Riding towards the Future: An Interview with Rob Sanford, CEO of SafeBoda
By Angel Nalumansi and Douglas Albert Kikonyogo
SafeBoda has a newly appointed CEO Rob Sanford, who brings a wealth of experience to the ride-hailing company and Uganda’s Super App.
Rob’s previous roles as Head of Global Finance, VP of Finance, and Chief Finance Officer have given him a deep understanding of SafeBoda’s financial operations and the challenges facing the ride-hailing industry. In his new role, Rob will be responsible for leading SafeBoda’s strategic growth.
With a career spanning over a decade in finance, Rob has held leadership positions in both established companies and startups. His expertise in financial management, strategic planning, and corporate development has been crucial to SafeBoda’s success so far, and he is well-equipped to steer the company through its next phase of growth.
We spoke to him to understand more about his new role, his passions, and what lies ahead.
What inspired you to pursue a career in finance, and how did you get your start in the industry?
My career in finance was an accident! I tried and failed to be a lawyer after studying law at Bristol University in the UK and instead followed in my family footsteps by training to be an accountant. I completed my exams with KPMG in London, one of the big-4 financial services companies in the world. I ended up really enjoying my finance career — it gave me a great understanding of the business perspective whilst also providing an opportunity to see how various companies operate.
How did your previous roles prepare you for your current position as CEO of SafeBoda, and what new challenges have you faced in the transition since the announcement to the company?
I’ve been privileged to work with great people throughout my time at SafeBoda. Everyone has always been very open to answer my many, many questions to understand all areas of the business. This has been the key element for preparing for the transition. You need to truly understand every team, how they operate, what challenges they have and how they win.
There are always challenges with any job transition. Particularly with an internal promotion, your relationships with peers change. Ensuring I understand their challenges and changing my approach with these relationships is a key challenge. However, everyone across the business has been incredible so far — they’ve been so supportive and ensured that my job is to provide support to them more than anything else.
One other challenge is that we are still looking to fill my previous role — anyone who thinks they are a great fit for the VP of Finance/CFO role at SafeBoda, please apply!
What values or principles guide your leadership style, and how do you ensure they are reflected in the culture of SafeBoda?
I definitely subscribe to the principles of leading by example and not asking your team to do anything that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself! And in terms of values, I try and treat everyone in a way that I would like to be treated. And then make sure that I take responsibility if I ever don’t meet those standards.
I like to be transparent with my expectations and with the company’s strategy. In return I will try and instill this openness and allow the team to provide input in key decisions.
SafeBoda has experienced significant growth since its inception. What do you think has been the key to its success, and how do you plan to continue that growth trajectory?
I think there are 2 main reasons for SafeBoda’s success so far:
1) The SafeBoda team — from day 1 of joining SafeBoda, I realised I’d never worked anywhere previously where staff genuinely were invested in the company’s success and solving the challenges for the company. SafeBoda has a wide range of staff from a variety of backgrounds, from former boda drivers, to university graduates, and Software Engineers. And yet everyone moves in the same direction — trying to grow our driver’s earnings and welfare, help make the roads in Kampala safer, and help lead the digital revolution in Uganda.
2) The focus on the SafeBoda community — in particular, the drivers but also understanding our customers. We have a large team on the ground in Uganda to support both our drivers and customers, solve their problems but also listen to the challenges they face. This is a key difference with some of our competitors who may have more international names, but who don’t have the focus and understanding of the Ugandan market.
SafeBoda will continue to grow as a result of its ability to innovate — the launch of our car-hailing at the end of last year demonstrates that the company is always looking at how to support our markets and is never happy to stand still. We also have an exciting change coming for our boda boda hailing in the coming weeks that is exciting for both our drivers and passengers.
How do you balance the competing demands of shareholders, customers, and employees, and what steps do you take to ensure that each group’s needs are met?
There’s definitely no exact science to this! Ultimately, I will always aim to listen and learn the whole time, to all of our stakeholders.
However, we are incredibly fortunate to have supportive shareholders who want to provide support and help make SafeBoda a success.
With employees, I will try and take the lead that Max and Alastair have always shown me. All of our employees are here because they make a real impact to the company’s success. Therefore, I need to listen to their ideas and challenges, how we can improve the work environment.
With customers, for us this means drivers, passengers and agents. We always try to make all of them happy because happy drivers will make sure that customers are also happy. We understand we will never be perfect but we will always do our best to improve and learn from any mistakes we make. And that comes from having incredible teams who constantly want feedback and push the Senior Leadership and myself to listen and make change. Our Ops team works closely with both our boda and car drivers, our Marketing and Customer Success teams get as much feedback as possible from passengers and our Payments team helps ensure our agent network’s needs are provided for.
How do you ensure that the company stays at the forefront of technological innovation in the ride-hailing industry? What impact does/can technology have in the transportation industry in the coming years?
Firstly, we need to understand the problems that we are solving and ensure that our app and product continues to evolve. We regularly ask our customers how we can improve both our technology and offerings.
Secondly, we need to learn from other companies in the ride-hailing space. We always try to understand the ways in which they manage to connect to their drivers and customers and understand how our solution can do this, or be better!
I believe technology has a critical role to play in the transportation industry. Unlike in other continents whereby ride-hailing has been used to disrupt existing public transport models, I believe that for East Africa, ride-hailing companies can actually formalise the market. For example, SafeBoda plays a key role in supporting drivers with access to financial services as their earnings can now be shown to financial institutions. We are able to improve safety and accountability through driver and customer identification. We are able to provide consistency in pricing and customer support to both drivers and passengers to help resolve any disputes. SafeBoda can help support the government to help improve regulation and quality, which is more challenging when there is less organization within the industry.
How do you maintain a work-life balance while leading a fast-paced, high-growth company like SafeBoda, and what advice do you have for others in similar positions?
This is a great question. I think there has to be an acknowledgement that this is not a 9–5 job. But that’s not just for CEOs but also anyone who has a senior leadership role in companies. Having said that, it’s incredibly important to be able to enjoy your life, both from a mental health perspective and also for me to be able to give my best to Safeboda. The company is unlikely to succeed if its leadership team is burned out or if there is no opportunity to step back and reflect.
I have one key rule I try to stick to. If I have made plans — social or exercise — then there must be a true emergency not to be able to keep them. And this very rarely happens! And then try to set boundaries with your team. I love to travel during my time off but I also hate to come back to thousands of unread emails. So my team knows that I will check my emails from time to time and so can send something not urgent but where they want my perspective. This avoids my Slack being too crazy and allows me to switch off!
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments at SafeBoda, and what are you most excited to achieve in the future?
I find this a very difficult question to answer as my role has always been about supporting the business to achieve its goals. There is also rarely a lightbulb moment which is down to one person — the company’s successes come from our team coming together and working very hard to achieve our goals.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to give people a little insight into me! I couldn’t be more excited to lead one of Uganda’s most well-known and well-loved companies and continue the incredible work of Max and Alastair.