After publishing the Kenya’s Middle Class nightmare article I received lots of emails from people across the world telling me how they were in a similar situation. A good number asked me to write about how one can avoid living an average life. As a result, I went out to meet Tom Kirkwood at Africa Insight Ltd headquarters along State House road, Nairobi seeking to learn how one can pursue their passion and be successful. Following is what he had to say
Who is Tom kirkwood?
Tom is a person who for the longest time was a wannabe entrepreneur, stuck in a multinational where intrapreneurs were not encouraged to bring new ideas or new business possibilities to the company’s attention. A person who was too often recording life and not living it. That has all changed after quitting my well-paying job at Reuters and starting Africa Insight Ltd.
What exactly prompted you to leave Reuters and start your own company?
I left Reuters when I was asked to return to Asia, where I started my career. I reconnected with Africa when I was posted here after a stint running the Jerusalem TV operation for Reuters and I saw stuff happening here that I had last seen in China in the 90’s – exciting, entrepreneurial stuff – and I wanted in. So I took a very deep breath… and here I am.
How do you feel about being a White African?
People accept you easily when you are white and South African. But if you say white African, they look at you strangely. But when your ancestors arrived on the continent 200 years ago, like mine, or almost 400 years ago, like my wife’s, the “African” element of “South African” runs deep. No American thinks of themselves as other than American, after just two or three generations. For me, being white and African means that this continent is my future. It is my children’s future. And my children’s children’s. So I have a responsibility to ensure that it is a great place to live and that we Africans are all proud of being African.
As a South African national, what do you think caused the xenophobic attacks in your motherland? What’s the remedy?
As a South African, I am ashamed and deeply upset about what has happened. I think the reason for it is because a vast majority of South Africans are not economically empowered yet. So there is pressure for jobs and opportunities, as a result, foreigners with better entrepreneurial experience are seen as competing for the same jobs.
The easy remedies are one, making sure that there are job opportunities for the people. Number two is making sure people are well educated from an early age.
Having lived in the country for a while what do you think of Kenyans?
I am impressed by how industrious and hardworking Kenyans are. Like the first time I drove along Ngong Road I could see people doing all sorts of small businesses on the road sides and some of the taxi drivers I interacted with had 2 to 3 jobs.
Of all the 54 African states, why did you set up your company in Kenya?
Kenya has a massive comparative advantage over other countries in many business segments. In addition, there is incredible work ethic here, people are ready to work for long hours and work hard to achieve what they aspire to. The Kenyan people are also highly talented and highly educated.
What’s your take on the controversial Kenya Media law?
I am hugely suspicious of power. I am hugely suspicious of control. I don’t believe you can make people be responsible citizens. I think you need to encourage them to be responsible citizens. There are far more constructive ways of engaging media and persuading them to be responsible.
What do you look for when hiring an employee?
Great spirit. Thats it!… I can have the most qualified person but if they don’t have that drive, hunger, positive spirit and a can-do attitude then they don’t really have any role to play at Africa Insight.
How do you keep your employees motivated?
We give our employees a sense of self-belief and expect them to take control of their career growth. So you can develop at Africa Insight as fast as you are prepared to go. We also give equity to our employees. We have borrowed from American start-ups where an employee is given a stake in the company. In an environment like this, the responsibility is not to the boss rather it’s to fellow members of the team.
There is a picture of you carrying a woman out of the Westgate Mall during the attack, what prompted you to do such a heroic act?
I was at a friend’s house, a photographer when I got a call from someone inside the mall saying there was shooting ongoing. We quickly drove to the mall, he ran inside to take pictures. I’m an empathetic being and having covered conflicts in middle-east before, I knew I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. I quickly went in and picked an injured woman then carried her to an ambulance.
How did it feel being branded a hero?
The funny thing was that my daughter always had this inflated idea about me being a superhuman so the day my picture appeared in a South African newspaper with the caption “Hero” she carried it to school and showed it to everyone.
I don’t consider myself a hero, there are lots of brave men and women who went into the mall unarmed and without body armor to confront the terrorists and evacuated survivors. All I did was to carry a woman to safety something anyone in my position would have done.
Tell us about your family
I have a wife and two daughters aged 15 and 10. My family is here with me in Kenya at the moment as they are on holiday from South Africa, they are back in Kenya for the first time in two years.
How do you balance work and family?
It’s not easy starting a company and being a family man at the same time. Hopefully, I was good father and husband enough to be given this leeway to dedicate my time to this company. My family gave me a year and a half to fully dedicate my time to this company and it’s been two and a half years. Having witnessed my commitment and passion, I hope they give me more time.
I am big on watersports and fishing. I also love swimming underwater with minimal equipment. Diani, Kenya is my favorite holiday destination.
What steps should we the young people take to avoid getting into the Middle Class Nightmare?
If you are employed don’t leave that job and look for another job. Be as loyal as you can while at the same time make sure you are looking after yourself since big companies are about making money not looking after their employees (long pause) Be prepared to work incredibly hard. Get into the property game earlier on in life and do what any good Kikuyu does which is never to sell property.
Any parting words to upcoming entrepreneurs?
Do as much homework as you can be venturing into any business. When you identify an opportunity be quick to grab it since others have probably seen it too. Then maintain momentum, whatever happens, don’t slow down!
Invest in your staff, you can have the best product in the world but without great staff it’s difficult to grow your venture
Interview by Mark Maina