Leadership Profiles - Edwin H. Dande, CEO at Cytonn

24 July, 2024 / Interview

Describe a typical day in your life. 

I know it sounds cliché but there is no typical day. Generally, I’m not an early morning person, but I’ll take meetings as early as they come. So if I have early morning meetings I’ll wake up early and tend to them as they come. After that, I’ll go to the office and deal with the pressing matters of the day. When I don’t have an early morning meeting I’ll probably get to the office at around 8.30 or 9 o’clock, resolve any pressing issues, after which I communicate with my key contacts in different departments just to get to know what’s going on. I’ll usually have a lunch meeting. Afternoons tend to be calmer. That’s when I take a step back to think through and prioritize. I think about strategy, talent and staffing, and challenges that we are facing. In between all this, there are meetings. I always try to end my day by going to the gym after which I’ll have dinner with a client or with my family.

The story of the origin of Cytonn is pretty well known. What gap did you and your partners notice that led you to start the company?

The biggest gap that we saw was the lack of high yielding investment products for savers and investors. Today, if you have a million shillings and you put it in the bank, you will earn interest of anywhere between 0 and 7% but if you want to borrow money, the bank will charge you an all in cost of about 18%. So if you take a step back and see what is happening, you give the bank your money and get back 0-7% but they lend it out and get 18%. So we asked ourselves if we could innovate a product where if we came directly to you and offered you that 18%, would you want it? It turned out that people did want the 18%. So we took the money, paid them 18% and developed real estate products where we earned anywhere between 22 – 25%. To sum it up, we did innovative structuring on how to fund real estate by borrowing directly from people with money to save, that is, going directly to the consumer.

Speaking of innovation, how do you ensure it’s not just a buzzword you use to endear yourself to stakeholders? How do you actually create a culture of innovation in your company?

We take innovation seriously. Here, we describe it as trying to do things differently. It is embedded in our culture, where we say a Cytonnaire is about ordinary people thinking and acting differently to achieve extraordinary results. So we always have to take a step back and ask ourselves what the conventional way of doing things is, and what we could tweak – this could be a structure, a process, a thought – in order to do it faster and achieve better results because at Cytonn we have no option but to innovate. We do not have a big balance sheet. We do not have networks, heritage, connections – it is just sheer sweat blood and tears; ideas and execution. That’s how we compete in the market. Innovation has to be part of your DNA because you have to put out a better product faster than the competition, which has heritage, connections and huge balance sheets.

It is all well and good to do things differently, but when you are new in the game and you come in with all these unusual ideas, offering better returns, people tend not to trust you. How do you deal with that?

I disagree with that. It is not that people don’t trust us. I would say that it can be threatening to the establishment and this may appear to some as lack of trust. We started with zero clients in 2014, today we have over 3,000 clients. We started with a balance sheet of zero, now it is at almost Kshs. 20 billion. So I’m not sure we can say that people don’t trust us, because if that was the case, we would not be in the market; we would not be the biggest real estate developer. People trust us, but our distractors are just a lot louder than the people who trust us. What appears as distrust is simply a threatened conventional established way of doing things fighting back.

Though Cytonn is fairly young, it has managed to achieve a brand visibility and strength that others have to cultivate for years. What would you attribute this to?

Given that we didn’t have a lot of money, we started things like Cytonn Weekly, where we used our knowledge of the market to write a weekly newsletter and circulate it. That’s how we grew the brand. We focused primarily on thought leadership, and this goes back to how we compete: ideas and execution. We wanted to make sure that we were putting out the best type of ideas out there in the market, so that people then ask who is this brand, who are the people behind these ideas and are they able to execute these ideas? We decided very early on to build our brand through thought leadership.

What is one goal — either personal or professional — that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?

That is an interesting question because I do not work with specific goals. I am pragmatic. On any particular day, month or year, I look at what the opportunities are and how I can capitalize on them. For me, a goal is how the various experiences, tests, failures or successes will be integrated over time. It’s more of a journey than a destination and so I do not have a very specific goal. In the context of Cytonn, it is to wake up every day and compete as hard and as fast as I can. The end result will take care of itself.

What legacy do you want to leave? What would you want to be remembered for?

I want to be remembered for having been part of a team that built a stable, trusted and number one brand in the industries in which we compete. Currently, these are investments, real estate, education, and hospitality.

Sustainable and impact investing was identified as one of the top considerations of potential investors, especially millennials. What are your thoughts on making money vs social responsibility?

They are not mutually exclusive. You can do both. They say, “You can do well and also do good, but to do good, of course, you must also be doing well because otherwise, you will quickly run out of money.” There is no question about it, we have to be profitable, but we can do so ethically, in a manner that is environmentally friendly and socially responsible. This is why we have chosen to have our CSR activities around talent improvement, financial literacy, training young people out of college through Cytonn Young Leaders Programme (CYLP), and training entrepreneurs. We spend a lot of time and money on talent development in those areas.

The investing age is getting younger and has the unique characteristic of having grown up with technology. This means societal ideals and goals are changing and that people’s motivations for doing things are evolving as well. How do you prepare for this?

For one, you have to make sure that your company is technologically friendly. To this end, we are trying to move a lot of our products online. Secondly, you have to be research-driven to get a sense of what emerging demographics care about. At the end of the day, the fundamentals of investment will never change. Regardless of the generation, everyone wants to give you a shilling and make a return from it. The question is; how do they give it to you? Is it through cheques, M-Pesa or some digital currency? You also need to understand what they care about. What you do must have some impact on society, not just be driven by profit. So you need to undertake CSR that resonates with your target demographic. Ultimately, it is about doing research and innovating products that would appeal to these demographics.

Yours is a demanding job that involves dealing with opposition, making hard decisions, and having to meet everyone’s expectations. This must be very stressful. How do you cope?

It is just a job like any other, so you do not allow it to get to you. You also need a thick skin as well as non-work related activities. I like to go to the gym, jog, dine out, spend time with my family – there is more than enough that is non-Cytonn that keeps me balanced.

Are you able to maintain a healthy work-life balance?

I like to think so.

What are the most enjoyable and least enjoyable parts of your job?

The most enjoyable part is seeing ideas come to life. For example, you see a piece of land and say: “We could build villas here,” and actually building them and handing them over to the clients as we have done in Amara. That is fulfilling. Looking at a share price and saying: “This thing is undervalued. If we buy it, it will make money.” Meeting young people and saying: “This person is talented. If we rally around him or her, we can create a powerful team member,” and actually seeing it happen. A lot that is being done at Cytonn is being done by young people – people under the age of 30. Whether it is people, products or talent, seeing It come to life is the best part of my job. Every organization has politics. Dealing with egos, blame games, mind games and these politics is the least enjoyable part of this job. However, where there are people, these things will always be there.

With regard to your public profile, is there a difference between Edwin Dande the man and the CEO of Cytonn?

I come here and do my job, then I go home and live my life, so I’m never thinking about being myself or the CEO. But I don’t think the public is able to differentiate between these two people. In fact, they think that Cytonn is Edwin, which I find puzzling because while I understand the company and its strategy very well, I do not run everything. I’m sure there are those who work harder than me in Cytonn.

Are there times when your title hinders you from being you especially on social media?

Sometimes it does, but not very much. I’m not your regular CEO. I respond to things on social media, I talk to people, I walk the streets. I don’t like formality. I like to be part of the team; just another Cytonn employee. So the title doesn’t censor me very much. However, I cannot always speak my mind. If I say something harsh, the person I tell will say the CEO of Cytonn was harsh. So I have to be a bit careful with my words, but maybe not as much as I should.

Has this ever gotten you in trouble?

Yes, because I often get misjudged. But I’m not too concerned about making mistakes as long as they are candid mistakes. I try to be thoughtful about what I say because of the way people perceive them, but I also try to be any other Cytonn employee.

What is people’s biggest misconception about you?

I think I am sometimes seen as harsh and unkind, yet I am just direct in what I am thinking and communicating.

Is there anything you have done to try and change or soften this misconception?

Those who get to know me realize that this perception is false. I haven’t done much to change it because relationships, both personal and professional, develop over time and as they do, people begin to understand each other better. It is not just about me; this applies to everyone. Of course, you will never know someone else 100%, but as people interact and spend time together, they understand each other more.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given?

Put your head down and work your tail off. Working hard, not trying to take shortcuts and producing good quality work goes a long way. We are a country that takes a lot of shortcuts. If we were able to avoid tribalism and corruption, we would find that there is a great cross-section of Kenyans and people from outside who want to associate and work with honest enterprises and businesses.

4 Random Facts About Edwin H. Dande

i) One tech device you cannot live without?

My iPhone

ii) A good day is when …

We have significant inflows of investment and real estate sales. Personally, a good day is when nothing stresses me.

iii) Do you have many good days?

Yes. I have days when everything is running smoothly, the staff is happy, my daughter is doing well. No one is complaining. But sometimes good days are a sign that I’m about to have a stressful day.

iv) Which person, dead or alive would you like to meet, and why?

No one really, because everyone I admire I can access through books and their works. I’m usually more enthused by peoples work, ideas and writings than the people they are. That said, one of the people I admire the most is Barrack Obama because of how he became president even when all the odds were stacked against him.

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