Lessons for Kenyan leaders from Jack Ma’s philosophy

So Jack Ma, the founder and executive chairman of the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group Holding, is in Kenya to inspire young entrepreneurs on how to succeed in business. The 54-year-old Chinese magnate, who is the richest man in Asia and the 14th richest in the world, will find himself besieged to provide live tips on how he has made a fortune of some $41.8 billion (you can convert that to Sh4,300,000,000,000 or Sh4.3 trillion!) in Internet-based companies. He is the special adviser on youth entrepreneurship to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and thanks to its secretary-general, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, who has organised the historic visit that will include a town hall meeting at the University of Nairobi.

Mr Ma (born Ma Yun), who is on his first visit to Africa, is one of the most influential business persons, only comparable to the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Google’s Larry Page, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet. He has inspired the world not because of how much wealth he has amassed in a relatively short span of time but by his humility. The most impressive aspect of Ma’s philosophy is how to put people at the centre of development. Some of his speeches are particularly relevant to Kenyan business leaders, who behave like politicians in running their businesses.


One of Mr Ma’s philosophies is that changing the world should begin with changing ourselves. This is a hard lesson for Kenyan leaders, who believe they are the instruments of change and the people must follow their dreams, even if they end up nowhere.

Another important lesson is the place of women in business. Mr Ma says Alibaba has lots of women at all levels, from senior management to employees. According to him, women are critical to good business because they think about others more (poor men!). His lesson on inclusion of women should encourage Kenya to fulfil the constitutional requirement of one-third gender balance in all public offices, and inspire the private sector to encourage more women to rise to senior management and board of directors. Women are under-represented at decision-making levels, and have lesser chances for influencing change. Carbacid Investments, one of the oldest companies in the Nairobi Securities Exchange, has just appointed Ms Susan Mudhune as its first woman director?


Mr Ma’s other philosophy is about the winning strategy of empowering others to be better than you. He advocates empowerment of youth arguing that if you haven’t achieved your dreams by age 50, invest in young people because they are better than you. He practised what he preaches when, at 49, he stepped down as the chief executive officer. Here we have a real problem. While youth (18 to 35) are the majority, the old guard has entrenched itself in top political and business positions, leaving their sons and daughters unemployed or scrambling for the middle to lower level jobs. It’s a tragedy that some leaders who were appointed to senior public and corporate offices at the dawn of independence are still in or fighting for office, some of them in their 70s and 80s. They are crowding out younger generations and dimming hope for change for a better tomorrow. Giving up corporate or political power may be a bitter pill to swallow but our leaders need to move on, rather wait to die in office and leave their legacy crumbling.

Kenyans should learn to have unity of purpose. As Mr Ma says, you need to grow your mind, culture, values and wisdom. This is critically deficient in Kenyans particularly during election time like now. The time for change is now and change must start with our leaders leaving sufficient space for youth to unleash their energies. Let them make mistakes and correct themselves. Mr Ma says they will fall, rise and continue because they are still young and energetic.

Peter Warutere is a director of Mashariki Communications.

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