Mugo Kibati's tipping points

Telkom Kenya CEO Mugo Kibati. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Where did men like Mugo Kibati get their chutzpah? They were affirmed as children, that’s where. They were allowed to speak up, to contribute, to dream their wildest. They were constantly told, "your voice matters. You matter.” And they believed it. How could they not?

So they got bolstered by this affirmation and later when they stumbled on the fact that they were also academically and intellectually endowed, they shot for the stars, or wherever it is men like them shoot to.

They get into Alliance High and make School Captain. They get to Moi University and study Electrical Engineering, dabble in a brief stint of employment after and then off they go to make their bones in America, joining The George Washington University School of Business for an MBA in International Business Finance/ Economics and then to University Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] for their Masters in Technology and Policy. They intern in the senate. The senate, by Jove!

They are invincible until they meet a woman from Stanford University - much smarter and with superior emotional intelligence - who shakes their convictions of grandeur. She tells him - in many words - “People are more than just their academic achievements.” Of course, he dates her. Of course, he marries her. Eventually.

He comes back home to corner offices; CEO East African Cables Ltd, Director-General Vision 2030, CEO Sanlam Kenya, Board chairman M-KOPA Solar and Lake Turkana Wind Power, and now CEO of Telkom Kenya where he is now seated before JACKSON BIKO, having a breakfast of eggs and sausages on a cold July morning.


Tell me about your childhood and what you recall.

Blissful childhood. Even though I was born in Nakuru, I really grew up in Mombasa, what they called the sleepy town in the 70s and 80s. But it was a good town to live in, a great place to raise a family. It was just me and my sister before my brother came. He’s ten years younger.

I recall lunches in Diani, Malindi or Watamu then back home. I accompanied my mom for her walks on Mama Ngina Drive in Kizingo. Dad was a public servant. I attended Mombasa Primary School and then Alliance High School.

What do you think was your tipping point in life?

To be honest I don't think I have a single tipping point. I think I have a series of formative experiences. The first one was the foundation my parents set for us. The confidence I have to this day came from my parents in early childhood. They gave me space and allowed me to express myself. I have told this story.

When I was seven years old there was a party at our house in Kizingo. I loved listening to adults for whatever reason. I was sitting around the table and I piped up. I dared to make a comment. One of my uncles immediately shut me down; “Hey! Grownups are talking,” he said.

My father would have none of it. He told him: “This is Mugo's house. You cannot silence him in his own house. If you don't like what he's saying you're the one who has to leave.”

That kind of bolstered me as a child. It sent a message that no one occupied more space than I did and my opinion mattered. Gave me confidence. I had a good education. We moved to Mombasa when I was 11-years-old, to wear ties in school. My dad is ex-Mang'u [alumnus] so he had high expectations of me academically.

I thrived academically and academics became part of my identity. Then I went to Alliance High School, which entrenched some of the values that my parents had begun to inculcate in a much more structured manner of course. I became school captain. A downside; I think I was very authoritarian. Doesn’t help that my dad was in the disciplined forces - he was an intelligence officer. He was in the Special Branch of the police.

So authoritarianism sort of came naturally to me. Prefects were a law unto themselves.

Another tipping point is leaving the country for my Masters at George Washington University in Washington DC and then my internship stint in the Senate hobnobbing with congressmen, on top of the world.

But then I met a lady who was to become my wife and she, (chuckles) she brought a lot out of me. We met on July 4th, 1995, in Washington. I was doing my Masters while she was doing her undergrad.

First of all, the fact that I was judgmental. Things were either black or white in my world. You were either smart or not. My wife taught me about context. If you're going to judge people, judge them on their context, she told me.

We're all different internally, and in terms of our background, how we grew up, you don't know this guy, what kind of parents he had, what kind of school, trauma he's walked through. Chemically we're all different also. I react to different things. She was in Stanford while I was in MIT.

She told me, “if you are going to be an intellectual you have to read books on other topics as well.” She brought me books to read. I’ve read books about the women’s lib movement, civil rights movement of the 1960s. So you see, there are many tipping points, you grow in each season.

You decided to have children late in life…

So we got married in 2004. But as I said, we were still living life, gallivanting around the world and studying. She actually got her PhD from Stanford in 2007. We decided to come back to Kenya because after Kibaki was elected we were like Kenya is a different place. We were not in a hurry to get kids, at all. We were having fun and busy. I was working for Vision 2030. Our children are now eight and five.

When in your life did you feel that you were at a disadvantage?

Actually, I wouldn't say disadvantage, maybe less in control of things. [Pause] As I grow older I feel less in control of things. When I took up the job for Vision 2030 I thought things were going well, until they weren’t. I have learnt to accept things with grace, not flailing and fighting and kicking and draining yourself and veins coming out of you.

However, when change is happening there's always an overshoot, then you come to equilibrium. So my views of the last 10 years what I've learnt is to identify the overshoot and not get too panicky. Just calm down, the overshoot will come down to equilibrium. And change is good. I think we become too political.

But I feel like, in the Moi era, we were super political, then in the Kibaki era we became less political and more technocratic, but we cannot wish away politics, it's part of being human. So we overshot. In this Uhuru era, more politics. So one day we'll get the balance, I hope, between enough, just the right amount of politics and the right amount of technocracy, so to speak.

How are you changing now as a man in his 50s?

I’m a late bloomer. I started a family in my mid-40s and so a lot of things now are determined by fatherhood. As a man, as a father and a husband, I am influenced significantly by just the phase my kids are going through and my involvement with them.

Whereas 15 years ago I’d made major decisions in my life which was okay because there was only me and my wife. I had very black and white value judgments. I was ready to suffer for my beliefs because it was just me and my wife. Now there are children, which changes everything.

What do you think your wife struggles with about you?

[Chuckling] Where do I start? Initially, it was my being judgmental, that I have mentioned. She also thinks I’m too blunt, I injure people’s feelings. I can judge you and not tell you but I go and make decisions based on judging you unfairly.

I'm detail-oriented, when we travel I want to see specific places, details I read in a book while she’s like, can we just get the general feel of this place. [Laughs]. But I have to say that many of our interests have converged. I think that's the beauty of going through life together in many respects because sometimes I see things through her eyes.

What scares you now about life, about yourself?

The future of my kids. And I mean in every sense. Will they be financially secure, good education are all important but I always wonder what kind of a world they will live in as adults. How should we prepare them for the future? What's the right way to prepare them for the future? What's that future going to look like?

In which environment do you find yourself to be most insecure?

[Pause] Frankly speaking, I have to say it would have to be political spaces. Because in the world that I have always operated in, even if I've had failures, which I've had, I think I've had a perspective that I've had enough wins stacked up that the failures that have come my way haven't crushed me.

But when I'm engaging the political world, as I have to, in the roles that I have I have to deal with people whose thinking is asymmetric. Another insecurity is I wonder whether with my kids I am doing enough. Am I wasting opportunities?

What's the one thing you've just been bad at?

The trait that needs the most development is relationships. I have very few relationships and I've got very few strong friends. But when I go outside that circle, that's a very small circle. When I first came back to the country, people would stop at each other's office desks to say hello in the morning for 10 minutes. I was like, “you're wasting each other's time.” I don’t do a lot of small talk or socialising at work but over time I've learned that relationships are important.

Have you ever had significant money problems? I mean back-against-the-wall money problems.

I have been in debt as a young student in the US but was I feeling like the world is collapsing on me? No. I'm still on a mortgage as I speak right now. A lot of people think that, given my career, especially in Kenya over the last 15/16 years, why the hell do I have a mortgage?

Because that's a decision my wife and I made. It's okay to pay a mortgage and do it the long way and you're still okay. I mean, I'm happy where I live. You have to borrow money to do certain things and there is nothing wrong with borrowing money as long as you're able to pay. What if something happens when we still have that debt? My attitude is that you know, it's not a Mugo problem.

That's the way life is, and it’s not something to be worried about. I grew up with strong Catholic parents, and I still am Catholic but I'm not dogmatic at all about it. I feel that as long as we do things the correct way and I keep true to my conscience, providence will take care of things. I have an abundance mentality.

I think part of the problem we have in this country is that there's too much of a scarcity mentality. People are grasping. Even people who should not be grabbing and stealing because they're so comfortable, still have a mentality that there's not enough for everybody so let me grab, grasp.

Yet I think with an abundance mentality you would realize there's more than enough for everyone to get their dip. You just do your bit and get your bit.

When was the last time you were disappointed in yourself?

Oh that's a common occurrence. [Laughter] Sometimes I snap at people, snap at my kid. Here in the office, I can get some particular bit of information and whoever the employee is or the manager is I sort of get a little short with them.

And then later on I'm like “okay, that guy is still trying to do his job, it's not like he was trying to deliberately mess up.” I've had to control it over the years with the help of my wife.

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