Most people in and outside Kenya know Safaricom plc, as that giant mobile phone company that cracked the code to mobile money transfer business in Africa, through the M-Pesa platform.
If they live in Kenya, they may be one of its more than 20 million mobile phone subscribers, or seen its impact in all manner initiatives from disaster relief, to music concerts and big ticket sporting events.
The company may also have unwittingly added the tag of anti-corruption crusader to its identity. Recently they announced that as of this financial year, they are withdrawing all funding to three of Kenya’s largest sports governing bodies that it has been partnering with. Reason being they were fed up with the non-existent accounting for how the funds were being used.
These organizations in question are: Kenya Rugby Union, Football Kenya Federation, and Athletics Kenya. In total the amount withdrawn is close to 350 million Kenya shillings (3.8 million USD) in annual funding.
With the Kenya Rugby Union, Safaricom were the headline sponsors of the blue ribbon Safari Sevens Rugby tournament, as well as the domestic rugby sevens circuit, through which the national team has built a squad that has consistently punched above its weight on the Sevens World Series Circuit.
With the Football Kenya Federation, Safaricom was involved in the Sakata Ball youth football tournament which perished, partially due to cynical rent seeking on the part of FKF officials. To date FKF has yet to replace this with a viable youth football tournament.
With Athletics Kenya, the mobile phone services giant funded a number of high profile domestic track and cross country events, the national trials for Olympic, Cross Country and World Championship national teams as well as the annual Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
Coincidentally all three sports federations have been in the news for the wrong reasons recently. At least 14 of Athletics Kenya’s regional branches have gone to court intending to oust long term chairman Isaiah Kiplagat. The Kenya Rugby Union board was dissolved over non-stop in fighting among its clubs and executives.
On the football side Kenya’s Premier League, stands suspended until (at the earliest) a court case between the Kenya Premier League, and Football Kenya federation is resolved.
While cancelling all funding to these organizations seems a drastic measure, action of this nature was probably long overdue. By putting their money where their mouth is, Safaricom have shown that there is more to responding to impunity, which characterizes management of large Kenyan institutions (inside and outside sports), than wringing hands and appealing to somebody else (normally the government) to do something.
Given the tendency towards brinkmanship, and disregard for the welfare of fans, and competitors alike, in the organizations in question, there is a very real chance that this action could precipitate the scaling down, temporary postponement, or even collapse of some the events affected.
If that happens, you can bet that there will be a lot of sentiment directed at pinning the blame of Safaricom, for refusing to be an enabler for these power brokers, in the name of keeping fans entertained, and competitors paid.
On the flip side the temptation of being associated with organizations, with such a wide reach and fan base might prove too much. Some other corporate could move in. In such a scenario, the events in question could continue as before, maybe even grow, depending on how much money the corporate is willing to pony up and the governance issues raise would just fade into the background.
Most importantly is the kind of precedent that Safaricom’s action creates, with regards to the influence of private corporations on the actions of public institutions. Safaricom are in a unique position given the scale to which their resources can impact an issue.
They are also entitled to be fully aware of how the resources they commit to something are used, for their own reputation, and that of the partners that they engage. They also have shareholders to account to.
Nonetheless bodies like Football Kenya Federation, Kenya Rugby Union, have stakeholders (players, fans, clubs, and global bodies like FIFA) to whom they should already be accountable. They all have mechanisms like elections, tribunals etc, through which bad leadership ought to be punished and good stewardship rewarded.
If these mechanisms do not work, is it up to entities like corporate sponsors to force accountability down the throats of bodies like Football Kenya Federation?
Is there nobody other than corporate sponsors, who are willing and able to convince these organizations to put the fans and players first? If not then what hope do the people dependent on sporting organizations for making living in the area of their passion?