Crispin Achola, is the managing director, British American Tobacco, East Africa. He loves words, seeing that he writes them down, mulls over them, before he launches them in conversations like missiles of intellect.
Articulate and poised, Achola has had stints at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, BAT (1999 to 2017) including cluster managing director Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi and Managing Director Sudan.
Surprisingly, for the nature of his office, he comes alone for the interview. No handlers. And he reminds Jackson Biko: “We are going to talk about myself, right?”
Do you smoke?
No. But I can smoke a cigar now and then. As a typical young adult, I tried cigarettes but it wasn’t something that stuck. There isn’t any particular reason why I don’t smoke. Some people smoke cigarettes, some people don’t.
What season are you in right now in your life?
A season of discovery. It’s a bit proverbial but it’s like half-time, where you have ticked a lot of things on your to-do list but there’s still so much road ahead. It’s a season of ‘so what?’ I’m thinking of impact now.
What in this next phase of your life do you want to work on?
Family. I am married and I have one child, a son who is transitioning from being a boy to a man. He is 17 and it’s been a nice ride raising him, but now we are entering a different phase of our relationship. So it’s kind of how I transition from being a parent to almost being a confidant, to being a brother, to be a to-go-to guy.
There is a little bit of pressure. You have to get it right because there is no second chance, a do or die. I must say I’m very lucky that as a son he’s been very well adjusted, generally has decided to do it the right way. Very self-starter, very self-driven, so he’s been easy to raise as a son and it’s a big transition that he’s going through now.
Do you ever want more children?
I mean how would I answer that? No. I’m content. I’m content with my son. He’s kind of ticked all the boxes I want in children.
Did you come from a big family or a small family?
I come from a family of three brothers, so together with me, we’re four. I’m number two. Between the first one, and our youngest is six years. So we were not just brothers, we were friends. It was a house of testosterone and competition and it still is.
The impact this had is that growing up so close in age you didn’t feel like you were growing up with brothers. You felt like you were growing up with friends.
My elder brother didn’t grow up with us for a significant portion of his childhood because we lived in the US and when we left he stayed on. So I kind of became defector number one just by presence. My father is still a university professor. He specialises in sociology. My mother passed away three years ago, she was a school administrator at Kianda School.
We lived in the US when my father was studying for 11 years. Then we moved to Zambia where he worked at the University of Zambia. Essentially, I came back to Kenya in high school. I went to Strathmore School in Lavington then off to the University of Nairobi where I studied for a business degree.
Was there any sort of pressure growing up under a professor?
There was some subtle academic pressure. I was a little bit luckier because I excelled intellectually.
Which part of your career was most challenging?
Working in Khartoum, Sudan. BAT had just acquired a company in Sudan and we didn’t have the ‘strength of a multinational’ we were accustomed to and so had to put that into place as opposed to finding it and using it to leverage.
We were two or three Christians in the organisation, the company largely run in Arabic. Beyond saying Salaam Aleikum, my Arabic doesn’t go too far beyond that.
A lot wasn’t known about the company, and just bringing that knowledge into the organisation was quite a task because some things that are taken for granted elsewhere cannot be taken for granted in Sudan.
What do you do when you want to let your hair down?
I’m an avid reader. I’ve read your books, by the way. I’m one of those guys who read two to three books at any one time because I read depending on my mood. So, I would read fiction, I’ll read a lot of biographies or something non-fiction. I also love new words, I write them down in a book. My favourite style is first-person narrative books.
I have a peculiar taste in music. I’m into rock, light rock, nothing too heavy. Sunday is a kind of sacred family time. I’m the braai master at home - I have skill sets that are legendary in the family. [Chuckles] And because of that I always have a cousin, a nephew, a brother popping in, usually, I suspect to value that I still have the skills.
If you were to carry one book to the afterlife, what book would that be?
(Pause) ‘The Book of Negroes’ by Lawrence Hill.
That’s a beautiful book, I enjoyed it. Let’s say money wasn’t a problem, what would you be doing with your life?
I’d be a gardener. Or a landscape artist or something of that nature. Gardening is the ultimate transformation and creativity. A landscape or space of grass can transform into something terrific, something of great beauty by just planting and pruning.
I have a very well-manicured lawn at home. Lately, I’ve taken to choosing the plants and debating on how high or low to cut the grass. It’s a passion.
For me, it’s the most literal impact for lack of a better word you can have. You plant it and uproot it if you don’t like it and start again.
You can’t do that with people but you can do that with plants.
You’ve held some really good jobs over a decade, when was money ever a problem?
(Pause) I mean I wouldn’t say we grew up wanting, that would not be factual. I mean, if I compare myself to an average Kenyan, I’m privileged in that context.
But if I look at for example where I went to school – Strathmore - I’d say I was on the bottom end of that social spectrum.
Money has never been a problem, but I’ve gone through life, I’ve moved from being at the lower level of my social spectrum to towards the top end of it.
I’ve found my position changing as I’ve progressed through this journey I’ve been on.
Are you married to a black woman or a white woman?
I’m married to a Kenyan woman, who is black, who comes from down the road, Ukambani, Machakos. [Chuckles] Why did you ask that?
You look like the kind of guy who would be married to a white woman.
[Laughs] I grew up in that environment. I dated a few. But I married very Kenyan.
What are some of your traits that you’d not want your son to pick?
[Laughs] I have a bit of what I call a man cave mentality. [Laughs] When something is disturbing me or touching my core, I withdraw, go into my cave, throw the bones, see how they land, but it’s a lot of self-searching and self-reflection.
I’m just hoping he can be a bit more expressive about some of his challenges than I am. I’ll have a few people I’ll bounce it off, but it starts a lot with very intrinsic soul searching. So I’m just hoping he can be more verbal, early faster than I can be.
How are you and your father unalike?
We’re very alike. We both have a passion for the English language. He’s a narrator, he writes poetry, I don’t do that, but he has a very good command of the English language, and it’s something that kind of has rubbed off on me. I like new words, as I read I’ve become a very inquisitive thing. I love throwing my son a word and sending him to go search it and reuse it in a sentence.
Secondly, we are both very family-oriented. My father has always been there, and it’s something I’d say has rubbed off on me.
Even at my age of 50 he still asks me, ‘are you okay?’
The third element is we are travellers. My father has travelled the world, as I have. Our difference is that he’s an academician who loves theories and philosophies, I run companies in a practical way. He’s now 76 years old.
All factors constant: who’s a better father; you or your father?
[Chuckles] That’s a hard question. I’d say he is. And the reason why I’d say that is from an effort perspective, raising four boys with six years difference… I mean I struggle sometimes with one. [Laughs] We were not the easiest children. [Laughs]
Is there a life’s question you are looking for answers at the moment? Stuff like, why are we here? Why do children die? Do birds sleep?
[Long pause] It would be around intelligence, the brain, and to say how much of it are we using? Is it 5 percent? Is it 50 percent? Is it maxed out? I just find the whole thought process very intriguing; how can we produce deeper thoughts and deeper answers or solutions.
How much of your brain capacity do you think you’re using now at 50?
I’d say 20 per cent. I think the 80 per cent is waiting to be ignited.
What can ignite it?
Experiences. For me the marvel always has been, as I travel, just realising how much you don’t know. It’s shocking.
Talking of travel, what city are you?
[Sighs] Maputo. It’s one of those places where you don’t know much about, but when you go there you kind of wonder how come you never knew anything about it. I’m one of those people you might make assumptions about but when you get to know me you discover a whole different person. I think Maputo is like that. The first time you hear Maputo you might think of war but I had the opportunity to live there and I discovered it’s one of the best places that I’ve ever been.
Is there anything you’re trying to unlearn now?
Taking things for granted. It’s not easy, especially when you have the kind of upbringing and career I’ve had. There are certain things that I have never really had to think about, I just thought they were given. But now I’m looking at things anew and realising not everybody has that, or that’s not the average or the reality for the majority.
Why are you coming at that realisation now?
A lot happened in my first half of life. It was a rat race; study, pass exams, job, salary increase, this country, that country, a child...too much. But now I can pause and take in a bit more. I’m more reflective now.
Here is an analogy; the first 50 years I was in the driver’s seat. I was just checking for the potholes, I was keeping very narrow, getting to my destination.
Now I’ve reached a stage whereby I have a driver and I’m in the passenger seat and I can look out and see the landscape and trees and notice things I hadn’t before.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?
An 8. I have so much to be grateful for. I’m lucky I get out of bed every morning and I’m healthy with only a small ache in the knee once a month. That’s pretty lucky. [Chuckles]