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A frugal carpenters epic struggle to the helm of real estate fortune

Former assistant minister Gerishon Kirima has died while undergoing treatment in South Africa. Photo/FILE
Former assistant minister Gerishon Kirima has died while undergoing treatment in South Africa. Photo/FILE 

In mid 2005 Nairobi property magnate Gerishon Kamau Kirima, frail and walking with the help of a stick limped into Nairobi’s Market Branch of Barclays Bank with a bag full of cash. He was alone.

A few minutes later, a middle-aged woman rushed in and publicly scolded him for carrying large amounts of money on Nairobi streets.

It was end month and it could have been money collected from his many rental houses, which bring in more than Sh20 million a month.

Few people realised that the man was perhaps one of the wealthiest rags-to-riches businessman in the country.

Unlike other flashy millionaires, Kirima’s style of running his businesses was rudimentary, just like the furniture he made in his early years.

By the time he died in a South Africa hospital while on treatment on Wednesday, Kirima and his family were the centre of attention over fights in and out of court corridors for the control of his multi-million real estate empire and other investments.

It was a drama that had all the tenets of a soap opera — cash, witchcraft, back-stabbing, and litigation.

Kirima hardly controlled it, and was more of a spectator — thanks to his old age.

Born in the tea-growing Kiruri village in Murang’a on the slopes of Aberdares, Kirima was a simple man whose dressing, mostly v-necked sweaters under a suit, belied his business acumen and wealth, but revealed his humble backgrounds.

Scrupulously honest, Kirima often found himself on the wrong end of politics with his little education, having dropped out of school at an early age.

As a person, Kirima evaded the sophistry associated with millionaires, opting to run his businesses based on trust with his sons and daughters – and the first wife. At best he only trusted himself.

Like many businesses registered in early 1960s, at a time when women didn’t inherit property, his empire was simply a masculine Kirima and Sons Ltd, exemplifying the weaknesses of the social structure that he was moulded into.

Like many of his age-mates who did not go beyond basic education, Kirima’s background is weaved around the colonial education structure that prepared Africans for menial jobs.

That is how the self-made millionaire started off as a carpenter after he eloped from his Kiruri home and settled in the Kinangop plateaus.

It was here that he started his carpentry workshop, becoming one of the pioneer African businessmen.

Kirima was mean albeit thrifty with the little money he earned. At the dawn of independence he would shift to Nairobi working as a pioneer carpenter at the Royal College (now University of Nairobi) and operating a small workshop in Bahati and later in Kaloleni where his first wife, Agnes, would attend to customers as she brought up the children.

It was the venture into meat and real estate businesses that would catapult Kirima into big business.

The end of the state of emergency in 1960 and independence three years later opened a rural-urban migration unprecedented in Kenya’s history.

Kirima opened bars and butcheries across the African and Asian neighbourhoods, taking advantage of the new elite who had money and new jobs.

The Africanisation policy led by Commerce minister Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, who was from Kirima’s constituency also favoured the budding businessman as a young African entrepreneur.

With Asian business targeted for closure and as rules were twisted to favour African businesses Kirima was one of the pioneer beneficiaries.

In 1967, he had saved enough money to enter into big real estate business and surprised many African elites, mostly ministers and senior civil servants in the Kenyatta government, when he bought 500 acres from Italian Donenico Masi in Nairobi.

By then only Kenyatta and his family had managed to buy such land within Nairobi district.

In the same year, Kirima bought two other large farms in Nairobi which included some 108 acres from British settler Charles Case and a further 472 acres from Percy Randall, the settler who sold most of his land to Magana Kenyatta in 1967.

With such large tracts bought from well-established ranchers, Kirima was set for business as a big meat supplier.

His main worry was that the Kenya Meat Commission, which was still commandeered by British settlers did not allow buy meat from African farmers.

As the chairman of African Butchers Association, a lobby group seeking permission to sell meat in the city, Kirima managed to have the Africans have their way— a move that saw him start a private abattoir in one of his farms in Njiru area of Nairobi and which partly led to the death of Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), largely seen as a colonial outfit.

With Dr Kiano at the helm of the ministry of commerce, businessmen from his Murang’a backyard thrived by buying property in Nairobi’s River Road and from the leaving Asians whose business licences to run retail shops were withdrawn.

Also, as the Asians lost their permits to run transport business, Kirima entered the business with his Kirima Bus Service competing with Dedan Njoroge Nduati’s Jogoo Kimakia Bus Service as the two leading African-owned bus companies in Kenya against established British company Overseas Trading Company (OTC) on the central Kenya route. Mr Nduati died early thus year.

The Kirima Bus Company did not survive for long. When Kenyatta issued a decree that allowed Matatus to run transport business from Nairobi to other towns in 1973, Kirima and other transport entrepreneurs: Muhuri Muchiri, Kamau Mweru and Nduati were some of the first casualties of the stiff competition. While buses were licensed by the Transport Licensing Board, the matatus were exempted.

Both Nduati and Kirima abandoned the transport business and jumped to real estate.

Those close to Kirima say he may have abandoned the business because he was a hands-on man who always wanted to handle the exchange of cash.

It was in the real estate where Kirima built a solid empire mostly concentrating on low income rental houses in Eastlands.

But even with the riches, he remained true to his rural roots. His children would still pick coffee in his farms, go around Nairobi collecting rent, and sell meat in their spare time.

Kirima combined his business with politics, being easily recognized among the African elites.

The burial committee assembled for his send-off is an indicator of those who rubbed shoulders with.

At the political front, Kirima was elected a councillor in Nairobi, rising to deputy mayor.

He later contested the Starehe seat after the then MP Kiruhi Kimondo was kicked out of Kanu in 1989.

With the clamour for multi-party politics, Kirima was the Nairobi chairman and he organised the Kanu brigades that manned most of the City bus-stops.

It was these brigades that would later become the thuggish elements that haunt the Matatu industry in Nairobi today.

Mr Kirima did not win the Starehe seat in the 1992 multi-party elections, losing to Kimondo who defected to Kanu in 1994 leading to a by-election won by then Nairobi-mayor Steve Mwangi.

A few months later, Mwangi quit his seat and politics, and Kirima won the seat on a Kanu ticket becoming the sole Kanu politician and the only Kikuyu, to have won a parliamentary seat in Nairobi during Moi’s multi-party parliament. His appointment as an assistant minister was largely a reward.

Away from politics, Kirima spent his time at his up-market Kitisuru home and at his K&S House overlooking Jevanjee Hardens in Nairobi.

It was from these two places that the drama on how to run the properties he had acquired for years was privately fought before it spilled into the courts and later to the streets.

Diabetic and partially blind, Kirima died without resolving his estate rows.

The pale grey gate at Kitsuru still hides much of the drama captured in some video footage by the daughters and sons of the first wife as they fought the third.

Kirima had a second wife who lives in Kiruri village and away from the battles.

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