with them and then got a bit bored. I was also unhappy with the strategic direction so in 2001 we partnered with other people to set up Access Kenya.
Access Kenya basically was set up to cater for corporate connectivity. The main difference between Access and where I used to be was that we were doing residential connectivity at Swift Global – dialup then – which I thought wasn’t a sustainable business model. I figured that wireless was the way to go, fibre optics were coming in and there was going to be liberalization and de-regulation in the telecom industry. That was the basis and thought process behind the setting up of Access.
BW: You’ve done very well here.
KS: Yes. One of the things is that I have never looked as myself as a Ghanaian or a foreigner and that’s one of the reasons why I have settled so well. I only saw myself as a person who was working. And I adapted to the country the way Kenyans would. I’m sure they will always see me as a Ghanaian but I try my best not to because if I do, I would be separating myself.
BW: Is the business environment better in Kenya than in Ghana?
KS: I wouldn’t say its better; I would say it’s different. It’s more conducive to innovative entrepreneurial ventures. In Ghana, we have a lot of “me-too” ventures. For instance, it’s possible to have twenty tomato sellers in the same place selling at the same price and they will all have different customers. What happens here is that the twenty will shrink to five and the fifteen will become suppliers to the five. Then you will have ten go back to farming so you have the supply chain. It’s a bit more organized. So that’s the difference. Then in terms of profitability, there is a difference in the way the profits are shared because someone will ask, what happens to the other fifteen tomato sellers for example? Do they become redundant? But there is a way that the system works so that everyone plays a role in the supply chain as opposed to the me-too style.
BW: What can Ghana learn from Kenya?
KS: I think the way for Ghana to go is full liberalization which I believe we have done. We also need to encourage investment in ICT incubators. There are a lot of trained ICT people in Ghana but the entrepreneurship bit of it, I think, is lacking. They need to know that with this sort of training, this is the sort of business they can go into; this is where they can access venture capital. Then also, the provision of venture capital and private equity so people with good ventures can get access to ready capital. And then we need a strategic plan. I ask, where does Ghana see itself vis-a-vis its neighbours, vis-à-vis its competitive advantage within the technology space in Africa? One smart thing we have done in Kenya is pushing the perception and positioning Kenya as the Silicon Savannah. Indeed, there is a lot of innovation going on in Kenya but what they’ve done is we’ve taken the few things and blown it up such that it’s not even disputed and people have bought into it and are coming here. Also, that perception is pushing people to innovate. But the infrastructure is there, the hubs and incubators are there and private equity is there. Indeed, there is now more money chasing ideas than ideas chasing money here in Kenya. So Ghana has to decide where it wants to position itself and then the inflows will come and the industry will grow.
BW: So this means financial services is key to ICT?
KS: Yes. The deepening of the financial sector is good not only for ICT but for all entrepreneurial ventures within the country. Now we have a lot of big business coming into Ghana because of oil but those are not going to bring in the jobs the country needs. Those are going to come from SMEs. So you have an oil industry and that is one; you also have agriculture. But you still need private equity and you need a good financial sector to sustain all these SMEs. I believe there is a lot happening in the micro-finance and micro-insurance industries in Ghana. These are the things that are going to grow the overall economy.
BW: What’s your view of the ICT industry’s prospects in Ghana?
KS: I believe because of our good command of the English language and the conscientiousness of the Ghanaian worker, we can have a viable Business Process Outsourcing in Ghana. We have the fibre optic and we are trusted neighbours, I see Ghana easily becoming the ICT hub in the sub-region if we take the leap now and position ourselves. Once you take position, it’s difficult for another country to knock you off. That’s where I see us going but it depends on the policies. We’ve got the people, we’ve got the infrastructure, but we need the strategy to put it all together and a visionary to drive it. I see Ghana being able, for instance, to handle the back end operations for the Nigerian banks. I think we are trusted, in terms of data integrity and the security bit of it. I see us also becoming a hub for training in technology. I think we can do a lot in data storage, warehousing, disaster recovery and cloud services if we move it to the next level because we have the stability and security.
BW: Do you plan to do anything in Ghana?
KS: I plan on doing something in Ghana. I am very interested in coming back to help with ICT policy. I feel that I have value to add because I think once the vision is set and people are aligned, I think we can go places. Secondly, from a business point of view, I am talking to various entrepreneurs to see where I can plug in terms of knowledge and network to come help set up some ventures. I see myself in the next 3-5 years operating from both Nairobi and Accra.
BW: What are the possibilities for young African entrepreneurs?
KS: What I say to young African entrepreneurs is that lets not throw away history. Whatever happened in the west in their industrial development is what is happening here. This is the frontier; this is where it’s happening. Everyone wants to come to Africa and do something. Those people will want to either set up new ventures or partner with people in existing ventures. We have to start creating value because that is the only way to release equity. Having said that, the ways of the west are not the rules for Africa and we need to keep true to our culture, habits and ways of doing things. We don’t necessarily have to take the Mcdonald’s or the KFC way and replicate it here. There is a raging debate about family business and professional businesses as though family businesses cannot be professional businesses. Some of the best run businesses in the world are family businesses; they just have the issues of corporate governance and strategies are in place. So one of the ways for Africa to have a billion billionaires is for all of us African entrepreneurs is to think about how we can professionalise the family business which is more suited to our culture. We also need a lot more entrepreneurs and we need a lot more people to just initiate. A lot of people are sitting around with good ideas waiting for capital or the right time. I say start now. If you are going to fail, you better fail faster, learn from it and continue.
BW: What would you like to be remembered for?
KS: I retire in 6 years and 6 months when I turn 45. Right now, I have an ICT presence in East Africa. Between 40 and 45, I want to go Pan African; I want to be the guy to see in terms of ICT policy. I’ve always said I am a politician so if I don’t do something at the AU level, maybe I will come home to help drive ICT policy at the ministry level. I am currently vice chair of the Telecommunication providers in Kenya and in a year, will be chairman. What I want to do then is not only influence Kenyan ICT policy but the region because the whole region looks to Kenya so if I’m setting policy for Kenya, I’m influencing policy for the whole region. I’m already doing a lot of speaking assignments in the region. Everybody looks to South Africa for best practices for now but that will change. South Africa has copied the west but Africa needs to come up with its own solutions; those will come from East Africa and I will be right in the middle of that.
• The print edition mistakenly reports that Mr Senanu will turn 55 in 6 years. The correct age should be 45 and has been corrected for the online edition.
We apologise sincerely to Mr Senanu and our readers for the error.