50 of Kenya’s top business people

msafiri asked Kenyan journalist Dinfin Mulupi to investigate the state of Kenyan business on the
Golden Anniversary of the country’s independence. Read the thoughts of ten of Kenya’s key business
players and check out our business hotlist.

Chris Kirubi

Chris Kirubi

Kenyan business people are a resilient lot. A never-say-die attitude seems to be ingrained in all of Kenya’s business people, from the roadside stallholder to the high-flying corporate CEO. In the pursuit of success they endure many challenges including poor infrastructure, limited access to financing, bureaucracy in Government, stiff competition and incidents of insecurity such as the 21 September terrorist attack at a Nairobi shopping mall. Yet, just as Kenya as a country has always risen above the challenges the nation has faced over the last 50 years, so have Kenya’s business leaders. World-over, they have been feted for building innovative products and companies. Most of these globally celebrated men and women rose from humble beginnings, driven by passion to fill gaps in the market. They have worked through different regimes, a myriad challenges and built multi-million-shilling businesses that have gone across the region and some even globally, creating thousands of jobs. Indeed, today’s positive forecast of Kenya’s prospects has a lot to do with the country’s private sector and its contribution to job creation, innovation and wealth creation. With a more educated, energetic and tech-savvy population, better access to financing and improved economic climate, business people in Kenya exude confidence and optimism as they look forward to the future.

In this edition of msafiri, we honour some of Kenya’s business heroes. Dinfin Mulupi has awarded rosettes to ten key players. Her criteria for success include entrepreneurship, evidence of expansion, innovation and a touch of daring.

Martin Dunford, Chairman Tamarind Group
Q:What are the factors that inspire you in business?

The overriding inspiration is seeing the successful realisation of a dream unfold and see our company develop. This is closely followed by working with people from a huge variety of backgrounds, harmonising them into a winning team, and thereby also helping them to make a difference to their lives and their development. There are so many of us who have been together for more than 25 years.

Q:What is your top tip for doing business in Africa?
Doing business in Kenya and Africa should be based on the same principles: forging successful relationships with people. Whether they are employees, clients, suppliers or vagabonds, they all have the same requirement – to be treated with respect. In addition we have to be optimistic, resourceful, energetic, tolerant, and innovative and constantly seek alternative solutions to the immediately obvious.

Gina Din Kariuki, Founder and Chairman, Gina Din Corporate Communications (GDCC)
Q:What has been the secret of your success in business, and how does this speak of Kenya’s spirit of overcoming adversity?

Kenya as a country has been through incredible challenges, and if you look at all those challenges going back, we have always risen above them as a people. I think that is what makes me so proud to be Kenyan, in that we find our way out of the depth. Everything that I have said about Kenya is me mirroring myself. I am very resilient. I am strong. I have come through lots of my own personal and professional challenges, but, I have risen above them. That’s what makes me what I am. I think it’s the ‘Kenyan-ness’ in me that has made me overcome my own challenges.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs on doing business in Africa?
Have a good business plan and do your research. Too many people start without doing enough research. I will be honest with you, I had no business plan and I had no money. But I was very lucky I left my job when I had a name. I had created a brand for myself before I even started my own business. Not everybody is that lucky. It is also really important to hire people who are smarter than you. You may have a vision but you will need a team around you to help you execute it.

Mike Macharia, Founder and CEO, Seven Seas Technologies
Q: What has been the secret of your success in business, and how does this speak of Kenya’s spirit of overcoming adversity?

I started Seven Seas Technologies at a time when the political and economic environment in the country was far from ideal, but I can’t remember a time that either my partners or myself considered this as a hurdle to growing the business or limiting the vision. The vision was as big then as it is now. Around 1999 the Kenyan economy was actually decelerating, and many people were discouraged from getting into business because of corruption and the fear that a lot of their capital would be spent greasing the palms of corrupt government officials just to get the necessary approvals. But we at SST never saw it that way – if anything, it only strengthened our resolve to succeed. We knew what we needed, were energised for it, had the focus, and nothing was going to hold us back.

Q: What is your top tip for doing business in Africa?
Seven Seas Techn-ologies is living proof that there are immense opportunities in the continent as long as one is armed with the right frame of mind. My advice would be to have a proper mindset, focus and speed, and all else will fall into place.

Suzie Wokabi, Founder and CEO, SuzieBeauty Ltd
Q: What inspires you in your business endeavours?

My inspiration comes from my love of beauty and Africa. SuzieBeauty, being Kenya’s first beauty brand, created by myself for the African woman, combines my two loves. It is my bread and butter, so that works as quite some inspiration to grow the company as big and grand. I hope to create a legacy that my children can work with and be proud of as well. We hope for SuzieBeauty to be Africa-wide in the next three years and international in the next five.

Q: What is your top tip for doing business in Africa?
Keep the passion alive. Hopefully all entrepreneurs know to start a business only in something that they have extreme passion for. That is what gives one the ability to wake up every day and face the world. You need perseverance and passion to fight the business battles and to keep moving in a positive and upward direction.

Atul Shah Managing Director, Nakumatt Holdings Ltd (Nakumatt Supermarkets)
Q: What, in your opinion, is Nakumatt’s greatest contribution to Kenyan society?

I sincerely believe that in, more ways than one, Nakumatt Holdings has made an indelible mark in revolutionising the local formal retail sector. Our first megastore (which set out to provide a variety of retail products and services all under one roof) was opened in 1992 along Uhuru Highway. That store, popularly known as Nakumatt Mega, is still our flagship store. More than two decades later, we have managed to strategically extend our services locally and in the region. Humbly, we are also conscious of the fact that with a staff complement of more than 6550, we are perhaps East Africa’s leading formal employer in the private sector.

Q: What is your top tip for doing business in Africa?
Africa has a vast potential for committed entrepreneurs. However, all entrepreneurs must strive to operate with the utmost sense of ownership, corporate governance and ethics. Africa is not a guinea pig to test ideas. Africa is ready for takeoff and development. Make no mistake, on the other side of every challenge is the opportunity to experience immense growth. Maintain hope and perseverance – only then will you overcome, and experience the success that you deserve.

Njeri Rionge, CEO and founder Insite; co-founder, Wananchi Online
Q: You are a self- proclaimed serial entrepreneur. What inspires you in your business endeavours?

I am inspired by the fact that building local businesses and improving local skills will mean that Kenya, my beautiful country, will take centre stage in the story of African growth going forward. I use my entrepreneurial spirit and experience to generate success where I see opportunities that I am passionate about, and I use each venture that I undertake to build my skills further. My work now is focused on the development of software products that provide solutions to business management issues relevant not just to the Kenyan market, but to all startups and SMEs as they scale up.

Q: What is your top tip for doing business in Africa?  
Consider new ways of thinking and working. As an entrepreneur doing business in Africa, or as the CEO of a company, if you anticipate needing financing for your business at some point then transparency of your records should be considered from the outset. Things are busy in a small company and many make the mistake of thinking they will get round to things or that they can’t afford to invest in IT systems, for example, but this will create issues later. Africa’s leaders must reconsider the way in which they govern, to reject corruption and keep activities transparent.

Chris Kirubi Industrialist, (Chairman International House Limited, Capital Group Limited)
Q: What do you wish you had known when you were younger and just starting your businesses?

Having gone through many experiences in life, I personally wish I had started to practise what I do now when I was younger. Things like being very focused, being very committed and working very hard. There were times when I did not work as hard as I should have and life punishes you when you waste any of your time. If I could go back, I would work very, very hard.

Q: You have started, and invested in, numerous companies. What inspires you in your business endeavours?
I am inspired to go where no one else has gone; to be a trendsetter and to demonstrate to other African entrepreneurs that we can build world-class businesses.

Q: What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on doing business in Africa?
You should never lose hope, focus and trust in yourself. Above all, believe in God and do the right thing. We should never take shortcuts in order to enrich ourselves – that is surely the fastest way to fail.

Leon Ndubai, CEO, Indo-Africa Finance Co. Ltd
Q: What inspires you in your business endeavours?

My inspiration comes from seeing growth in our companies. I find inspiration in achieving what at one point seemed impossible, from overcoming the hurdles and proving that what seemed unachievable is very much achievable.

Q: What advice would you give business leaders in Africa?
I want to borrow the words of Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch when he said: “Big will not beat small any more – it will be the fast beating the slow.” As African business leaders, we need to think on our feet and act fast with every opportunity. The cost of being wrong is less than the cost of doing nothing.

Manu Chandaria Chairman, Comcraft Group
Q: You have been in business for over five decades. Have you ever thought of quitting?

No, because I say to myself: you were not born to quit until God calls you. When I go to sleep, I want to wake up the next day to do more than I did yesterday.

Q: What is your top tip for doing business in Africa?
To do business in Africa you must believe in Africa. Africa is sitting on huge manpower and mineral wealth. Many countries have educated people. What you need is hard work, foresight, vision beyond what you can look at, and determination not to just survive, but to grow. All entrepreneurs must believe in themselves, believe in this continent, because it has everything going for it. Visualise long-term, build the manpower capacity and do some social work. People should feel that you are part of their lives.

Dr Betty Gikonyo, co-founder and CEO, The Karen Hospital
Q: As one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs in the health sector, what inspires you in your endeavours?  

I am inspired by a desire, through medicine, to impact positively on the community in which I live. Through practising my passion for medicine I have been able to reach a lot of people in the curative and preventative arena and provide employment to Kenyans. By expanding the services to the rural areas we are able to take quality care at very low prices to the population which is under-served and it brings great pleasure and satisfaction to be involved in the mission of healing. Above all, the ability to train medical personnel ensures that the knowledge that I have and that of my other colleagues is transmitted to the future generation of doctors and other medical workers. This, probably, is the most important thing we can do and I call it multiplying ourselves to build capacity of those with the ‘know how’ to offer medical care.

Q: What is your top tip for doing business in Africa?
Passion for what you do coupled with hard work and indefatigable spirit.

Kenya’s top 50 business people – 50 of Kenya’s most successful and influential business people (in alphabetical order)

Vava Angwenyi, Vava Coffee Ltd
Jennifer Barassa, Top Image Ltd
Kamal Budhabati, Craft Sillicon Ltd
Manu Chandaria, Comcraft Group (msafiri)
Bob Collymore, Safaricom Ltd
Martin Dunford The Tamarind Group (msafiri)
Hamed Ehsani The Village Market
Dr. Eddah Gachukia Riara Group of Schools
Dorothy Ghettuba Spielworks Media
Simon Gicharu Mount Kenya University
Dr Betty Gikonyo The Karen Hospital (msafiri)
Consolata Gituto Longonot Gate Development Ltd
Jay Ireland General Electric Africa
Patricia Ithau L’Oreal East Africa Ltd
Kiran Jethwa Seven Restaurants
Tabitah Karanja Keroche Industries Ltd
Gina Din Kariuki Gina Din Corporate Communications (GDCC) (msafiri)
Charles Kibiru Thika Green Ltd
Paul Kinuthia Interconsumer Products Ltd
Stanley Kinyanjui Magnate Ventures Ltd
Chris Kirubi International House Ltd, Capital Group Ltd (msafiri)
Mike Macharia Seven Seas Technologies Ltd (msafiri)
S.K Macharia Royal Media Services
Jane Macharia-Gituto Shian Tours & Travel Ltd
Ann McCreath Kikoromeo
Naushad Merali The Sameer Group
Pete Muraya, Suraya Property Group
Alan Murungi Ozzbeco Ltd (Sierra Premium Beer)
Betty Mwangi Safaricom
James Mwangi Equity Bank Group
Joanne Mwangi Professional Marketing Services (PMS) Group
Titus Naikuni, Kenya Airways Ltd
Peter Nduati Resolution Insurance Co ltd
Leon Ndubai (msafiri)
Indo-Africa Finance Co Ltd
Ken Njoroge, Cellulant Ltd
Alison Ngibuini Al Is On Production Ltd
Mary Okelo Makini Schools Ltd
Ory Okolloh Omidyar Network
Kalpa Padia Raka Milk Processors Ltd
Shivani Radia Patel Zen Gardens
Patrick Quarcoo Radio Africa Group
Faraz Ramji Norda Industries Ltd
Njeri Rionge Insite and Wanachi Online (msafiri)
Aly Khan Satchu Rich Management
Atul Shah Nakumatt Holdings Ltd (msafiri)
Jonathan Somen AcessKenya  Group Ltd
Bharat Thakrar Scangroup Ltd
JS Vohra Sarova Hotels, Resorts & Game Lodges
Anthony Wahome Linksoft Group
Suzie Wokabi SuzieBeauty Ltd (msafiri)

(msafiri) indicates MSAFIRI’S special awards for business