Edgar Kasenene on Pivoting

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Edgar Kasenene (EK) on Pivoting.

 RK: It is good to have you on #360Mentor, how is Joburg?

EK: Thank you for having me Robert. Joburg is cold but we are good.

RK: Edgar let me ask you the question I ask everybody; were you born with science fiction?

EK: Oh wow. I am an engineer by training.

RK: How was the journey to engineering?

EK: I don’t think I had a deliberate plan. Fast forward, when I was joining A level, there was always a desire to do something related to sciences. This is because of the upbringing we had. I knew I was not going to study medicine. That I was sure.  We grew up in Swaziland and I came back to join A level. Around that time, it was obvious I was going to do sciences at A level. That was in 1995.

I remember when we returned it was hard to get a UTL connectivity in the house. At that time, celtel had come and I went and got one of those big “brick” phones and I was intrigued. I was drawn to the telecommunications side. That’s when the thought process began to align. For me to be able to do that I had to do electrical engineering, I needed a combination that could qualify me to study electrical engineering at Makerere University.

The telecom fascination had just started to become real. I remember by my 4th year, I did a project that people tease me about now. It was called a wireless local loop. It was about how wireless technology was going to change tech society. I was not a futurist and I wasn’t predicting so much but I was very sure it was bound to happen. I used to sing the world local loop all the time and my classmates would laugh about it.

I then joined MTN for two years before leaving for the UK for my Masters in telecom engineering at the University of Manchester. Thereafter I was very lucky to join Erickson. I joined Erickson in the UK, I worked there for about 3 years then returned to work for the same company here for about 5 more years. Then I moved to Rwanda and eventually to South Africa. The last role I took at Erickson was looking after innovation, emerging businesses and the internet of things in Africa. The world flipped and the whole internet and models cleared.

RK: And that’s where our conversation really starts. What did you see at the time while at your last role that switched on the light bulb?

EK: It was a combination of factors. Stepping back in the last four years at Erickson, my career was going fairly well, and I was moved to South Africa to head the cloud operations. In 2014, I got into the executive assessment centre. Passing the executive assessment meant to come out as an emerging executive which projects your career. When I came out, which I narrowly passed, I remember sitting in a conversation with the CEO of Sub-Saharan Africa and the head of talent and talking about my career. The CEO said Edgar, you are one of the 2 or 3 people that could be the next CEO of Sub Saharan Africa in the next few years. That fundamentally changed the way I looked at myself. I got obsessed with this. Everybody who has worked with these corporates in a senior role knows that life is not always a straight bullet. As the roles get fewer…

RK: I know that. In fact sometimes there are no more roles.

EK: Yes… and it gets more intense. Even with this promise and the years that followed were very bumpy. I kind of felt like I had an impact, but the positions were not coming up. I had a roadmap and we get so fixed on our journeys and this is why it becomes so difficult to transform. I almost got stuck in there. What then happened is that in 2015, I was supposed to get a role which I didn’t. I then volunteered to be Program Director for smart cities, a project which was opening up in Rwanda Erickson. At the time, I was getting out of the line of being a director of support for mobile lines to getting involved in technology for the wider society like smart transport, smart utilities and more. I really wanted to get on board and compensate for all these roles I wasn’t getting. Those 9 months in Rwanda started to change my journey. As we were pitching to the government of Rwanda on how we could support them on these smart cities journey, it started to dawn on me some of the shifts that were happening in telecom. And one of the big shifts was 4G. 4G was starting to create a digital world. People were now starting to use things like whatsapp and skype. We were starting to use our devices to access the internet. A lot of value was shifting to applications on the devices. Voice started to become a commodity. Our digital experiences started to grow and this started to hurt the operators. Erickson’s model was to sell to mobile operators. But in 2015/16, it started to get clear that data was not the next big thing. It was becoming a commodity. As more and more people started to live digitally, they needed to consume more data which means that in this digital era, as something becomes ubiquitous, it’s intrinsic value drops. I am going to pay you 10 times more money next year for 10 times more data. Technically speaking data value was dropping at a rate of 70 to 80 % a year. Not because anybody hated the operations but everything was starting to get digital, data quality was increasing. Some people may not tell, but some of us know the difference between an Edge connection and a 4G connection. And we used to send email on edge. 4G started to drive this digital revolution and that started to put a strain on the operators. And some of us operating in the smart space, we started to see the shift.

The change with society, we don’t see things in terms of value. We see things in terms of models. This is a bank, this is a telecom. We don’t see it in terms of value. What does that mean for society? For example people think Africell is leaving because the economy is bad but every modern society today has not more than two telecoms left. Even the operators left know the pinch they are feeling. Human beings complain about the price of data, what they don’t complain about is that we are consuming data like it is water. We can’t be paying per hour.

RK: Edgar, at the beginning of spaces, people used to complain about the quality of spaces, but it turns out that audio also consumes more data than you can imagine.

EK: Exactly. People begin to think that the operators are cheating them. They don’t realise that they are consuming tons and tons of data. What that means is that people start to look for cheaper ways. That 2016/17 journey started to cause a stretch on Ericson. The smart cities work changed my approach. I saw the shift. After that I didn’t have an official role. I volunteered for another role; the internet of things. In my mind it was very clear, things were never going to be the same.

At the same time, I was privileged to go to an executive program by Erickson called Goal Perspective. And that time, I was starting to feel the shifting momentum and at the same time I was starting to feel like our business was still obsessed with selling equipment to mobile operators even when it was very clear that that model was no longer working. But also it was with my current journey that my executive role was not coming. That year 2017 after the Goal Perspective training, it was like a real massive trigger for me. What was so special about this program was that it focused on purpose. And this was the time I was very frustrated as a young executive. I was also very frustrated with these new models we were failing to execute. 

RK: Let me say this to the listeners, it is very interesting how I run into the two Kasenenes. I was going through a brutal diet for my stomach by Paul and I ran into you and you messed up my brain. We had this conversation in the middle of 2018 and we talked for 8 straight hours.

EK: I remember that day. At that point in my life, I felt like I was an outlier.

RK: You are one actually.

EK: You know I couldn’t understand how people couldn’t understand these things. It was interesting to meet you because you were a CEO then but could understand the commoditization of the new media and what the internet was doing opening up everything.

But to summarise the story; that journey of purpose when I did that course of Goals Perspective, it was very different. We spent a week in Tanzania being guided on how to discover one’s purpose. It was completely different from what we had previously done. That was at the peak of my frustration, anxiety and turmoil was starting to happen in the industry. And that week triggered a journey which came fully circle 6 months later in Boston when we did a second module. But it led me to a journey of soul searching, what is it that I wanted to do with my life?

Until then, I was defining myself with the roles I had at work and I think that journey opened me to the fact that I wanted to have an impact. I wanted to work in the innovation space. The real turning point was six months later. We had a second module in Boston, Richard Liner, came the second last day and told us to go back and spend the rest of the afternoon writing  a letter to our children or a loved one explaining to them the legacy you want to leave them.

Something that was so profound about that is that it was the first time in my professional career that I didn’t write about my job or role at the workplace. It was all about the impact I wanted to have and the legacy I wanted to leave. This gave me relief.

RK: Is this an exercise you would recommend?

EK: Precisely. It is one which gets you to think about design thinking, then value but then it gravitates to purpose. 2019 was such an eye opener for me in Uganda. Most companies I was privileged to engage were struggling to transform not because the strategy was wrong. They couldn’t let go of their personas. The stuff they have been doing for the last many years. People feared transformation because it could take away their jobs.

RK: I can tell you that the biggest crisis in the employment world, especially in Uganda is we identify ourselves with what we do. Without titles, many people are clueless and lost. I guess that this is what you are talking about; anything that threatens your identity.

EK: Exactly. And not only did that become liberating for me, it actually became a reflection point in the work I do in transformation. It also became full cycle, you cannot transform a business without transforming the people themselves. And that purpose journey was a good release for me. It changed my trajectory. Where you start to become clear on the things you want to become in life, not the positions, not the titles but the impact you want to have.

It is incredible how life becomes much clearer and you see possibilities. That’s when I began bouncing off walls. The clarity of the shift of the internet not just on the internet but in terms of business models and value was so scary. By 2018, there was no profession that was not yet disrupted.

Look at the media for example. It was disrupted a long time ago. People need news and social platforms mean news is ubiquitous. So there is no intrinsic value to pay for news and the essence of a media company is to sell news. And so they didn’t understand why people were no longer buying newspapers. People didn’t wake up and stopped buying newspapers, they woke up and the story was on their whatsapp feed, twitter and facebook.

RK: I will tell you something I encountered on my journey. One of my board mates told me they had piles of newspapers on their desk because between home and the office, they have read everything on their phone. And by the time they arrive at the office they don’t have the time to go through the papers, they are sufficiently informed already.

EK: 100%. In 2019, I had so many meetings with big bosses, you’d go to meet an executive in Uganda at 4 o’clock and the paper was still stapled on their desk. And I think we were not connected in terms of how our behaviour had changed. People were still looking at the internet just as a sexy place, an interesting place to be. And social platforms are an incredible part of this journey. And you could not see the things shifting. And here is the simplest way to look at it; anytime a service becomes ubiquitous and universally accessible, the intrinsic value of that product diminishes. What is scary is that you can’t stop that. You cannot stop the internet. It is instead getting faster and faster. Think about all these institutions organised around decaying models and that is why I was very fascinated in 2019. You would walk into an office and tell them that the model was already dead. And at that time I was not as empathetic as I am today.

The realisation was that as society, we have tied our identity on our titles. That it becomes difficult bordering on impossible for us to see the shifts. Because of that shift, I suddenly saw things I wasn’t seeing before.

My obsession about technology for me was mainly around behaviour. I started to tell people to stop talking about tech, if you could authentically think about your customer and think of how they spend their day, you will actually understand that you are not in their life. That will force you to rethink your model and how you serve them.

RK: Today, I was reading about twitter spaces and how they are going to replace the radio presenter because everything the radio presenter wants to talk about is already discussed in real  time on spaces.   

EK: 100%. And what is even scarier from Uganda is the demographic, when I used to engage with companies, beyond the fact, I would ask them to think about life. Digital is the way of life. When you wake up in the morning, the first thing, regardless of how old, is to check your phone and you go to these platforms.

RK: Let me tell you something else. Something interesting. People walk into restaurants and the first thing they ask for is the Wi-Fi password.

EK: Exactly, we should even talk about that. That brings us back to the reason why the internet is critically essential. The point is that the average age is 16. 75% of the population is under 25. 80% of the population is under 35. If you are in business today, your customer is digital. Unfortunately most of our leaders were born in the industrial era and the way they look at business is through the product-push model. They look at themselves as a bank which sells a product. They don’t look at themselves as an institution whose core role today is finance services. But the ability to offer financial services is no longer restricted to banks. And the modern population is actually looking for the more simplistic, convenient, ubiquitous, valuable way to access a financial service which is why banks are starting to become irrelevant.

RK: You know what is very interesting, Equity Bank in Kenya became a telecom.

EK: Exactly. What I didn’t tell you is that the internet has ushered in the platform economy. There is no more competition in domains, there is competition in attention. The companies that get it know that today I am offering you a financial service as a  bank but also aware that the financial service is becoming a commodity. But as it becomes a commodity, I will still offer it to you at no cost because, if I keep the relationship with you, I have your data. I can offer you a secondary service which is not a commodity. This is why the top 4 companies in the world are referred to as multi-sector companies. You can’t explain which industry companies like amazon and whatsapp are. The closest example in Uganda is safeboda?

RK: Data.

EK: Exactly. This is what it is so important to talk about.

RK I have a question Edgar, what kind of person should be at the centre of driving this strategy in this context?

EK: I don’t know whether it is a person. First of all, it is super important that if you are in business today, ask yourself a question, who is my customer and how do they behave? This is the thing, people think businesses exist to make money. It’s not true. Money is a result of creating problems and creating value.

When businesses have clarity of purpose or the impact they want to create in society; the why, it makes them more open to think about the process and the what; the product. They stop being tied to what. They think about the impact they want to have and when they do, they can start to authentically think about questions like who is my customer and how does he behave. And once they start to be clear, the goods and services you offer the client might no longer be valuable. We gave the example of a newspaper. It doesn’t make you irrelevant in the customer’s life, it only means that you start to think of how you solve the problem.

RK: So the problem becomes more attention span. Attention span is usually linked to doing valuable things.

EK: You know this is the fallacy we have about digital, we think having it is always about having the app or website. The people reading this have about 80 or 90 apps on their phones yet they don’t use more than 10 a day. Being digital means creating a valuable experience that is simplistic and learning from that experience to leverage on where Edgar is going next. What is his next stop in life? This is not an easy thing to do. You have to always be agile. You have to stay the course with the customer. Because when you’re really crazy, you realise this is not a competition for attention. We started to see that the modern consumer wakes up in the morning and has spent 80% of their day on Facebook, twitter, instagram, YouTube or jumia. This means that you have no chance in his life. Let’s think about that logically. Take the example of Game and Shoprite, we may think that they are exciting because the economy is bad but what we are not realising is that because of many factors including going digital. During the lockdown, most of us are being driven by the convenience of ordering from jumia. Every time we order more from jumia, we are reducing our footprints in Shoprite.

The logical journey will mean that there are less people walking into that supermarket and more people ordering online not because they hate the brand but because this online platform comes with convenience. All these things happen subconsciously.

You know this Robert, people didn’t wake up and stopped buying the newspaper. You just realised numbers going down. And soon it doesn’t make commercial sense. This is the same in South Africa. Major stores are going bankrupt because people spend  a lot of time shopping online. It is not about the store, it’s the behaviour.

We have to spend more time understanding customer behaviour. And that will help us see the connection between this new revolution that is simple and convenient. But fundamentally, we shall see the value.

RK: I need to see that I understand you well; even as tech evolves from one G to another, one must never lose sight of the consumption pattern of the customer?

EK: 100%. And this is why; our consumption patterns are being driven by the  biggest companies in the world literally looking at our behaviours everyday. Think about the simplicity of instagram how your feed quickly becomes easily personalized. Every time they see your preferences and they bring them closer to you, what they are intuitively doing is that they are simplifying your journey to the service. And what starts doing is to subconsciously start gravitating towards it. What that does to us is to think that this service should always be so close to me. There is that incredible feeling that someone should know what I want. we don’t recognise this shift.

What makes it worse is that companies that spend their day watching us are always wondering how they can enter our other spheres of our lives. That is why you find facebook buying off whatsapp and instagram, Netflix is into e-commerce. Their agenda is to solve as many of your problems as possible. And this is how one thing after another gets wiped out, from a newspaper to a doctor.

Recently a doctor told me their remaining  clients are patients from upcountry because people in towns google symptoms and rush off to pharmacies to get the drugs. It is the same thing with mechanics. Youtube has all these tutorials that show you how to do things. The option that consumers are looking for is simpliticity and value.

It is important for companies not to get stuck in their product domain but to sift to customer behaviour.

But why is this hard? Because modern businesses were built in  the industrial era model. That era was built around the economies of scarcity. If you’re dealing in the milk business all you had to think of is finding the milk and having it distributed. Fast forward, it is now about the value. Before it was about product push i.e. the customer. They don’t see customer value. Now everybody is telling them to be innovative and agile. But the only thing this company knows is selling milk. They have built the entire DNA of the jobs, structures, mindsets around milk or publication or whatever it is. We didn’t grow up in a world where we had to learn, adapt and evolve.  

People had to start letting go of the past. Be proud of your past but don’t worship it. Don’t get stuck in it. The only way to start letting go of the past is to have introspection to ask yourself the question; who am I? What are the things I love? That self awareness allows you to see possibilities which turn into value. But as long as you still think I am a banker, you will remain stuck in your persona.

RK: What you’re saying to us Edgar is that really, you may have all these trainings, all the qualifications, ranks and trainings that you carry with you but ultimately what is going to take you to the future is figuring out the human being that you are, what it is that drives you and that will lead you to the value you bring to society? Is that what you are saying?

EK: Yes. But also Robert, it gives you the courage to stop defining yourself by your title. It gives you the courage and conviction to let go. You may hear me now sounding very passionate about this but you should know how I struggled. In 2019, I had the privilege to meet every major financial board, it was the reason I left the software company I was a CEO to start ideas.

I will tell you a true story. I was doing a strategy session for one of the finance institutions and we spent so many hours talking about transformation, digital behaviour and solving problems and at the end the chairman of the board asked me, “how do we begin?” by November 2019, it had become very clear, we already had a preposition, the challenge was that it was the people (team) who were going to kill it. And that is what happened three weeks later, the head of strategy called me and told me “ the politics”. The truth of the matter is that transformation is not only about tech, it is about tech, business models and people.

The first part that you need to work on is the people and culture. If people don’t have the mind, they will kill the idea. They don’t kill it because they hate you, they kill it because we are creatures of survival instinct.

In March 2019, you asked me to come and speak to your team, and we had an incredible session with your team, you were so excited. When I saw you the following day I told you about the culture, anybody between 25 – 65, we grew up around the industrial era. Life was about achieving a fixed sense of knowledge and expertise in a  given profession. We were taught to have the answer. We were not taught to ask questions. The systems were very fixed and rigid. In the late 2000s, the industries debanked that when knowledge started to become a commodity. Today everything about expertise can be googled. Don’t tell me you can’t solve a problem if you haven’t gone to google.

The problem is that the way we’re raised, the way we build our identity. It started to become difficult when the world started to become ubiquitous and leaders have not done enough work to open and admit it. We must be vulnerable.

RK: Talk about the business models and how they have changed.   

EK: If you think about our behaviour and the way society was built is that if you have a certain product, and you put a price on it and sell it, and that product is unique to your industry, the googles of this world came and started to change that. They did fundamental things, first of all the internet gave us choice. Value followed choice. Choice meant that the power of value shifted to the user unless you are extremely unique and innovative. We started getting used to a word where we get something upfront. You have to give value first before you get value back. This is why we have become so picky and demanding because all these platforms were free and they exposed us to value. Modern consumers became even more demanding.

This changes the business models, you cannot be in an industry and say I have to pay men usd 1000 people will ask you “why?’. This is not about tech, it is about shifting business models and values.

If someone feels you are giving them value, they are more open to give you value too.

RK: I am currently having an issue with people asking me to monetise this session.

EK: This is what is going to happen, value will come in the long run. When we work with companies we always tell them to start small, learn and grow. It is really weird but you cannot force scale anymore. Those are the old models. Scale today is driven by the customer. When a customer loves your product, they tell the world. Your focus is not on PR, it is on “ am I resonating with the client”. It is good to fail fast.

You will only be able to solve for people if you are humble and vulnerable.

RK: One of the things covid did especially to us in Uganda, we were forced to sit at home and think of what had happened. There are people who can’t face the future. What would you tell a professional now?

EK: You’ve got to spend a lot of time on self discovery. Spend time thinking about the things that you care about. Things you are passionate about.

RK: Let me interrupt you Edgar, what do you do for self discovery?

EK: It’s very difficult to have everything covered here. But one of them is that; it is super critical that you start to be clear in your identity. That  journey starts to liberate you from associating your identity to your profession and title. Those things vanish. Part of the things  that are going to allow you on that journey of reflection and identity is going back to asking yourself the things you were very passionate about as a child. What are the attributes that you admire? What things make you come alive.

There are people who come alive when doing their side hustle and become sad when they have to go back to work on Monday. Ditch the side hustle thing, go and do it full time. It’s what you love. Go out and create value. That’s one thing we need to shake off.

RK: Two people, Dr Paul Kasenene and Grace Makoko, are doing things that fulfill them. Paul did not talk about the medicines he prescribes, he passionately talked about food.

EK: He talked about the things he loved. Today you have people who studied B. Comm leading tech companies. Knowledge became ubiquitous.

RK: I studied law and I am here running a farm.

EK: Exactly. The problem is that pre-internet was okay. Knowledge was not ubiquitous. Your relevancy came from being super clear in one thing. Society needed that skill. As the internet democratised the access to information, where we find ourselves today, curiosity was born. Our curiosity had been killed when we were still young.

To the young people, you have incredible possibilities ahead of you. Part of that is about discovering yourself. You will realise that there are very many possibilities waiting for you. Most professions have been disrupted. The only difference is lag. The faster internet penetration happens in an economy, the cheaper it becomes and it is how fast industries are going to disappear.

The longer it takes for society to give simple access to the internet, the further we get left behind by the modern world and the more constrained the economy becomes.

The big companies of yesterday like banks are no longer hiring, instead, they are down sizing yet we still want to be employed by the same companies. It is possible. It is more about learning. Being vulnerable and asking where you do not know.

Shamim Matovu: How do we bring these conversations to the people that matter? The rest of the world is designing work culture.

EK: 2019 was a big awakening for me. I didn’t know how big the question of culture was. Transformation was struggling because we had not freed people. We didn’t have continuous learning. We are learning real conviction to walk this journey. What is more important is productivity not clock in. Businesses have to create meaningful conviction in the workplace.

The industrial era killed the soft skills. Anybody unable to connect the emotional side of the team will suffer the worst.

Naava Nabayego: Edgar, in your journey of pivoting, I suspect you have had bouts of self doubt, how have you dealt with that on a personal level?

EK: I am still on my personal growth journey. 2019 was very key for me. Self-doubt comes in all the time. The purpose journey became clear for me in 2017/18 and it grounded me. There is such an incredible opportunity for people like me. The clarity of purpose and a legacy keeps me going.

Simon Nyakahuma: What advice would you give to the startups that are harnessing this idea of pivoting?

Joram Ndaggwa: What advice would give entrepreneurs getting money before testing the product?

EK: We are all working backwards. Technology doesn’t solve the world, creating value does. Tech is just an enabler. Nobody buys code. People buy solutions to their problems. Having coding ability gives you great potential but you should look for a problem to solve.

Talk about impact, not tech. obsess over the customer. Do something valuable, the world takes over.

What do people want? Build empathetically. Design thinking will help you to achieve that.

Tusingwire: How do we adapt to new technologies? What’s your advice to young people?

EK: It’s simple, don’t listen to old people. They grew up in a different world. There are so many possibilities for you. The young people need to connect with each other.

RK: Thank you Edgar for agreeing to this.

EK: Thank you very much Robert. You’re the first CEO I met who had the courage to change things. 

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