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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

― Precious Mwansa-Chisa

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Table Talk with Apoorva Mehrotra

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It’s the beginning of summer and the sun is dancing across the pond at Southern Sun’s Musuku Restaurant. As I take my seat I spy some resident weaver birds among the reeds and a baby crocodile in the water. Seated on the terrace next to the pond, Apoorva Mehrotra graciously pours the both of us some green tea before saying, “Hard work, perseverance and dedication are eternal truths, and my parents instilled these values in me from a very young age.” He sips his tea before adding, “I wish more young people realised this.”

Apoorva Mehrotra is the Managing Director of one of the leading telecommunications companies in Zambia, Airtel Zambia. With his passion for telecommunications, exceeded only by that of his passion for people, Apoorva shares his journey with me. He was raised by middle class parents in a small town in northern India. Guided by his ambitions and a desire for more, Apoorva decided to pursue a corporate career, armed with his bachelor’s degree in psychology and masters in management studies.

Apoorva’s first job was with a fast moving consumer goods company, where he was a management trainee. He used to sell products in the streets, going from one shop to the next. This shattered all the illusions he had of what a manager’s job was supposed to be, he admits. “That experience humbled me and gave me an appreciation and understanding of frontline employees, the people who go out under all sorts of conditions to create revenue for a company.” Over the years, he rose through the ranks across roles and organisations until he ventured into telecommunications, which he fondly refers to as his “landing zone.” After working towards a successful career in India Apoorva had a desire for more, an aspiration to gain experience outside his home country. “When the possibility came up, I discussed it with my family and jumped at the opportunity.” Thus began his journey with Airtel and Zambia.

Having been in Zambia for just over two years, Apoorva fondly talks about the country and its people. “It has been fantastic. I love the country and I have travelled extensively within it. My family and I have been welcomed with open arms. Its’ been a great experience!”

During his tenure with Airtel, Apoorva has been a part of numerous ground breaking successes. “We did the most complex network modernisation in the history of Airtel Zambia, as a result we now have the largest 3G and 4G network,” he says with a pride that can only be summoned by someone with passion and belief in their company. He adds that Airtel played a key role in leading internet data affordability in Zambia. Apoorva tells me this after he orders Musuku Restaurant’s succulent shimpundu pork chops with fries. I went for the grilled tilapia fillet with parsley potatoes. While the buffet options looked appetising we chose to order off the menu. Apoorva confessed to me that he is not much of a foodie and is perfectly happy to stick to basic, light meals. Though he later told me he was thoroughly satisfied with his generously portioned pork chops.

When asked what chapters he would put in a book called How Telecommunications will Revolutionise Africa?, Apoorva responds, “affordability, accessibility and innovation.” He references similar themes when talking about the future of Airtel. “Going forward, we will strive to continue to drive affordability, provide quality services to our customers, partner with the government in driving the Smart Zambia initiative and become the broadband and financial inclusion service provider of choice,” he says.

This answer would, however, be atypical of Apoorva if it did not prioritise the people behind the Airtel brand. “Regardless of what industry you are in, whether you are selling soap or rockets to Mars, a great organisation is only as good as the quality of the people in it and how well they come together as a team. This is one of my fundamental beliefs and the fact that I am in telecommunications is incidental.” Thus, part of his vision for Airtel involves it being a place where people feel motivated to do their best work.

Outside of work, Apoorva describes himself as very simple. He reads extensively and he enthusiastically shares his recent and current reading list, “I read all sorts of books” he states. “I am currently reading ‘When to Rob a Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.” He recommends the works of Daniel Pink and Simon Sinek for aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs, stating that his leadership style has been influenced by their thinking.

Apoorva loves to travel. “There is so much to see in the world. Both my wife and I are crazy about travel and exploring new places. We are not motivated by passport stamps but rather, we view travel as an avenue for mental and emotional growth.”

Having thoroughly enjoyed his main meal Apoorva decided dessert was in order. I selected a trio of desserts for us and Apoorva helped himself to the rich and delectable strawberry mousse.

We wrap up our talk with a discussion on hindsight and what he would have done differently if he could go back in time. Apoorva takes a moment to reflect before stating that he would have been more diligent and deliberate, less anxious and calmer. “I would tell myself to have faith!” he adds. “People get stuck trying to be perfect, rather than endeavouring to make progress. If you have to fail, fail fast and fail forward,” he concludes optimistically.

Food caption:

The dedicated team at Southern Sun Ridgeway’s Musuku Restaurant serves a superb selection of fresh, seasonal local and international cuisine and imported wines. The exquisite offerings are complemented by relaxed atmosphere, excellent service, creative décor and green, natural settings.

Box: A strong work ethic, a focus on continual progress and a desire to see more of the world took Apoorva Mehrotra from his start in fast moving consumer goods in his native India to MD of Airtel Zambia. He shares his journey and vision for Airtel in this exclusive interview.

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