The billionaire adventurer elected to lead Safaricom board in the Ruto era
His appointment last week as chairman of the board of Safaricom PLC might as well be the crowning moment of Adil Khawaja’s corporate career, spanning 30 years.
Mr Khawaja has served as a top executive in leading companies, and this new role places him at the centre of power and influence at East Africa’s largest and most profitable company.
The University of Sheffield-trained lawyer first joined the telco as a director in late December 2022 following the sudden departure of former chairman John Ngumi.
Mr Ngumi resigned after only six months on the job.
Mr Khawaja’s rise is seen as part of the current shake-up at the company as the telco’s top management seeks to align itself with the new administration of President William Ruto.
Whereas his election to steer the board surprised many Kenyans, to others, his elevation was expected. He is said to be the President’s private lawyer, a close friend and a loyalist.
But who is this bespectacled executive who flashes a cryptic smile in nearly all situations?
Unlike some of his board peers and past chairmen at Safaricom, Mr Khawaja has a very thin digital footprint, perhaps an indication that he enjoys, and likely guards, his privacy.
Besides being a respected lawyer, he is a successful entrepreneur. Records at the Business Registration Service show that Mr Khawaja owns a slice of the popular Thika Road Mall (TRM) alongside Shakira Adil Khawaja.
The Business Daily could not confirm the relationship between the two Khawajas that co-own 3,000 shares of TRM.
With more than 100 outlets, TRM is one of East Africa’s largest and busiest malls, hosting an estimated 10,000 shoppers every day.
Mr Khawaja’s speciality is real estate, environment, planning, commercial litigation and dispute resolution.
He has been described as “a leading name” in the Kenyan real estate market by the Global Chambers, an institution that ranks advocates and law firms in more than 200 countries.
He is an astute planner in development matters and consults for investors, companies, the government and high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs).
He has served on boards of some of the top public and private companies in the country, either as an executive or non-executive director.
Some of these are Kenya Power, Kenya Wildlife Service (as trustee) and CMC Motors.
For eight years until 2020, Mr Khawaja served as a non-executive director of Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) Group, having had stints at the lender in other capacities at different times.
He is also a deep-pocketed executive, thanks to the emoluments he receives for his board membership.
In 2014, for instance, Mr Khawaja was one of the 11 directors at KCB who benefited from allowances totalling Sh296 million for their service to the bank.
This is an average of Sh2.2 million for each director per month or Sh26 million per year.
Away from work, he is an adrenaline junkie. The adventurer loves trucks and off-road driving and has competed in Rhino Charge for more than 20 years.
Rhino Charge is an off-road 4×4 annual competition that raises funds to support the conservation and protection of Kenya’s water towers.
A significant portion of his fortune goes to various causes, notably philanthropy and conservation charity.
Between 2015 and 2018, for example, Mr Khawaja was one of the largest fundraisers for Rhino Ark Charitable Trust – where he is a director since 2018 – contributing Sh30 million.
The new Safaricom chairman is heavily involved in conservation work and is an executive member of the Nairobi Arboretum Conservancy Community Forest Association.
During the Jamhuri Day celebrations in December last year, Mr Khawaja was among nearly 500 individuals feted by President Ruto, receiving the Order of the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) for his contribution to conservation in the country.
Earlier, former Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko had named him on the 10-member task force to look into forest resources management and logging activities in Kenya.
He has routinely clinched the highest ranking from Chambers and Partners, the world’s leading directory of lawyers.
Until he was tapped to be a director at the country’s largest telco, he was the managing partner at Dentons Hamilton Harrison & Mathews, one of the leading law firms in Kenya.
With 13 partners, 40 associates and more than 80 legal assistants, Dentons HHM is arguably the largest law firm in Kenya and the oldest, having started operations in the country in 1902.
His profile at Dentons HHM describes him as an active member in the wildlife and environmental conservation space.
He has served as a director on the National Environment Council (NEC) and is a trustee to the Friends of Conservation and Care for the Wild Kenya.
He becomes only the fifth-ever board chairperson at Safaricom, a role that has previously been held by Nicholas Nganga, who served for 13 years, Michael Joseph (twice) and recently, Mr Ngumi.
Top on Mr Khawaja’s agenda will be to strengthen the company’s Ethiopia subsidiary after its entry into the market last year.
He will also be expected to provide stability at the company’s C-suite which has seen the departures of key personalities in recent years.
Some of those who have quit include Sylvia Mulinge, who now heads MTN Uganda, Kris Senanu, Debra Mallowah and Joseph Ogutu and Rita Okuthe.
Observers will be keen to see the direction Safaricom takes under the stewardship of Mr Khawaja, as the telco seeks to maintain its chokehold on the telecommunications market in Kenya and the region.