Nicholas Nesbitt, EBS, OGW
CHAIR OF BOARD CAPITAL MARKETS AUTHORITY
The name Nik Nesbitt and the brand IBM are synonyms in Kenya. International Business Machines, or IBM, is a multinational technology company headquartered in America. IBM is known throughout the world as a disruptive brand, thanks to their incredible technology, and innovative computer hardware. IBM launched into the technology industry with a goal of making the most intelligent solutions around, and today, they’re accomplishing that in everything from Nano-technology to mainframe computers. This is the brand Nik has been shepherding in East Africa for a number of years.
Nicholas (Nik) Nesbitt has learned to expect the unexpected and deliver well on whatever is thrust on his plate. At close to midnight on a Friday night in early November 2021, Nik noticed that his WhatsApp and sms messages were going through the roof. They were congratulatory messages on his appointment as Chairman of Capital Markets Authority, the regulating body charged with supervising, licensing and monitoring the activities of market intermediaries, including the Nairobi Stock Exchange, (NSE) the central depository and settlement system, and all the other legal persons licensed under the Capital Markets Act.
One of his first calls the next day was with the “Super Chairman” John Ngumi, who is no stranger to the unexpected and the different, the intrigues and the challenges, of chairing large and influential private and public sector institutions. In John’s (in)famous consoling manner, along the lines of “You’ve been called to serve, don’t dither, just get on with it and make it happen!” he encouraged Nik to quickly learn the ropes of the CMA and facilitate access to capital for SMEs and encourage citizens to invest in the capital marketsbut take no prisoners when it comes to those flouting the clearly spelt out regulations.
Nik relates that the dread and fear of the enormity of the role and the expectations to continue to march in the very big shoes of his friend, James Ndegwa, the immediate Past Chairman of the CMA, was quite overwhelming. But when he met CEO Wycliffe Shamiah, and his dedicated and able team at the CMA, he was very encouraged. Mr Shamiah has vast experience at the regulator, and is of a very calm and reassuring demeanour, developed over years of working in research and other departments, all of which developed his in-depth knowledge of the capital markets: the players, the ecosystem and the regulations. His team of professionals easily revealed their knowledge and commitment to their roles during Nik’s induction process, and the board of directors reassured him of their support in continuing to maintain the stability of the institution and its commitment to the high principles of corporate governance.
Having firmly and rapidly taken the seat at the head of the board, Nik quickly engaged the organisation and its industry stakeholders in his typical visionary and “what-if” rhetorical style of encouraging and pushing his teams in the board and management to go beyond the ordinary and dare to dream of achieving greater goals. The rather mild growth in the capital markets’ turnover over the past few years, the lack of engagement by family businesses, the low number of public issues, and some of the troubling debt instruments, have all made Nik very excited that the capital markets indeed had plenty of potential and it was up to the team to work with the ecosystem to take our capital markets to a whole new level.
His journey has begun, and results are already showing. Same-day trading was approved and launched by the Nairobi Securities Exchange before Christmas. He met the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in November with Kiprono Kittony (the NSE Chair) and Jeff Odundo (the NSE CEO) and they discussed reviving and enhancing a dated MOU between the two exchanges to focus on cross-listings, capacity building, shared experiences in consumer engagement, stakeholder management and many other areas. He has spoken with industry leaders in private and in public gatherings and is actively soliciting ways in which the regulator can support innovation and growth within the sector.
Launching into the new role as the Chair of the CMA elicited the same cold sweat emotions in Nik that he has felt so many times, before quickly learning the law of the land and marching on. Taking on his roles with such dedication and fervour has earned Nik many invitations to join boards or even stay longer than normally expected. For instance, he has been re-elected for a second term as the Chair of KEPSA (the apex body of the private sector in Kenya) and also at the EABC (East African Business Council).
Nik has had extensive experience on boards in Kenya and in the US, and this experience in the public, development and private sectors has given Nik the set of skills and needed wisdom to chair the boards he leads today. In addition to the boards mentioned, he sits on or has sat on those of Central Bank of Kenya, Commercial Bank of Africa, the American Chamber of Commerce, AMREF Flying Doctors, Kenya School of Monetary Studies, Multimedia University and Gateway Insurance. He is also an active member of the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO), a global organisation supporting leading CEOs in each country.
An underlying theme in all that Nik does professionally is that “we can do better, much better”. In his numerous speeches and conference panel sessions, Nik frequently drives a message that “there’s nothing holding us back except ourselves,” which he believes is largely driven by fear and an under-current of “we don’t deserve to have better”. A controversial thought for some, perhaps, but it’s difficult to argue against that thought when all around us we see poor quality goods for sale; slow and ineffective service; and inflated public projects–the latter with their associated waste and the public and private sector leaders’ self-interest and self-optimisation at the expense of the greater good. Unfortunately, Nik points out, were the leaders to think about the greater good, they would benefit even more than they do today, going by the adage of a “rising tide lifts all boats”.
Nik brings this growth mindset to his two active Chairmanship roles at the CMA and at the EABC. With regards to the somewhat questionable success of the East Africa Community, Nik’s eyes light up passionately when asked about his vision for East Africa. At his maiden speech to the Heads of State Summit in Arusha just before Covid struck (and the first time that private sector had ever formally addressed a sitting Session), he painted a vision where the “One-Stop border points” became “No Stop border points”.
e pointed out that companies would do so much better if they could access all corners of East Africa without all the selfish non-tariff barriers erected by the respective countries’ leaders, typically at the prompting of interested local businesspeople in those countries. They would do much better if they could freely hire the best East African citizens from whichever country they come. Another “rising tide” thought. For example, car companies could manufacture one car part in Rwanda, another in Tanzania, a third in Uganda and assemble the whole vehicle in Kenya or another East African country. We could then rightfully claim to have an East African vehicle – which should never be stopped as it crosses the borders to be sold in another country.
Nik’s vision highlights the unfulfilled fundamental structure supporting the East African Customs Union:
“The EAC Partner States have agreed to establish free trade (or zero duty imposed) on goods and services amongst themselves and agreed on a common external tariff (CET), whereby imports from countries outside the EAC zone are subjected to the same tariff when sold to any EAC Partner State. Goods moving freely within the EAC must comply with the EAC Rules of Origin and with certain provisions of the Protocol for the Establishment of the East African Community Customs Union.”
With this definition and vision for the EAC, Nik says that if the EAC is really going to adopt and embrace the Customs Union, nobody should be stopped at any border internal to the EAC.
He has the same views regarding the Open Skies agreement that has been approved by the Heads of State yet not implemented by each of the countries. With each country charging regional airlines such high taxes and tariffs, it is sometimes cheaper to fly to Europe than to fly to a neighbouring country.
Seeing opportunities for change and transformation is the kind of thinking that led to Nik becoming a consummate entrepreneur, from selling shoes to factory workers in the Industrial Area after his A-Levels, to selling Kenyan artifacts and jewellery in college all over New England, to starting his first company in Kenya, KenCall, the first international call centre and Business Process Outsourcing company in sub-Saharan Africa.
In starting KenCall, Nik would tell his investors, staff and others that international business was a phenomenal opportunity to take Kenyans to world class level and to scale, and so demonstrate to Kenyans and the world that Kenya was more than just about runners, flowers and safaris. The intense training, constant engagement with demanding international clients, the crazy hours, the extreme telecommunications challenges, the difficult transportation challenges throughout the night all made KenCall into a robust international corporate “fighter” and its staff learned that they could do almost anything they put their minds to. KenCall won many accolades and awards and great press coverage. The company even had a Harvard Business School MBA case study written about it that was taught all over the world in international business classes for many years, titled “KenCall – Can Nik Nesbitt’s Venture Succeed in Kenya?”
His inspired vision for Kenya and the opportunities here compelled Nik to leave the United States over 15 years ago. He had spent over 20 years earning three Ivy League engineering degrees at Dartmouth College and an MBA from Stanford University, and he had spent very rewarding formative years working at The Boston Consulting Group in Boston, also leading large organisations within innovative Fortune 100 companies and start-ups. Nik believes that your first job defines you, and so it is serendipitous that so many years after leaving BCG, Nik is now a senior advisor for BCG across Africa, working out of its rapidly growing Nairobi office, where he is supporting the BCG teams as they advise governments, donors and large companies in driving change.
When asked if he had any regrets about leaving a very successful and financially rewarding life in the US, Nik says, “when I get very selfish and self-focused and think about the comparisons between my life here and there, I miss there. I miss the way things all work, the professionalism, the constant drive for excellence, the ease of getting what you want and going where you want. But when I think about the good I am doing out here and the vast number of people I’m helping, and how my thoughts and actions are shaping a country and even a region, perhaps even all of Africa one day, I know I’m in the right place. I know I’m supposed to be in Kenya. I have a purpose-driven life now, and I’m not living off the successes of others but creating opportunities for others to succeed.”
Fortunately, Nik has many opportunities to share his views about the potential for this part of the world. He is a frequent speaker and panellist on entrepreneurship, innovation, regional integration and leadership at conferences in Kenya and around the world.
He has been recognised by two Kenyan Presidents for his diligence and contribution to the country. In 2021, President Kenyatta honoured him with the Elder of the Burning Spear (EBS), and in 2008 President Kibaki had awarded him the Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW).
Nik has a very inspirational vision for Kenya and the region. He sees a region that can create tremendous opportunities for its people, its companies and its institutions, especially if it begins to expect more of itself. His seemingly patient demeanour belies his relentless drive to deliver more. He is a quick study and always takes a data-driven and analytical approach to solving problems, driven by his deep engineering background and his formative years at BCG.
We can expect much from the CMA; we can see big changes being driven at the EAC level; and we can expect to see the companies that Nik chairs take root in Kenya and the region in 2022. We certainly can expect those start-ups to be transformational and to remain solidly in line with Nik’s view of success when they launch, because he will ensure they align with his mantra, “We should expect more and do more!”