An In­dian im­mi­grant herds­boy, Jomo’s body­guard, and rise of an in­sur­ance firm

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - NATIONAL NEWS -

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Arthur Wany­oike Thungu was in a class of his own. While lit­tle has been writ­ten about him — apart from ref­er­ences to his name in con­nec­tion with the killing of veteran politi­cian JM Kar­iuki in 1975 — Thungu was per­haps the most abra­sive of all Jomo Keny­atta’s hang­ers-on. Of­fi­cially, he was one of Mzee Keny­atta’s body­guards, but pri­vately, he was the king­pin of the so-called “Ki­ambu Mafia” and ran roughshod over those who came be­tween him and his quest for wealth and power.

One In­dian fam­ily still re­calls what be­fell them when Thungu en­tered their 240-acre Jumapili Cof­fee Farm in Thika — and this, per­haps, is the story of any Asian fam­ily caught up at the po­lit­i­cal turn­ing point of a new na­tion. Hun­dreds of oth­ers faced a sim­i­lar fate, al­beit in si­lence.

It was 1976 and cof­fee had be­come the black gold, fetch­ing pre­mium prices on the world mar­ket af­ter a frost in Brazil had de­stroyed more than 70 per cent of the South Amer­i­can na­tion’s most im­por­tant cash crop.

Kenya and Uganda were the only few coun­tries with cof­fee, but Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter had slapped an em­bargo on the er­ratic Pres­i­dent Idi Amin, leav­ing Kenya with an un­prece­dented boom. All of a sud­den, cof­fee had be­come the most im­por­tant bean.

That year, Jumapili Farm had har­vested 240 tonnes of cof­fee and had an­tic­i­pated a good sale. For them, it was a record pro­duc­tion.

Then Thungu ap­peared and in­vaded the farm.

“He just came one day with lor­ries and carted away our cof­fee. Overnight, and for 24 hours, they re­moved all the cof­fee in the stores and went away with it,” re­calls Ashok Shah, now the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of APA In­sur­ance.

Thungu was a mem­ber of Mangu In­vest­ment Com­pany, which was no­to­ri­ous for force­ful ac­qui­si­tion of cof­fee farms in Gatundu, and Asian fam­i­lies, who at in­de­pen­dence had been al­lowed to buy land in the for­mer White High­lands, were the prime tar­gets of their busi­ness — as the Keny­atta gov­ern­ment started to en­force the “Kenyani­sa­tion” pol­icy.

Per­turbed, Ashok and his brother, Shashi Shah, naively rushed to the High Court and got an or­der from Chief Jus­tice Sir James Wicks, ask­ing Thungu and Mangu In­vest­ment to va­cate Jumapili Farm and re­turn the cof­fee. They didn’t.

Among the peo­ple Thungu counted as his bo­som friends were Ben Gethi, the head of the Gen­eral Ser­vice Unit, and Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Bernard Hinga — Kenya’s orig­i­nal axis of hubris. Ashok was in for a shock.

“When we took the or­der to the po­lice, they sim­ply laughed at us,” re­calls Ashok, who had ar­rived in 1975 from the UK’S Kingston Univer­sity, where he had ma­jored in ap­plied chem­istry. “There was lit­tle we could do, and I turned to my brother and told him: ‘Let us try in­sur­ance’. It was the only area we could not be­come tar­gets,” he says.

Ap­par­ently, Ashok had done some in­sur­ance cour­ses in the UK and that be­came his fam­ily’s sav­ing grace. While that is part of the un­told story of the ori­gins of APA In­sur­ance, it is also the story of how Mzee Keny­atta’s bid to trans­fer all eco­nomic and so­cial con­trol to ci­ti­zens of Kenya was used by the elites to amass wealth and also scare away Asians who had de­cided to stay rather than take Bri­tish ci­ti­zen­ship.

There was a rea­son many of the In­dian-kenyans chose to stay — but no­body would have lis­tened to their story.

Ashok’s fa­ther Mepa Kanji Shah, aka Khi­ma­sia, had ar­rived in Kenya in 1918 as a 10-year-old boy aboard a ship and es­cap­ing the hard life in Gu­jarat, a semi-arid re­gion of In­dia. Or­phaned when he was only two years old, the young boy had gone through strug­gles as a herds­boy and when an Is­maili, who had opened a shop in Nairobi’s Ngara, gave the boy a chance to leave for a new con­ti­nent, Mepa Kanji did not have sec­ond thoughts.

World War I had just ended and Nairobi was start­ing to boom with new ar­rivals, even though the war had drained the colo­nial trea­sury. Amid all these, In­di­ans were be­ing de­nied an op­por­tu­nity to buy com­mer­cial plots in Nairobi — then re­served for white set­tlers only.

Khi­ma­sia was em­ployed for five years by Lala Prasad Pun­dit, the pioneer con­fec­tioner in Nairobi’s Bazaar Street, now Bi­ashara, and who is cred­ited with open­ing the first sweets and pas­tries store in Nairobi. Pun­dit had ar­rived in Nairobi in 1901 and he be­came so suc­cess­ful that he built the Lala Prasad Tem­ple — or what was of­fi­cially known as the Radha-kr­ishna Tem­ple. This was the first Hindu tem­ple in Nairobi.

At 15, he left Nairobi for Fort Ter­nan in 1923, just about the time that the In­di­ans in Kenya num­bered about 20,000 against 10,000 white set­tlers. It was also the time that the In­di­ans were ask­ing for greater po­lit­i­cal rights and rep­re­sen­ta­tion and Harry Thuku had also started or­gan­is­ing Africans around a po­lit­i­cal party. In or­der to de­feat the new po­lit­i­cal reawak­en­ing, the Bri­tish came up with the Devon­shire White Pa­per, which de­clared that Kenya was pri­mar­ily an African coun­try, and that African in­ter­ests must be para­mount in case of con­flict be­tween In­di­ans and Euro­peans. Here, the young man opened a book­shop at the Catholic mis­sion and was known to ride a don­key from the Fort Ter­nan rail­way sta­tion to the mis­sion.

It is not clear why he moved from Fort Ter­nan to Ny­eri in 1928, but he started the Kenya Book­shop and once set­tled he left for In­dia — for the first time — to look for a wife.

“My mother ar­rived here in 1931. She was il­lit­er­ate, by then, and my fa­ther taught her,” says Ashok. The fam­ily bought a com­mer­cial plot in Ny­eri town — which now houses Eq­uity Bank — while the mod­ern-day Moun­tain View Ho­tel was their home.

“We have nos­tal­gic mem­o­ries of that build­ing,” Ashok says.

Khi­ma­sia started to bring in his neph­ews and nieces — and other young In­di­ans who wanted to start life away from the dry patches of Gu­jarat. One of these was Bhimji Shah — the founder of Bidco Com­pany and fa­ther of Vi­mal Shah — and that is why they count Ny­eri as their in­dus­trial base. Bhimji’s el­der brother, Ka­pul, was an em­ployee of Khi­ma­sia at Ny­eri Gen­eral Gro­cers along with another en­trant, Day­alal Sa­mat. Day­alal and his son Ma­hen­dra Shah would later es­tab­lish Nairobi Sports House.

The fam­ily’s first dal­liance with agri­cul­ture was when Khi­ma­sia founded Aber­dare Dairy in Mweiga, where he had also opened Mweiga Gen­eral Stores. This was a part­ner­ship with his nephew Prem­c­hand Hem­raj Shah, but it was dis­solved at the height of the Mau Mau cri­sis in the area in 1958. Also, Khi­ma­sia’s el­dest son Bud­hic­hand had turned 20 and joined the busi­ness at the dawn of in­de­pen­dence.

The prob­lem started in 1971, when the Ndegwa Com­mis­sion al­lowed civil ser­vants to also get into busi­ness. And as the gov­ern­ment started its Kenyani­sa­tion of the econ­omy and civil ser­vice, the first tar­get were the Asians.

Then came the push for an African­i­sa­tion pol­icy and they had to quit the re­tail busi­ness and sell all that they owned in Ny­eri and Mweiga in the 1970s and move to Thika, which had a large Osh­wal com­mu­nity. The Mweiga prop­erty was sold to Stephen Reuben Karun­ditu, then a chief per­son­nel of­fi­cer in the Of­fice of the Vice-pres­i­dent.

Shortly af­ter in­de­pen­dence, In­di­ans had been al­lowed to buy com­mer­cial farms in the for­mer White High­lands and that is how the fam­ily bought Thika’s Osh­wal Cof­fee Es­tate — to­day known as Thika Greens. But they did not keep it for long and had to sell it in 1972 to Othaya Farmers, a land-buy­ing com­pany cham­pi­oned by Ny­eri politi­cos as pres­sure on Asians who owned farms in­creased. And since the Othaya own­ers could not man­age the farm, they hired Ashok’s brother-in-law RK Shah to man­age it. But RK, as he was com­monly known, died in 1977.

The biggest blun­der, but which turned into a for­tune, was the pur­chase of Ken­mac Lim­ited, a com­pany that owned Thika’s Jumapili Cof­fee Farm. “It was in the wrong place and we were un­der pres­sure to sell it too,” says Ashok. In or­der to safe­guard the farm from Ki­ambu politi­cians the Khi­ma­sia fam­ily had started ne­go­ti­at­ing its sale to the Othaya group, but af­ter their fa­ther died in 1974, the young en­trepreneurs were now vul­ner­a­ble and this was the time Wany­oike Thungu ap­peared.

By this time, Ashok’s el­der brother Bud­hic­hand had left for Mom­basa to run an Esso Petrol Sta­tion and their only other busi­ness that was not tar­geted was a small shop in Nairobi, Mod­ern Elec­tri­cals.

The de­ci­sion to en­ter in­sur­ance was thus prompted by the planned takeover of their farm. Shashi had al­ready man­aged to ne­go­ti­ate its sale with the Othaya Farmers for Sh2 mil­lion — but he had not re­ceived the Pres­i­dent’s con­sent (this was granted af­ter Mzee Keny­atta died in 1978).

The en­try into in­sur­ance in 1977 was boosted by the ad­vice of MD Nawara, who had re­tired as the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Indo-africa In­sur­ance, later Pan Africa In­sur­ance. He agreed to help the broth­ers get into the in­sur­ance in­dus­try — per­haps sym­pa­this­ing with their farm­ing predica­ment. Apollo In­sur­ance was born as a re­sult.

Nawara was based in Mom­basa and that ex­plains mod­ern-day APA In­sur­ance’s coastal roots. The en­tire in­sur­ance in­dus­try was in the hands of Euro­peans and it be­came hard for the young en­trepreneurs to pen­e­trate the bro­kers — the life­line of any in­sur­ance. But in 1984, af­ter a lot of strug­gle, they got their first busi­ness from Minet, then the largest in­sur­ance bro­ker.

“We then had to move our head of­fice to Nairobi in 1999 and we started think­ing about how to grow our busi­ness, ei­ther through merg­ers or ac­qui­si­tion,” re­calls Ashok.

That chance came in 2003, when a call came: Pan Africa’s gen­eral in­sur­ance busi­ness was mak­ing losses. “Would you be in­ter­ested?”

Apollo went for it and they merged to form APA. Later in 2009, Pan-africa said they wanted to sell their shares and from their ini­tial Sh16 mil­lion, the fig­ure was Sh855 mil­lion. The story of the Khi­ma­sia fam­ily and how they en­tered busi­ness is per­haps that of ev­ery Asian fam­ily in Kenya. It is also the story of how pol­i­tics in­forms the growth of a na­tional econ­omy.

This year marks 100 years since the ar­rival of Mepa Kanji Shah in Nairobi — an im­mi­grant who built a solid eco­nomic base in the coun­try and helped oth­ers do. At the Im­mi­gra­tion Depart­ment, file R1736 will one day be of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Per­haps.

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