Chief Operating Officer - KOKO Networks.
Maps always held a fascination for Stephan Grabowski when he was growing up.
No surprises National Geographic was also the go to magazine during his regular visits to the local library as a child.
Little did he realise these were early clues about where his career would take him in the future; but we’ll get to that.
“I remember when Mum used to take me and my brother to the library we would take out 20-30 books at a time, which was the maximum limit. We’d take them home and literally devour the content and a few days later we’d be back to do it all over again.”
Admitting he was quite shy at school, that all changed when Stephan reached university deciding early on he would overcome his shyness by attempting every question asked during lectures.
“I realised that every time you change your situation, you can also change your skin and I became much more driven and determined in my outlook.”
Completing his Bachelor of Commerce degree in 2005 an opportunity presented itself to join the international shipping company Maersk. But what made the decision all the more unusual is that his brother had also applied for the very same role and surprisingly both brothers were accepted; between them accounting for 40% of Maersk’s NZ graduate intake that year!
“My brother was sent to Spain, I went to Cameroon. I think he got the better deal” Stephan admits. Not that he was complaining at the time.
Arriving in Africa at 23 the contrast with New Zealand couldn’t have been more dramatic; though he freely admits you couldn’t wipe the smile from his face for days. Hot, dry and riddled with widespread fraud and corruption it would prove to be an important testing ground and a salutary learning experience for the young graduate starting a career that was still in its infancy.
“It was nothing like I had ever experienced. The first three months I literally had no idea what I was doing but slowly I began to get on top of the role. Taking the risk that I did to secure the position, which was probably a little beyond my capabilities at the time, created a great platform for learning due to the uncomfortable situation I had been placed in.”
Quickly identifying he had to get on top of the fraud that was rife within the company’s maintenance division, Stephan admits his age and inexperience was hardly an advantage when dealing with employees who were often twice his age.
The problem was both endemic and widespread and almost accepted as part and parcel of how business was done. But eventually he was able to root out the offenders and slowly the branch’s performance began to improve.
“Everyone had been aware of the fraud that had been going on but no one had been prepared to do anything about it. By imposing proper processes and policies which had largely been lacking to that point I began to win a few people over.”
Stephan says the experience also taught him not to make any assumptions when you come in as an outsider.
“However, many people have the attitude ‘this is Africa’ and you just accept shoddy standards which they never would accept anywhere else in the world. I found it’s so important to fight that mentality. In DAMCO East Africa we had the most accurate and fastest financial control and reconciliation cycles of any company in the Maersk Group. This was despite the fact that in other countries they were receiving their supplier invoices weeks ahead of us electronically and we had to chase paper invoices down and then capture the data manually. It’s possible to lift standards, but only if your expectations are set high in the first place.”
Eventually progressing his career within the Maersk Group that lead to senior positions in APM Terminals and DAMCO Logistics in the Netherlands and South Africa, before becoming the youngest divisional CEO within the company at age 29, Stephan decided in early 2018 it was time for a change.
Taking up a new role based in Kenya as COO for KOKO Networks, a disruptive entrant to the cooking fuels market which has the goal of supplying safe, easily-available clean ethanol cooking fuel to households via an innovative new technology-based distribution network, he says the new role has allowed his career to branch off in a new direction.
“Around half a million people die each year across Africa as a result of using dirty cooking fuels like charcoal or kerosene. We feel KOKO can really help to solve this problem while also lowering cooking costs for consumers who don’t have a lot of money to spare.”
After more than a decade living in Africa, Stephan admits making a contribution to help emerging countries grow their economies by developing successful businesses can come with unexpected benefits. “One very talented employee in Cameroon was so excited by the career opportunities he earned for himself that I was humbled to learn that he even named his son after me. I hate to think what kind of teasing the poor kid will experience as a result of being known as Stephan Grabowski in Cameroon!”