It’s a gorgeous Friday afternoon in Nairobi. The sun is up, traffic is flowing, and the weekend is just about to start when I walk up to the mi-Fone offices, just a few steps from our desks at Nairobi Garage’s space at The Mirage in Westlands.
I’m meeting up with Nikhil Patel, mi-Fone’s Regional Manager – East & Central Africa.
There are boxes strewn on the ground, and I pass by several workmen who are busy putting up branding at their new African HQ. They recently moved in.
In the midst of the bustle, I spy Nikhil through his glass wall, as focused as if he were on top of an isolated mountain. A bit to my left, I see others also deeply engrossed in whatever they are doing, despite the fact that there’s a bunch of people walking in and out.Later in the interview, Nikhil will tell me, “I’m lucky that my team understands that being part of mi-Fone is anything but a 9-5 job! We’ve had people who’ve left because they couldn’t stand the pressure and the fast pace of working in a disruptive environment like this, but these guys get it!”
mi-Fone is The first African Mobile Devices Brand.
Started on April Fool’s Day 2008, these guys have been livening up the mobile phone industry from almost 8 years. They were the first phone to have a Facebook button, something that is now the norm, and they were also behind OJU, the world’s first African emoji. Nikhil has been with them from 2011.
He is dressed, quite conscientiously as I’ll find out, in a striped pink and white shirt, green trousers, and penny loafers. Beneath his rolled up sleeves, I can make out several tattoos, in what seems like Sanskrit.
“I only get meaningful tattoos, and they are written in either ancient Sanskrit or Tibetan script.” he says when I ask about them, “I have the names of family members, mantras, and other important events in my life.”
Nikhil was born in London but his parents were refugees, having been forcibly expelled by Idi Amin from Uganda. He’d later find out that his CEO, Alpesh Patel, was also a refugee from Uganda.
Majority of his family was from either Uganda or Kenya, so growing up, they would regale him with stories of Africa. He didn’t quite understand what they meant, though, until he was a bit older.
“I started to understand how bad it had been back in 1972, and how hard it was for my parents.”
His parents made sure he made the connection with Africa from an early age.
“The first time I came to Kenya was in ’87,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the memory, “I was very young, but I remember snippets of the trip like going to Kisumu, Amboseli, and Carnivore, where at the time they had actual game meat! ”
It was this seed, planted those many ago, that has led him to live and work in Africa with mi-Fone, from Mauritius, to South Africa, and now Kenya.
Nikhil has been working in the mobile space since 2000, when his first job after graduating from University in London was with Razorfish in Frankfurt, Germany. In 2002, with a characteristic ‘All in attitude’, he moved to New York, which became his home for the next ten years. It was while in the city of dreams that he met his wife, who, by a happy turn of fate, happened to have parents from Uganda as well.
”She gets what I do and the 18hr days, 6-7 days a week I put in. Managing a healthy work life balance is tough, but we manage…somehow! She used to manage a large medical firm in New York, so she understands my hectic work & travel schedule. It’s a sacrifice we gotta make!’
And hectic it has been.
While still in New York, Nikhil signed on to be the Chief Operations Officer of mi-Fone. He had to sleep in bits in order to manage the different time zones: his own in New York, procurement in China, and then the core business in Africa. Eventually he, his first daughter (who he refers to as his #FirstWorldChild) and his wife moved to the company’s then new HQ in Mauritius.
”It was a drastic change for everyone – from the hustle & bustle of New York, to the quiet, island beach life in Mauritius,” Nikhil reminisces, ” As conducive as Mauritius is for business, mi-Fone was a lean, agile, and lightening paced company, so our way of business didn’t quite suit the island. We had to move to a place where we could keep up with the pace of change on the continent.”
Nikhil again moved to South Africa with mi-Fone, where his second daughter (he refers to her as his #ThirdWorldChild) was born. From Jo’burg, Nikhil would travel all around Africa, so that he could keep up with the orders for mi-Fone handsets coming through. Living on a plane, going home to literally wash his clothes, and even traveling 8 countries across Africa in 12 days…it was crazy!
”We were creating a disruptive African brand, and the press were always talking about us, so I think that people thought that we had a bigger team than we really had. It was tough for us, because we all had to play multiple roles at once, but passion kept us going. We’re expanding our team to keep up with our current growth phase, but in our startup phase, we were always about 3-4 people on the team.”
In January of last year, Nikhil slowly started his shift to Nairobi, finally settling here full-time in July.
”When we setup base here in Nairobi last August, we stayed under the radar while we started to grow our team & infrastructure. We worked out of The Foundry, kept our heads down and started gradually scaling. This is actually my first interview since we setup here in Kenya, so you’re very lucky!” he explains.
”We moved to Nairobi Garage because this is a space that is at the center of African innovation,‘Silicon Savannah’. We wanted a space that is in line with our brand’s core values and overall image.”
mi-Fone has recently been in the news for taking on Chinese Mobile Device giant Xiaomi for their planned use of the ‘Mi’ brand.
”We’re open to competition, heck we love competition, so that’s not the issue. We’re just hoping that the rule of law will be upheld, since we followed due process and registered the ‘mi’ and ‘mi-Fone’ names in Africa. It’s a matter of principle. African companies need to start standing up against the so called “Big Brands” that are merely here to exploit this continent.”
We wish them all the best with that.
Away from work, Nikhil loves photography, football, and spending time with friends and family.
”Having a solid base here in Nairobi now, it’s the little things like taking Aari’ to school, or playing with Aani’ when I get home that makes it all worth it. With the amount I used to travel, the kids used to think of me as Skype, because that’s how we’d stay in touch. I used to miss out on a lot including birthdays & fathers day, but as we scale and bring in more team members, I’m not missing as many important things now! ”
I press him for details of how he spent his Valentine’s, relishing his slight squirm. You can tell from his body language, as well as the colorful ‘Dad’ cup that sticks out in his utilitarian office, that his family is his soft spot.
” I spent the day having a champagne brunch picnic at the National Park with my girls and friends.” Laughing, he adds, ” The little ones had orange juice!”
Nikhil is a dapper man, and I ask him about his meticulously put together look.
” I support local fashion and fashion startups. My favourite Kenyan designer for bespoke suits is Dambala Sabaquo’s Ally Rashid. My shirts are custom made by Jackie’s Tailors in Bangkok who’s been my go to guy since 2006.”
His shoes are from Del Toro, a Miami fashion startup he has been supporting from the very beginning, to the stars they are now. He’s cheekily slid actual copper pennies in the vamp of his dark brown leather penny loafers!
His bag, a beautifully put together custom leather & kitenge piece, is by Kenyan brand Suave, who uses a mix of upcycled second hand clothes and new materials.
”I believe that dressing well is very important. You must pay attention to how you present yourself.”
As we wrap up, I ask him what he’d like to do in the next life.
”That’s a bit morbid, isn’t it?” he asks. I agree, but I still want to know.
”I think I’ll focus on this life first!” he says, laughing, ”There’s still a lot I’d like to do!”