real people

Peter Ndiang’ui is a dual citizen of Kenya and Australia and a scientist at heart with two Masters degrees and extensive experience in technology and management consulting. The 36-year-old country manager at OLX Kenya had a chat with EDNA GICOVI about the difficult decision of relocating from Australia with his family to head OLX Kenya, and his passion for learning, innovation and leaving a legacy.

His journey starts many years ago in the heart of Nyeri County where he grew up. In his earlier years, Peter was fascinated by Wandimi Muchemi, a weatherman at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) in the 80s and family friend who also hailed from Nyeri. Peter’s dreams of one day becoming a weatherman were however short-lived and by the time he completed his studies at Nyeri High School, he was toying with the idea of becoming an engineer. It was all about science for Peter.

“I like investigating and I found that science gave me a platform where I could find things out and explain them to others,” he says. He pursued a bachelor of science in biochemistry at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). So enthralled was he by this subject that he did something that would be considered rather uncommon among many young university students.

“I spent a lot of time reading extra material outside of my school curriculum from international science journals. I really enjoyed studying. Biochemistry had a lot of interesting ideas of how our bodies function at a chemical-molecular level and I found all this very fascinating,” he says.

A taste of technology…

Though he did internships at research bodies like the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), Peter never really went down the path he seemed to have been charting in science. After his graduation, he also spent some months working with his older sister, who had a company that was among the first Safaricom dealers in the country when mobile phones were retailing at a minimum of over KES 100,000. She also had a school that taught computer packages and Peter would occasionally drop in to use the free Internet available within the school.

This exposure to technology and the world of opportunities afforded by the Internet is what drove Peter to pursue his masters in Internet technology in Australia. Though he had every intention of coming back to Kenya after his graduation in 2003, his girlfriend Beth, now his wife, had a significant bearing on his decision to stay in Australia.

He started working as a technology consultant and eventually joined another masters program, this time an MBA program with a focus on innovation in the University of Western Australia Business School. “I felt that I should improve my business acumen. Innovation was a natural choice for me, being a lover of science. It made me want to learn more and I was reading a book on innovation almost every month. I was very passionate and excited about it,” he says.

Peter lived in Australia for a number of years and had the opportunity of becoming a citizen. Though he loved the personal growth he had observed within himself during his stay, he had some reservations. “I wondered whether I would be able to return to Kenya as I’d always wanted. The old constitution was still in use and dual citizenship was not possible for Kenyans at the time. In the end I decided to go ahead with applying for citizenship. I felt that eventually there would be a way for me to come back home,” he says.

After his second graduation, he came up with what he wanted to be his life’s mission. “As I put down my ideas, I realised that they all revolved around Africa,” he says. Nonetheless, Peter would stay in Australia for several more years, perhaps in preparation for his role when he eventually returned to his motherland.

He briefly interned at Deloitte before starting to work as a management consultant with Ajilon Consulting and then joined SMS Management and Technology in Melbourne, an Australian Stocks Exchange listed consulting, technology and management services company. During his time there, Peter consulted for the top Australian Stock Exchange listed companies in a wide range of industries, including the Australian banks, telecommunications, media, government agencies, and Internet companies, among others. His main objective was to improve their operations and systems, make them more efficient through large organisation transformation programs. His assignment at a multi-billion dollar Yellow pages directory company, struggling to find it’s footing in the Internet space, provided valuable insights on what lay ahead in Internet –driven media.

“When you work in management consulting, you become really good at breaking down complex problems in a scientific way to come up with potential solutions. It also allows you to see beyond technology and have a good understanding of people and how they work together as the centre of any organisation’s destiny. My experiences have enabled me to understand how to lead people, be able zoom out to see the big picture as well as zoom in to see the finer operational details. They have also helped me become practical, more entrepreneurial, and understand how to deal with finite resources and still get things done,” he says.

A difficult decision…

Peter was now very much settled in Australia. He and Beth had returned to Kenya to have their wedding in December 2007, and though their eventual plan had always been to come back and settle in their birth country, witnessing the post election events of 2007/2008 cast doubts on their plans. They resumed their lives in Australia where, in addition to management consulting, Peter was running several websites including kenyaimagine.com, an online journal where Kenyans from the Diaspora wrote on economic development and political issues, myafricancareer.com, a job website and myproperty.co.ke, a website for property listings in Kenya.

“Running these online platforms was, for me, the typical Kenyan side hustle. A friend living in the UK and I ran kenyaimagine.com, while together with a colleague from Melbourne, we ran myproperty.co.ke and later myafricancareer.com which we purchased from a leading Kenyan blogger and even employed people in Kenya to help us run it. My friend came back to Kenya much earlier than I did and continued to run it,” he says.

In late 2011, Peter received a call from Naspers, a South Africa-based multinational mass media company. They had located him through a headhunter who contacted him through a professional network, LinkedIn and had an attractive offer for him that involved managing one of their brands in Kenya. “It was a trying period for me because my wife and I were quite settled in Australia. Our son David was only six months at the time and my wife, who had been in Australia much longer than me, already had a thriving career as an Australian Registered Nurse. There was a lot for me to consider before deciding to take this job,” he says.

This is probably why he procrastinated on making this decision, waiting until the very last minute, when his answer would be required the very next day. He decided to take the job. “My wife made a huge sacrifice to move here with me when I finally made that decision and I am so grateful to her for that. For me this was a huge opportunity to be involved in something bigger than myself in Africa, as part of my mission,” he says.

Heading OLX Kenya…

Peter started out as the regional manager at Dealfish, a Pan-African online classifieds business, in March 2012. That same year in August, Naspers consolidated its various brands into one and Peter was involved in transitioning Dealfish into OLX Kenya (olx.co.ke) in August 2012. OLX Kenya is an online site that offers local classified ads. “We have never looked back since we launched. We started making great campaigns, getting Kenyans to use the platform and we have grown significantly,” he says.

Currently, Peter is the country manager at OLX Kenya and has no regrets about making the big move. “Well, except for the food in Melbourne. I miss that,” he says with a chuckle. He adds, “I know we still have a long way to go and many problems we need to solve as a country, but I am excited about the ‘let’s get things done’ attitude that we have here,” he says.

For Peter, OLX is much more than an online market. He feels that, among other useful functions, the platform has not only helped create efficiency in our economy but also helped create income for people.

“You have within your reach assets that are not liquid that you can liquidate with ease, without bearing the cost of advertising and someone else will also benefit from them. For instance, if you have an iron box, washing machine or fridge at home that you may not be using and you’re probably thinking that you need a loan, you can easily sell these, get the money you need and benefit someone else who needs these items. We have so many people with things in their homes, which they don’t need that may be needed by someone else. OLX is there to make that connection between these two parties and also helps families to de-clutter their homes,” he says.

He adds, “If you think about enabling trade to happen amongst so many different people, you’re also creating friendships and connections in a country with divisions based on various negative aspects. It makes me happy that our platform is part of breaking these barriers.”

Regarding security while transacting online, Peter says that OLX strives to continually educate users on how to buy and sell on online platforms because it’s a relatively new concept for most people in Kenya. “All we can do to ensure that people do not get defrauded, at the moment, is to keep letting them know that the rules of a normal market still apply even when transacting online,” he says.

So does Peter ever shop online? He says he recently helped his wife to purchase a used microwave. She runs a restaurant and was looking for a commercial microwave which they were able to find at a reasonable price on OLX, from someone whose family had just closed a restaurant. “We paid the guy a visit on a Sunday afternoon at their South B home and our transaction was done in 30 minutes. The microwave is about four years old but works perfectly and we got it at a fraction of the market price,” he says.

At the time of the interview, he was also looking to sell his digital camcorder and a travel bag on OLX so he could raise some money to buy an excellent gift for his son’s third birthday. Over four people had already called him expressing interest and he was looking forward to completing the sale and funding the birthday party without spending a penny from his bank account.

“It’s important for me to use the product because this is the only way I can understand people’s experiences. And I encourage the team I work with to do the same,” he says. Peter sees OLX taking over the entire sub-Saharan Africa online classifieds market. He intends to continue working in the Internet industry in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa.

“We are just scratching the surface when it comes to the Internet industry. I love its transformative abilities and I feel that the same thing that is happening in the mobile industry in Kenya is also going to happen to the Internet industry but in a bigger way,” he says.

Leaving a legacy…

Peter has a remarkable way of finding perspective and balance in life. “The key thing is to think about my epitaph. What do I want my wife Beth to say when I’m not there, in an honest, truthful way? Peter was a good husband because of this and this. Or he was a bad husband because of this. What do I want my son David to say? Dad was a good dad because of this. What I would like to hear them say becomes my priority and I try to live and work towards it. The same goes for my colleagues at the office,” he says.

A legacy, according to him, is not necessarily a huge thing that is out of reach, but a very practical concept. What would you want the people who you care about to think of you or to say about what you did for them practically when you are long gone? He asks. “Everything else goes in the face of death except your legacy. It’s about the relationships you had, what you made of them and how you influenced different people. When you think about it that way, then your goals start to crystallise,” he says, a meditative look on his face.

During his free time, Peter loves to read and help his wife at her restaurant, The Urban Spoon in Nairobi’s Kilimani area. He and his wife also enjoy spending time with their parents and siblings. He also loves to get involved in community work and is currently helping a number of youth in Nyeri to build a media studio.

Published in August 2014