Amidst the bustling hub of Kenya’s cargo and logistics sector stands the Nairobi Inland Cargo Terminal (NICT), a crucial Inland Container Depot at the heart of the Industrial Area along Mombasa Road. As NICT charts a trajectory of innovation and efficiency, Martin Wafula, the newly appointed General Manager, brings a vision poised to revolutionize the landscape of cargo handling and logistics across Kenya. His remarkable background and demonstrated prowess in catalyzing technological revolutions within various sectors signal a commitment to steering NICT into an era defined by innovation and digital transformation.
In this exclusive interview, Wafula shares insights into his vision for NICT’s digital evolution. He illuminates the strategic roadmap, accentuating the pivotal role that technology and innovation will play in redefining operations. His strategies promise to enhance cargo handling efficiency, elevate customer satisfaction, and cement NICT’s position as a leading inland container depot.
The last quarter of 2023 has proven to be quite eventful and possibly life-changing for you. What changed for you?
On 29 September, I walked out of Law Africa Publishing offices carrying a small carton. It was my last day as the Managing Director of Law Africa and my emotions were all over the place. The team knew I always had their back in all business decisions as I always believed in striking a fine balance between the team and shareholders. My departure weighed heavily on both of us.
But you may ask, why just a small carton when leaving a company where you have worked for almost three years? Technology! I had all the paperwork electronically backed up and my PA had clear instructions to ensure any significant document was electronically shared with me upon sign-off.
How has technology helped you in achieving corporate success and impacted your career journey?
I grew up in the village where our mum took care of the home while our father was working in Nairobi. My father would write letters to her and send money via Posta and telegram – not the Telegram app of course! My mother wasn’t privileged enough to pursue school beyond basic education, so it was my duty to communicate what my dad said from the tender age of 8, and then draft a response in return. Fast forward to 2023, and now my 6-year-old son sends me real-time WhatsApp videos of his bike when the brakes are broken with a fix-it request.
In the same breath, technology has been the cornerstone of my career milestones. While working at Co-operative Bank as the Head of Retail for Kingdom Securities, I led the roll-out of the shares trading platform to all the 150+ branches. Before 2016, all customers wishing to invest in shares or bonds had to do this via the head office in Nairobi. We devolved this technology and made it available via web, mobile (through the MCo-op Cash mobile App) and at any Co-op Bank branch.
When I moved to Text Book Centre as the Strategy and Planning Manager, the MD at the time, Armand Houahu Judd, was passionate about digital transformation. In a year, we revamped the e-commerce platform and signed key partnerships, which enabled TBC e-commerce to triple its revenue-generating capabilities.
When I joined Law Africa Publishing, there was a heavy reliance on print products. By the time I walked out with my small carton, we had rolled out an e-book platform currently in use across several universities in the country. Besides this milestone, I was also the project lead for an e-commerce platform called My Bidhaa by Longhorn Publishers, Law Africa; a subsidiary of Longhorn Publishers. I would like to think of My Bidhaa as the Amazon of school shopping, disintegrating the back-to-school queues.
From Capital Markets to banking, retail to publishing, and now logistics. This is an interesting cocktail. How have you managed to hack it?
I am a football fan. Despite supporting a team that gives me heartburn every weekend (thank you Manchester United), I am an ardent follower of Cristiano Ronaldo. This is an athlete who has tried his capabilities across different leagues and recorded consistent success. I try to mirror my career journey to CR7’s footballing journey, hence my boldness to try new industries. I don’t know at what level I am now, but I am certain I have several years before proceeding to the Saudi Pro League.
My faith as well as leaning on key mentors have had a strong impact. I combine a Christian upbringing with two gentlemen who have brought the best out of me. The first was Armand, who gave me my first opportunity in senior leadership, and the other is Ali Kassim Hussein, one of my directors at Law Africa and Longhorn. Ali’s tough love challenged me to aim higher. I also enjoyed his wit when we were shaping My Bidhaa. I recommend getting mentors. They will always point you towards your full potential.
Reflecting on your recent departure from Law Africa, how have your leadership principles influenced your career, particularly in embracing technological advancement?
As a leader, I always strive to remain adaptable to avoid lagging. When I joined Law Africa Publishing in April 2021, most organisations were recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic impact on their operations. There was a need for Law Africa to adapt to new technologies such as virtual court sessions by ensuring our law books are accessible to lawyers and advocates from their gadgets. This gave rise to the Law Africa eBooks platform, which was finally actualised.
Considering your extensive experience integrating technology across various sectors, how do you see technology continuing to shape the logistics and cargo industry, and what transformations are you foreseeing at NICT?
The logistics and cargo industry is highly regulated by key government agencies. This means that whatever tech initiative you wish to implement must align with the industry players while addressing customer needs. My first task is to implement a data-driven smart selling approach since we are the youngest CFS in Nairobi and need to cover ground swiftly. I am already guiding my team to use the available data from the key agencies to determine the top importers, understand their import volumes and cycles and provide anticipatory solutions rather than wait till the cake is on the table. Besides the use of data, I foresee NICT leveraging more on digital platforms to enhance brand visibility and get closer to the customer. This area remains untapped, with minimal presence across the digital platforms even though most searches start at Google and roll to social media platforms.
With a diverse career spanning multiple industries, who or what inspired you to take this trajectory? How do you aim to channel this diverse expertise into your new role at NICT?
There is this expression that your mother will remain your best chef if you never taste food made by others. In the same breath, I didn’t want to assume I was good at one thing until I tested my abilities across several industries. I have been fortunate to pick different skills across different industries such as project management in Capital Markets, business development cum sales in banking, corporate strategy and senior leadership within retail and publishing sectors. I aim to mentor and support my team at NICT to become the most agile, customer-centric, adaptive, and AI-ready professionals that will achieve efficiency for the customers and profitability for our shareholders.
Drawing parallels to Cristiano Ronaldo’s career, how do you anticipate leveraging your diverse industry experience to lead NICT into a new era?
Ronaldo has solid networks which help him get contracts at whatever club he wishes to play for! I have been fortunate enough to interact with industry leaders in the various places where I have worked. I am already leveraging those networks to secure corporate partnerships that will make us the go-to CFS for all their umbrella clients. This makes the sales job easier for my team.
Secondly, technology and innovation helped me achieve success in my previous roles and I plan to replicate the mantra at NICT. We will strive to serve our stakeholders differently by using modern technology and platforms, automating as much as possible to achieve efficiency, as we continuously adopt innovations.
In your vision for Nairobi Inland Cargo Terminal, how do you plan to utilise your expertise in collaboration and digital innovation to propel NICT’s growth and influence within the logistics sector?
NICT is one of the six subsidiaries within Unigroup Solutions Limited. Besides CFS services, some of our sister companies offer different services within the logistics and cargo sector. My first opportunity to collaborate is to offer a basket of solutions under Unigroup to any potential client. Externally, I aim to collaborate with key government agencies to decongest the ports by offering timely cargo handling and evacuations.
The digital initiatives will aim at ensuring we avail additional information and feedback platforms to our customers and stakeholders while remaining vibrant across all digital platforms for brand visibility. To back this goal, we aim to make the best out of our CRM system for customer data-backed solutions while telling our story better using digital platforms.
What should we expect from you at NICT?
So far, my learning curve has been shorter and steeper. Two weeks in, I was already pulled in for budget planning and projections for 2024. I have a lean team, very focused and knowledgeable about the industry so while I am still learning the different terminologies around CFS and Logistics, my team has been at it for decades. I am sure there is greatness ahead. I will harness the power of collaboration and digital presence to ensure ours is a formidable CFS. I don’t foresee a change in my leadership style. I choose to remain a transformational and innovative leader as I collaborate with my team to get the best ROI for our shareholders.