Farouk Ramji, finding love fast in tough Afghanistan - VIDEO

Mawingu Technologies CEO Farouk Ramji poses for a picture after the interview at the company offices on March 22, 2024. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

As esoteric and amusingly zany as it sounds, Farouk Ramji talks fast. Oof. So fast, I can see the velocity of his words turning the turbines and powering up the electricity of a small nation. An interview that I usually do in 40 to 45 minutes took less than 30 minutes, and I had enough content and samizdat to write up the constitution of a small nation.

Perhaps—at the risk of hyperbole—he is an apt metaphor for the company he leads, Mawingu Technologies, providing high-speed internet. Of course, that’s a term only we laymen use. He prefers “connectivity.” “Meaningful connectivity,” he course corrects me.

Connectivity is also how he got a wife in Afghanistan during the war. “I didn’t learn any defence skills, but I found love in a tough place,” he says.

That love was a tiny mustard seed falling on fertile soil—together they have two daughters, one of whom is in her Shakira-era, playing ‘Waka Waka’ every morning. I don’t think Farouk was planning to ever attend a Shakira concert—he doesn’t give that Shakira vibe—but now, he is definitely not planning to go to a Shakira concert.

At ABC Place in Westlands, in their rustic offices that are getting repopulated with staff from Nanyuki and Nairobi, he confesses that, just between us two, he is a momma’s boy. Not that he loves his daddy less, but he loves his mother more. He even married someone similar to his mom. Fast.

What’s it like being you?

A lot of fun with a bit of stress, but I love it.

Were you always a techie boy?

Not really. I grew up with two things in mind: I loved development and technology. The day after I graduated from university, I moved to Afghanistan and worked for the biggest mobile network operator there. That’s when my love for connecting the unconnected started to develop.

How was that experience for you?

It was the best from a working environment. We have to be aware that there was a full-on war at that time, and to work for the largest operator and the impact we could have in the community. We were the first company to have GSM voice calls outside of Afghanistan.

Then Kenya called?

No. From there, I spent five years in Afghanistan, then moved to Dar es Salaam and worked for three relatively small-scale companies trying to scale in Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi. Then, I spent the last seven years in Kenya.

Did you pick up any self-defence skills in Afghanistan?

[Chuckles] Well, I met my now-wife in Afghanistan, so I didn’t practice any defence skills, but I guess I found love in a tough place. Haha!

What was that like? Who made the first move?

I made the first move. I was working in the HR department, and she was a candidate seeking to move. We were from the same city, Vancouver, Canada. They asked me if I was going home for my annual leave and asked me to talk to her. I met her before I made my move and pursued it from day one.

Did you move with her to Kenya?

We’ve been together since we left Afghanistan. We got engaged in Tanzania and married just before we moved to Kenya. We’ve had both of our children in Kenya: a three-and-a-half-year-old and my last born, who is about four and a half months old.

Are you a better husband or a better father?

Oof! [Chuckles] I am not the right person to ask, haha! I would say it’s a tough balance, but I think I am a better father.

Farouk Ramji, finding love fast in tough Afghanistan

What are your children teaching you about life?

To have fun. Life at their age is not stressful. They just get through the day with laughter, fun, and activities.

What’s your favourite childlike thing to do with them?

I love going on bike rides with my eldest daughter. We do a circuit in Karura Forest and then get some ice lollies at the end.

Was cycling something you wanted to pick up, or did she bring it out of you?

I have always enjoyed cycling, and the Mawingu office culture in Nanyuki is a big cycling club. I would go there and rent a bike and go cycling at 6 am with the staff. I think it is something she has seen and we both are picking up the activity together.

Farouk Ramji worked for the first company to have GSM voice calls outside of Afghanistan. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Most guys would move to Nanyuki, not from Nanyuki?

When I took this role, I knew the head office was in Nanyuki, and that’s where the change would be. But being a husband and a father, I also had certain responsibilities in Nairobi, and I didn’t want to make any change in their lifestyle, so I decided that for the first eight to 12 months, I would commute. I would go on Monday mornings and drive back on Wednesday evenings.

How was that for the children?

It was tough, but I knew it was a temporary measure that had to be taken to get the business to where it is. I know I missed out on certain elements of their lives, but we are where we are.

What do you need more of?

Money. We’ve understood the economics of scaling and growing. The impact we can have is enormous. Getting funds can allow us to unlock part of the eight million homes that do not have access to connectivity.

Were you from a well-set family or on the other side of the fence?

My parents were born in Kenya: My dad was born in Kisumu, and my mom was born in Nairobi. They left for Canada in the late 1970s. They started their own businesses there, and though they sold everything here, they started with nothing. So, I have seen both sides of the spectrum, and that’s why I have always wanted to have an impact on my career.

Your footloose parents taught you to be on the move, and now it seems history is repeating itself with your children…

They [parents] often ask me, we left everything in Kenya to educate you in Vancouver and all you’ve done is come back, haha! I don’t think I had the opportunity to grow a business and have an impact in Canada; they are already advanced. There is an opportunity here.

How are you raising your children differently from how you were raised?

I don’t think I am raising them differently. I ensure they have access to all the opportunities I had growing up and that their parents love them. I am fortunate to come from a close-knit family, and we are having our family reunion in August. There are 16 of us now, eight adults and eight children, and this is the first time we will have everyone in the same room.

What is most meaningful for you now?

Having a balanced life. I am keen on self-help, what I eat, reading, health, and balancing the religious life. Full-scale balance.

The higher you go, the busier it becomes. How do you carve out time for yourself, and what do you do just for you?

Good question. I wake up at 4 am and go to the gym at 5 am. This is my own time when the rest of the world is asleep. At 6, I do some reading, then take my daughter to school, and then it’s a full day at the office.

What has been your greatest win?

I am lucky to have a supportive wife who has taught me the intersection of profit and purpose.

What is that difficult thing you go through that few people see?

I struggle with the balance of being a person, husband, father, and leader. I am trying to get better at it, I have improved, but it depends on who you ask [chuckles].

Are you a head or a heart person?

It’s situational. In business, I use my head, at home my heart.

What matters more than you thought it would?

I think money doesn’t matter as much when it comes to happiness. What matters most is making the most of life, understanding, and being happy with what you do.

What are you apologising to yourself for?

I spent 12 years in corporate telecoms, and I don’t think the impact of that work was really felt. I apologise to myself for not finding my happy place.

But without that time in the trenches, you wouldn’t be here?

That’s true, too.

What’s something you are proud of but never get to brag about?

My faith, I am a Muslim. I am proud of my religion and who I am. It has grounded me as a person.

What would Farouk in corporate tell the CEO now?

It’s not just about money. It’s about making an impact in people’s lives. If you can find a way to do both early in life, then you will be extremely happy.

What has being a CEO revealed about yourself?

Don’t let the title go to your head. You should put the title on when you walk in the door and leave it when you walk out the door. Though you might be the CEO, you need to share the successes with the team. Often, my face is out there, but the success belongs to the team.

How do people show you love?

Laughter. I love going out with friends and having a good time. I am moving towards the dad jokes now, haha!

Women complain that it is hard to gift a man. How does one gift you, a tech bro?

Any advancement, such as a new gadget, is exciting. Look at something that is trending, not necessarily pricey, but something at the forefront of all that.

What’s the longest line you’ve stood in, and what were you waiting for?

Nyayo House. To get my work permit stamped. Phew!

What is the most painful thing you’ve been told?

I suffered a miscarriage with our family. That was the hardest news ever.

Death is never easy, even for the strongest soldiers. How does one move past that?

I am lucky to have a strong wife who made me understand this is life. All life ends, some faster than we anticipate, which is unfortunate. I took some leave days to spend time with her and understand what happened. We had our second child after that.

Does that change how you love your children?

Absolutely. Life is very precious when you see that happen.

What changed?

I became more protective, considering I am a father of girls. But only time will tell, haha!

What’s the soundtrack of your life right now?

Ooof! You are going to laugh, and I will tell you why. I have to listen to Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ every day when I drop my daughter off at school.

That was the 2010 World Cup anthem. Are you a football fan?

No. I come from Canada, that makes me an ice hockey fan.

Where do you go for ice hockey here?

Maybe Panari Hotel. I have gone for a couple of free skates there.

You can skate?

I can. I played professional ice hockey for almost 12 years.

You are not helping the stereotype.


What is something I wouldn’t believe about you?

I go to a HIIT class every morning. I push myself to be number one in the class in high-intensity interval training, but sometimes I am defeated. I push myself to be the number one in every class at 5 am and push myself in all boundaries.

Who do you know that I should know?

The chairman of our board is Joachim Westerveld. He is the CEO of multiple companies. He is very energetic and very supportive. He would add tremendous value, and I wish he could be replicated so that a lot of people could interact with him.

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