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Kenyan businessman Chris Kirubi
Chris Kirubi defies expectations. At age 70, the Kenyan entrepreneur has built an empire spanning real estate, manufacturing and investments that ranks him as one of the wealthiest people in Africa. Which makes it all the more surprising that this businessman in a bespoke suit regularly does stints as a DJ at Nairobi radio station Capital FM – and has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter.
“I mentor a lot of young people. These youths are on Facebook and Twitter,” Kirubi tells me. “I give them advice and tips on how to succeed in business and in life.”
Kirubi has learned much since he acquired his first dilapidated property in the early 1970s. He now counts among his real estate holding Nairobi’s iconic International House building (home to his office) and, through his property holding company
House Limited, 40 other residential and commercial properties across the city, valued at more than $200 million. Add his other assets and Kirubi is worth a conservative $300 million, placing him at number 31 on Forbes’ inaugural list of Africa’s 40 Richest.
Yet he is somewhat modest about his success. “People say I am one of the richest people in Kenya, but that’s not my concern. I mean, they say I am a god of sorts, but I don’t agree,” he says with a smile. “When I look around at my companies and see the number of people we have employed, it gives me joy. It is more satisfying than having all the money in the world.” Through his various enterprises, including International House, Tiger Haco Industries, Capital FM and DHL Kenya, he employs close to 1,000 people. That’s a drop in the bucket in a country with a population of 41 million where the unemployment rate is an estimated 40%. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Kirubi started building his fortune in the early 1970s. After working for several years as an administrator at Kenatco, a government-owned transport company, he began acquiring run-down residential and commercial properties in Nairobi, using loans from Kenyan financial institutions. He renovated the buildings and flipped them for a profit. Kirubi used the money he made to begin acquiring land in some of Nairobi’s choicest areas, and erected commercial and residential structures there. Today, he is one of Kenya’s more recognizable property developers.
In 1998 Kirubi acquired for an undisclosed sum 100% of Haco Industries, a Kenyan subsidiary of a Dutch trading house. Kirubi expanded the company from a distributor of American and British brands to a leading indigenous manufacturer of consumer products, including TCB and Palmers, the bestselling hair and skin care products in the country. In 2008 Haco formed a joint venture with Tiger Brands, one of South Africa’s largest food manufacturers. Revenues of Haco Tiger Industries were in excess of $33 million in 2010. It employs close to 700 people.
He tells me proudly: “In a way, I feel like I am a part of every Kenyan’s life. 95% of all Kenyans or anyone who comes to Kenya has at one time or the other used a product that is manufactured by me.” Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but the company does make everyday items like the Bic pen I bought to take notes, as well as razors, lighters, baby food, stationery and bleach.
Kirubi also loves to think of himself as a media mogul. In 1998 he purchased Capital FM, a floundering local radio station. “I didn’t just want to acquire the station solely for the financial dividends it was eventually going to give me; I wanted to love the business,” he says. “I wanted to understand the business from the very basics. So I approached the managers and told them that I wanted to host a rock radio show. I asked them to teach me how to become a Disc Jockey.”
Kirubi not only learned how to disc jockey, he also began hosting a weekly rock show on the station. The public went wild. Ratings shot through the roof. As he walks me around the premises of the radio station, a mere five-minute walk from the International House, he tells me proudly: “This is the best radio station in East Africa.” The station is now the largest in Kenya in terms of listenership – over three million people tune in every day, and it has outshone the competition for several years running.
He is also a shrewd investor. Kirubi holds the largest individual stake in Centum Investments, a private equity firm listed both on the Nairobi and Uganda stock exchanges with a recent market capitalization of $92 million. Centum has one of the most attractive investment portfolios in the region, including substantial stakes in Coca-Cola, Safaricom (Kenya’s leading telecoms company) and Kenyan Commercial Bank. Kirubi is also the largest individual shareholder in UAP Insurance, east Africa’s third largest insurance company.
Kirubi is not without controversy. In 2008 it emerged that while he was chairman of the board of Uchumi, a publicly-listed Kenyan retail chain, he was accused of using his influence to sell a piece of property belonging to the retail giant without independent valuation or an open competitive process. The case dragged on for three years in Kenya’s courts, and the media had a field day sensationalizing the story. All through, Kirubi admitted no wrongdoing. The case was finally dismissed in May 2011 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove any conspiracy on Kirubi’s part to defraud the retailer.
The court case hasn’t changed Kirubi’s energetic style one bit. “Chris Kirubi is in your face. He’s everywhere you go,” says veteran Kenyan business journalist Larry Madowo. “You see him on TV, you hear him on radio, you read about him in the papers, and when you go to parties, he’s there. And that’s why Kenyans like him. We naturally like characters who are larger than life.”
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Article by Mfonobong Nsehe