BIKO: Girl with fancy name who’s going places

Topyster is the girl who rose from the sugar plantations of Mumias. Rose from a crowded polygamous family of 16 kids. Rose from a fishmonger mother who broke her back to educate and feed them.

Rose as the only girl between five brothers, giants in height, who dwarfed her not-short 5’11” frame. Rose to Alliance Girls High School, to Strathmore, rose to JKUAT and INSEAD business school in France.

Now she’s at Airtel Money shaking things up and winning awards. Like the one she just won as the IT Woman Of The Year at the first annual IT Women conference in Sub-Saharan Africa, organised by Techno Brain – Kenya.

Her recognition? Innovating the Airtel Money Pesa Card – a Visa branded card mirroring the Airtel Money account. As a staunch believer and adherent of the Opus Dei, she lays all her achievements at the feet of this belief. And she continues to rise.

READ: Techno Brain names Airtel Money boss regional IT woman of the year

We had a good natured and honest Skype-call interview, her sitting in her office in rainy Nairobi, me in a hotel in drizzly Diani.


Topyster? Not a name I’d say I have heard before. What does it mean?

It’s actually Theotopyster, a Greek word I believe it is, meaning “gift from God” or something. It’s a common name in Uganda and most people bordering Uganda have it. It belonged to the midwife who delivered me and when I was getting married, imagine my mom found her and invited her to the wedding telling her your namesake is getting married! (Beaming).

How has your journey to where you are been?

My journey has been about overcoming challenges, a long journey that started out at Mumias. I came to Nairobi for the first time to join high school and never went back. University was outside the country.

Before my current job, I was working as the Principal Product Manager for M-Pesa, Vodafone in England. It’s interesting how I landed the job because I emailed Michael Joseph and expressed an interest in working for him at Vodafone and promised to take M-Pesa wherever he wanted to take it. I got the job.

After two years, my husband and I decided to come back to Kenya and again I wrote an email to Adil [Airtel CEO] asking for a job and he had an opportunity and here I am.

What has been the most challenging period of your career?

The last one year has been challenging. When I cam to take care of Airtel Money, I looked at the numbers and the team we have and having come from the other side and just looking at how the other side had reached where it had and where Airtel was, it was a really big gap and I wondered if we would ever catch up or play a different game.

Coming from that side to here where not much had been done, I was looked at as a magician and that sort of put the pressure on. (Laughs). But now we are growing, we have hit the highest active customer base and revenue so far and that is fulfilling .

How would you say your childhood has impacted on how you are today as a professional?

Having a big, polygamous family, my mom being the fourth wife had a big impact on how we were raised and who I became. She was a fishmonger bringing fish from Uganda and selling it in Kenya. She would wake up at 3am to get it from across the border and she never tired, worked hard to get school fees.

Having been married off at 16 years of age and with no education, she still was able to achieve a lot, taking my brothers and myself to national schools and that motivates me, keeps me going.

The other day, I told her I won the award and she said, “If I had gone to school, I would have won it too” (Laughs) She has influenced how I look at life, she is also very religious, a strong Catholic and all. Every time I think of limitations, I think of my own mom’s limitations and mine pales.

I was the first one in my family to go to university among 16 kids, first to study abroad and having been a pioneer in our family, gives me more motivation to do more in the family.

What do you think has been your biggest edge to get where you are now: Education qualification? Work ethic? Personality? Luck?

That’s a difficult one. It’s a combination of many things. I mean I was lucky to have gone to Alliance Girls which obviously set me apart immediately. Going to INSEAD in France also helped to define me. I believe me writing an email to Michael Joseph saying I was from INSEAD, probably helped and since my boss, Adil, here at Airtel also attended the same school, that might have given him the confidence to hire me as well.

So education qualification in addition to drive and personality helped because there are many people who have gone to these schools and are not where I am. I’m also an Opus Dei, and I believe that has defined a lot in my life.

Where do you derive most of your strength from? Socialisation, education, values from childhood, faith?

I have a great support network from my friends. I have a great support network from my mentors who have influenced me in all these 10 plus years of my career. I have had some excellent mentors at different stages of my life. But my biggest mentor has been my husband, he mentored me to go to business school, and today, he is one of my key mentors.

Obviously, as I grow, I keep looking for more mentors to figure out the next path to follow. I also mentor students at Strathmore university and also some of our staff members here at Airtel.

What’s your greatest insecurity as a professional?

Not to succeed. (Laughs) When I cam, I thought this is easy, aah, and when I see numbers grow every day I’m like “Yes, we are getting there.” So I don’t want to fail because the whole of Kenya know that Topy is the head of Airtel Money. Failing is my greatest insecurity.

How does this Opus Dei work?

It was started by a Spanish priest who lived in Rome years ago. It was formerly known as The Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei simply teaches that everyone is called to holiness and that we, as ordinary people, should seek holiness in and through our everyday activities, especially through special works.

What Bible doctrine are you struggling to come to terms with?

(Long pause) Wow. That’s a hard one. Can we skip it? (Laughs.)

When did you ever feel that God was letting you down?

When I first cam and the first six months my numbers were behind target. I was working hard but nothing was happening so I asked God to please do something, to help me out there. (Laughs)

How was it growing up with 15 other kids?

We didn’t really grow up together in one house, our village was in Webuye but mom built a house in Mumias, so it wasn’t so bad. We would occasionally visit other siblings during weddings, funerals, circumcision or whatever. Growing away from my step siblings meant that there was never really a strong bond formed.

But also growing up in a set-up like that meant that there where was rivalry between our moms – something we are trying to change now. For me, being the only girl, there was a lot of protection from my brothers. I’m the shortest, I’m actually 5’11” (Laughs).

My brothers are all 6 foot and above, they are all giants. I remember when I was starting out, I kept saying I like everything big big job, big house and a big man, so I knew I was going to date a tall, big man.

Did you eventually end up with a big man?

(Laughs) Yes I did, he is 6’4” and wears size 13 shoes. I remember we bought a dining table in the UK and he couldn’t fit and when we moved to London, he was sleeping in bed with his legs hanging at the bottom. (Laughs).

What does this giant do?
He works in a bank, an investment banker. He heads a team that deals with infrastructure finance. Basically, he arranges for financing for big infrastructure projects. Smart guy.

You haven’t mentioned your dad, how is your relationship with him, what does he do and how did he influence your life?

My dad was a court prosecutor, now 20 years retired, lives in shags. I visit him once in a while. Having grown up in a large family, he wasn’t fully present in my life so we are not that tight with him because he wasn’t there most of the time and my mom being the stronger breadwinner, we ended up being close to her. But he’s there and we visit him once in a while. I talk to him once a month.

Because you grew up in a polygamous family, would you be more open to the idea if the giant came and said, “look, I’m taking on a second wife.”?

(Laughs) No! It’s a conversation we have had before. He also comes from a polygamous family. Actually, if you know Professor Muga, the former Director of Medical Services, that’s his dad. He grew up in polygamous family and they grew up in an Aentist home. He was upset when his dad took on another wife, so upset that he changed to Catholic and so he is the only Catholic in his family. He’s very clear about not marrying a second wife.