Abdi Mohamed’s lifelong addiction

Absa Bank Kenya chief executive officer Abdi Mohamed. 

Absa Bank Kenya chief executive officer Abdi Mohamed. 

Photo credit: Pool

Lunch at Graze Steakhouse in Nairobi. Abdi Mohamed presides over his steak. Earlier, he was in the mosque up the road for Dhuhr, the lunchtime prayer. Abdi is a spiritual man, a religious man, and prayer is key. He also knows his Bible because, as a lad, he attended Garbatula High School, a Catholic mission school.

He chews contemplatively as he reminisces about his childhood in Balambala, a small town North of Garissa, along the moving ‘chocolate’ of Tana River. Of time spent in the fields looking after cows, hunting with dogs, and getting up to the usual mischiefs of boys. 

Now, he’s the CEO of Absa Bank Kenya after 30 years of making his bones in banking. It all feels like a long time ago, another lifetime even. “I used to be at the top of my class. I got addicted to (being at)the top of things and tried to be excellent,” he says. “It’s healthy, but it has its downside, so one needs to let go and relax about life.” And he is relaxed right now; tie off, post-lunch chit chat, a dessert-or-no-dessert moment.

What did you dream about as a boy growing up in Garissa?

Many Kenyans don’t know much about that part of the world. They think of it as a hardship area but it’s a truly wonderful place. It’s from growing up there that one picks many qualities; honesty, integrity, generosity. People do business by shaking hands, no signatures or contracts. A handshake binds you. Also, people take good care of each other, there’s a lot of generosity.

Growing up, it was largely a pastoralist existence, which means it was common in our school for students to come and go. I did my primary school for five years, I skipped a few classes. School was ...

How come you did primary school in five years?

It was mainly just academics and performance. People felt I could skip those classes…

You can say you were smart.

[Laughter] I can say that, unlike today’s children who are taken to Quran school by the age of three or four, we were turning up much later and learning about the Quran and Arabic so catching up with school was quick, and you skip a lot because, well, you are catching up...

Was the environment very challenging?

You know, today when you sit here in the city of Nairobi and you think about that environment you might think it is challenging but we enjoyed it. We had great fun, lots to do in the fields looking after cows. There was always a river or somewhere to play in, something to hunt with dogs. You felt you were in a creative space all the time. 

What are some of the things that motivated you in that space?

There were not many role models at the time. In the early part of school, you pretty much did well and continued doing what your teachers were telling you. But in secondary school, we got visits from a few students from Northeastern who were in university - and there were not many. They would talk to us about their experiences in the universities in Nairobi. That got you started on painting your picture. You’d start envisioning what it could be like.

What did that picture look like for you?

It changed over time. As a young person, I nursed different ambitions at different times. My dad worked in the Kenya Police Force, which meant he moved around a lot chasing bad guys. I admired that a lot. I liked the camaraderie with his colleagues, they were like a band of brothers. They took care of each other, they could literally take a bullet for each other. So, that was my first inspiration. I wanted to be like him, a good guy who chases bad guys.

But as time went by, I started interacting with teachers, and I considered teaching as a profession. in fact, I had a teaching stint after I enrolled at the Kenyatta University for my Bachelors of Commerce degree. Then, at the university, I started thinking about management leadership. A lot of people would come to talk to us, and I thought it was an incredible field.

 The thought of working with people who deliver goals by helping individuals and organisations grow excited me. There were good role models in the university. Some of us were the first to get a university education in our families. It was a big deal When you were the first in the extended family. Back then, there were only two universities in Kenya, so when you got in, you made your mark.

Absa Bank Kenya managing director Abdi Mohammed speaks during a breakfast roundtable event. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What were some of the questions people asked you the first time you went back home from the university? 

[Chuckles] Folk wanted to hear about the big city, about the university itself. What does it look like? What does it feel like? We spoke a lot to students in high schools, something I still do to this day. Charles (having a beautiful rump steak] and I and others were in Garissa High School recently talking to students. It was about getting people in. When I was in university, our student association was so small we could fit in a restaurant like this one. Today, when we talk to them, it’s a hall full of people. So we feel that we’ve made a lot of progress. It’s important for people like me and others before me to say, “I was there, and I brought people along with me.”

You’re a very ambitious person.

I’ve always been. You know, there is this cliche of parents always telling their children, ‘I used to be top of the class.’ I got addicted to that top of things, trying to be excellent and the best. It’s healthy, but it also has downsides; you need to let go sometimes and relax. I’ve always been driven and always wanted to not necessarily be the best but produce my best.

A lot of burden comes with excellence.


Do you feel the pressure of it?

Yes. When you’re younger, you tend to confuse excellence with perfection. But then I came across the thinking of Tom Peters that excellence is about improvement, that it’s about being better today than you were yesterday. That’s when I got into the real rhythm of it. No one is perfect; perfection doesn’t exist and will never be achieved.

Do you have any artistic streak?

[Chuckle] Not much. I’m far more of a logical person. In school, I was more of a maths and sciences person. I taught maths at County High School in Garissa County. I have good students, including serving MPs, who still call me Mwalimu. I enjoyed teaching; it was fantastic. There is Nothing as rewarding as taking learners from point A to B and getting national exams and seeing them pass. That element is still deeply inside me, even at work, the teacher in me is still there.

Is there anything you are learning in this season of your life?

I’ve always thought about how to be more impactful in society beyond profits and corporate life. In this season, as I operate as a CEO, that is probably the biggest area where I still feel I can move the dial and have an impact on a more substantive scale whether it is in the fields of education, entrepreneurship, or training of young people.

Sunday (May 12th) is Mother’s Day. When you think about your mom, what comes to mind?

My mom turned 80 earlier this year. I have the privilege of talking to her each morning. I usually call her after our customary morning prayer, just after 5 am, because I know she is awake and has prayed. Wherever I am in the world, I will call her then. It’s always the love of a mother, the trust and her belief that I would do great things even when we were in the village. I thank God she’s still alive and doing well. 

I have great memories of her and her strict discipline. When I finished my O level, there was a time when we wondered whether I should just start working. Many government jobs were available at the entry level, but I felt that I needed to complete my education and do bigger things. In that fracas, in that period, she was the most trusting; she believed in me more than myself. 

There were many offers, jobs offering Sh4000, Sh5000, money we desperately needed as a family, but she said, ‘We can wait, go to university, and get an education.’ We were two boys and six girls, but we also had stepbrothers and sisters.

Has the routine of prayer given you any structure that has helped you in your career?

Of course, but I also make sure there is a separation between what I do daily, professionally and within my own belief. One of my best privileges was to go to Garbatula High School, which was run by the Catholic Mission in those days. It taught me something about Christianity when I was still very young. To this day, I quote a lot from the Quran and the Bible. It’s one of the best things that happened to me because it helps me understand people from different backgrounds.

What has surprised the much younger Mohamed about this older Mohamed?

The level of patience and the ability to accept things that are not within your control. My younger self was a very black-and-white person; there were no greys in life. If we are doing this, we have to do it, and tomorrow, if it’s not done, we have a big problem. 

Today, I appreciate that life is more complex, that people are driven by different motivations and that there are different ways of doing things. Similarly, people make different choices for different reasons. I have learned lessons about how to treat and work with people. 

There is a feeling in corporate that you can’t be tough and kind at the same time. I think you can. You can be tough on your numbers, tough on your goals, tough on everything that you need to achieve, but still be kind to people. It’s not a contradiction.

What makes you insecure?

[Long pause] Nothing much. Insecurities stem from ego and when you learn to deal with your ego, you learn the power of humility and listening. You don’t come into conversations with a fixed mind. The worst thing someone can tell you about yourself isn’t that you are wrong, not when you have the humility to accept that. It’s a powerful thing, insecurity, because ego leads to many missed opportunities.

What have you learned about raising children?

I have six children. Three are grown up, and three are at home and still in school. I’ve learned that children come with their own experiences and aspirations, and your role as a parent is to support and guide them. Your role is not to create a template of yourself or a template of what you wish you were.

Many times, all you do as a parent is listen, not offer your thoughts or lecture, listen and provide a supportive environment. There are no right or wrong answers or right or wrong ways. So long as you are creating core principles and teaching values, and your children are picking up values, they are becoming good human beings. I think that is the most important thing: helping them become great human beings. The rest are details.

How come you have not been lured into politics, given your profile?

[Laughs] Look, I always say that there are different professions in life, and each has an important role. Politics has its place in canvassing, creating leadership, and supporting people. Corporate leadership is not just about profit; it is increasingly becoming about social impact and helping people grow. So there’s a lot of overlap between different areas, but I have not considered politics in the sense of going, getting votes, or becoming either a member of parliament or governor. I see myself as making a difference in this (corporate) space.

How do you unwind?

I wear a T-shirt and tracksuit, stick airpods in my ear, and find a forest to walk in. I love nature. I have been told I could have been a good photographer because I’m always taking and posting photos of nature in my WhatsApp status. That’s my peaceful place; walking in the woods. Last year, the fitness app on my phone notified me that I had walked 140,000 steps. I also spend time with my family. With the younger ones, we like going for vanilla milkshakes.

What do you remember about the day you met your wife?

I don’t exactly remember because we have known each other for a long time. She’s been incredible. From a family perspective, you always need a pillar. You need that person around whom the family revolves and who makes things happen. She’s made a lot of personal sacrifices for the family.

What’s the one thing she complains most about you?

[Laughs aloud] That I don’t listen or follow instructions. If my wife were to do my performance review, she would grade me very poorly on the listening part. And we talk about it regularly, and she says, ‘Just listen’. She also complains about my love for football. I spend too much time supporting the Arsenal football club, which, as you may well know, is the best club in the world.

Why do you give your heart to Arsenal? I hear things about them.

They have played beautifully over the years. I remember their last match in Highbury when they played their last game against Wigan Athletic. It was a bit of a souvenir match because it was the last match, and we went and paid serious money to watch it. It’s been a long time supporting Arsenal, and even though they have had tough years, they still play the best football in the world. [Pause] You don’t look convinced. [Chuckling]

Oh, I don’t follow football. Has football taught you anything about how to live life?

There are so many similarities. The need to plan, the need to train to be the best that you can be, the need to take losses in and move on to the next match. The need to support each other as a team. You know, when you make big blunders in life, the people around you make a big difference because that blunder could take you out if people respond negatively, and if they support you could live beyond it and become better from it.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.