In an interview with CNN’s Market Place Africa, former Safaricom CEO, Michael Joseph, revealed a series of events under his supervision that led to young Safaricom incurring millions of shillings in loses after what was meant to be a PR exercise took a turn for the worst and threatened to sink what he, Michael Joseph, had worked so hard to build.
Michael Joseph starts off by saying that he probably got the job as Safaricom CEO because nobody else wanted the job, “I actually heard about the job by accident,” he starts. “I was sitting on a bus, next to a colleague, we were going to a function one evening and the guy said, ‘I just heard we have finalized a joint venture in Kenya’ and the next day I had a call to come in for an interview and a week later, I had the job, mostly because nobody else wanted the job, I think,” says Michael Joseph.
At the time of Safaricom’s birth, the company was a joint venture between Telkom Kenya and Vodafone. Two years later, Safaricom had gained some mileage and had a subscriber base of about 520,000. To mark this milestone, Michael Joseph decided to reward his subscribers with a token of appreciation, “I wanted to thank the Kenyan public, my Kenyan subscribers, for their patience with me, staying with me (Safaricom) even through the congestion.”
The former Safaricom CEO explains that he decided to give each one of the company’s subscribers 200 shillings worth of airtime in their account overnight. “The engineer who designed this programme dialled up the system and went through the process of putting 200 shillings into everybody’s account. Unfortunately, about a quarter way through, the line failed – which always happens in satellites, and so he started again but instead of starting from where he left off, he started from the beginning again,” he narrates.
“…it was just a terrible PR exercise…”
Michael Joseph explains that the glitch happened three or four times, meaning that some people got 800 shillings airtime in their account and some got 200. “Somebody found out while playing with their phone in the middle of the night, that if you dial 141, which is the code to check your balance, you got 200 shillings credit. We were still a small company… but 800 shillings for each person was still a huge amount of money, so I decided to reverse it.”
“Suddenly, people saw that their balances were going from 800 to 600… [they] saw their balances were going down and now [they were trying to] spend the money before it ran out,” he continues.
Michael Joseph acknowledges his mistake that almost took down the company he was entrusted to run. “It was just a terrible PR exercise because what I failed to do was, instead of doing this in secret, I should have announced it in the newspaper beforehand so people knew where it (the airtime) was coming from.”
With such a blunder, it is a miracle that he kept his job afterwards.