“Aiming High” is an autobiography of Kenneth Matiba that covers his life as a civil servant, businessman, farmer, corporate leader, member of parliament, cabinet minister, and presidential candidate.
It’s also a good business book that’s well written and detailed.
Scaling Farming Ventures
- While exporting beans to Europe, he faced freight challenges. East African Airways (EAA) had no cargo and when BOAC planes landed in Nairobi from South Africa, they were always full. Cargo was doubled booked and often not loaded at Embakasi airport and later thrown away. He decided to start a cargo airline in 1967 and registered African international airways and invited John Michuki and Charles Njonjo to join. At the time EAA’s problem was that Uganda was not remitting revenue and it was serving uneconomic routes in Tanzania. He got the authority to operate a cargo charter flew an old Britannia plane that was on sale for £65,000 to Nairobi to inspect with Michuki and Njonjo. But unhappy EAA staff reported back and the Tanzania Standard had a headline about how Kenya was helping three capitalists to destroy EAA. Michuki and Matiba were PS’s and Njonjo was AG and they decided not to sign the purchase agreement and the plane was flown back to England.
- Craziest venture: In 1975 during a potato shortage in England, tried to export 6,000 tons. Rounded up all potatoes in Meru and with 290 trucks got them to Mombasa. Managed to load one ship with 1,600 and later another with 1,700. The second broke down, and by the time it reached potato was rotten and the ship was diverted for special cleaning.
- Only after he resigned from the government was he able to safeguard his independence through personal business dealings.
- Radio announcements about cabinet reshuffles were a feature as far back as 1965. He heard he had been transferred from the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Cooperatives. There was no proper handover and he felt it was wrong to shuffle civil servants (PS) like happened with ministers.
- In 1968 he planned to retire as PS and gave a one-year notice. He asked Geoffrey Kariithi to wait till President Kenyatta was in a good mood before telling him. When Kenyatta realized this he asked who authorized Matiba to leave the government and Kariithi reminded him it was he. Matiba later made up – he was arranging for his son Raymond and John Michuki’s two sons to be circumcised and Kenyatta asked that he also rope in his two sons, Uhuru and Muhoho.
- After he left the government, he had five job offers and chose Kenya Breweries.
- He refused to become the Chairman of Anglo Kenya investments without equity, so he was offered 26% and he paid for that.
Hoteling & Real Estate
- Acquired Brunners hotel in 1974, a hotel in the middle of town, that was listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange. The Brunner family had 65% and Marcel Brunner and his son Derek continued to run it and helped Matiba with Jadini later on. But they closed it in 1978. It had an old interior and its 120 beds could not support the needed renovations. They sold the building in June 1982 and Fedha Towers was later built on the site.
- George Robinson bought 10 acres in Karen, improved and sold it to buy the Mackinnon Building opposite New Stanley for £50,000.
- Matiba scouted Jadini Hotel in 1967 which was on sale in £54,000 and recommended Robinson buy it. They sold MacKinnon at a profit and bought Jadini and another 10 acres in Karen.
- Bought Dacca Road houses in Nairobi West in 1969 and sold them in 1971.
- They developed Golf Course housing estate but later gave up housing to concentrate on hotels and schools.
- When Robinson died, Matiba negotiated to purchase his stake and took over Jadini. He had to rush to complete construction and open for tourists while facing down hostile old staff and management.
- Michael Betrano, a new manager, rescued Jadini when it had 7.5% occupancy in March 1973 and put it on the world map. He later hired Christopher Mogidell who took it further.
- In 1978, built Africana Sea Lodge in six months and in 1984 built, the 400-bed Safari Beach in 10 months that was opened in 1986.
- Seasonal airlines: For KTDC, Matiba chaired the struggling Air Kenya which only did business from December to March and July to September when tourists visited. It was idle rest of the year and utilization was never above 50%.
- Difficult Ministers: Tourism Minister Elijah Mwangale saw hotels as swindlers who did nothing but cheat Kenyans out of the foreign exchange. Matiba also held his tongue when Maina Wanjigi set a target of a million hotel beds which he correctly saw as unrealistic as the industry could not build 100,000 beds a year.
- Matiba argued that tourism was the cheapest for Kenya to earn foreign exchange. To earn $100, you need to invest $40, and gets a net of $60 while to earn $100 from coffee, it costs $68.
- Matiba decided to form Kenya Breweries Football Club in 1970 and have all staff stop playing for other teams. They entered the poorly-run Kenya Football Association league that had a lot of frustration. Matiba later formed the Kenya Football Federation to run a 12-team Kenya Football League exclusively as a company that the Sports Minister could not interfere with and invited other clubs to join and though KFA refused to recognize them. But after Gor Mahia agreed to join, other teams followed. All they wanted was to play soccer and entertain fans, not represent Kenya. They were not deterred by a suspension by the KFA and went ahead to draw a league for Nairobi Mombasa Nakuru Kisumu, book and pay for the stadiums on Saturday and Sunday for a year.
- Clubs got more from gate takings, tickets were printed by security firms which club representatives checked at gates, and complimentary tickets were abolished. While prices went up, they got more fans to come after they eliminated stone-throwing. They ensured clubs showed up ahead of time for matches for inspection and eliminated match delays sometimes caused by witchdoctors and superstitions.
- In his first year chairing KFF and KFL, Kenya won three East African cups.
- Matiba was an avid sportsman who climbed Mount Everest when he was a Cabinet Minister.
- Matiba worked with Bishop Sospeter Magua who wanted to make the church self-sustaining with permanent income through investments, and not be weak financially by staying dependent on unpredictable charity donations. They organized for three districts – Muranga, Kiambu and Nyeri – to contribute. President Moi chaired the first harambee in Muranga where Kshs 1 million was raised, Mwai Kibaki chaired the next one in Kiambu and Njonjo was invited for the third in Nyeri. They bought a 7-acre plot in Loresho and one acre on Kayahwe Road to build maisonettes. But Bishop Magua died in a road accident in 1982. Is Bishop Magua Centre, home of the first iHub, named after him?
- Embori farm in Timau was put up for sale in 1977 for Kshs 34 million and Robert Wilson, the European farmer selling it, did not want it to go to a cooperative or large group, preferring it should go to individuals or a public company. Matiba persuaded him that it could remain intact and not be subdivided. The seller also wanted Kshs 20 million of the amount in foreign exchange and Matiba asked Kenyatta who authorized the Central Bank to release this sum which was, the largest amount of forex ever given to purchase a farm. Meanwhile. a cabinet minister who wanted the farm tried to scuttle the deal. Matiba did a prospectus for Kiharu residents that yielded Kshs 6 million from 10,000 shareholders. After taking over, they sold wheat to KFA and barley to Kenya Breweries to meet the interest on overdraft for seven years but the farm did not generate enough to pay back the bank loan and shareholders are not willing to pay more. So Matiba next pushed them to sell some land to local residents, with a bank offering 50% finance and keep the balance for the farm, but after a year, only a handful took the offer. The farm still runs well today.
Business and politics
- After 3.5 years as MP, he was appointed a Minister of Culture and Social Services in September 1983. He was the Chairman of Kenya Breweries and he made a personal decision to resign and was succeeded by Bryan Hobson. At the time, Alliance had seven hotels and four schools.
- Matiba resigned from the cabinet in December 1988. After he quit he has no passport and went about his businesses quietly, but Moi never forgot. When he got his passport back in 1989, he made a trip to Rwanda for the wedding of the daughter of President Habyarimana in July 1989. Then in February 1990, he was invited back to Rwanda to explain how that country could expand its tourism and he took five experts from the Alliance group with him. But as soon as he came back, special branch officers started looking for him for interrogation after the death of Minister Robert Ouko.
- Concern about leadership. The Kenya majority has lost the concept of servanthood. Leaders aspire not to serve citizens but themselves. Many spend only two hours in their offices making personal telephone calls and the rest of their time on their business.
- The biggest problem African businesses face is a lack of accounting.
- Africans also treated businesses as hobbies and entrust them to ignorant family members.
- Business people try to do too much – being butchers, curio sellers and textile dealers all at the same time instead of concentrating on one line.
Matiba was detained in July 1990. The book dwells on his medical treatment after he was poisoned in detention and his preparation to run for the Presidency in 1992 where he came second. It does not go into his later tribulations with banks and businesses that halted the corporate empire he had built. Kenneth Matiba died in April 2018.