One day in 1986 the commissionaire at our Esso Oil Company (part of Exxon) offices called my extension informing me that I had a visitor by name of Jaramogi Odinga and he says he has no appointment.
I was at the time the director in charge of the supply chain logistics. As my secretary ushered in Mzee Odinga, I was reflecting what could be the purpose of the visit.
Apart from being a very pronounced opposition politician, he was the chairman of East African Spectre (EAS) which manufactured Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders.
I was also aware of the polarised state of politics during those dark Moi years.
I suspected that Jaramogi was seeking LPG cylinder business from Esso, and I mentally prepared myself accordingly.
After introducing himself he apologised for coming without notice, explaining that he doubted I would have accepted to give him an appointment considering the state of political fear in the country.
He had, however, heard that I was a reasonable person, and he judged that once he was in my office, I would give him a fair business hearing.
He explained that EAS had imported a lot of steel on the strength of promised cylinder orders from Shell, Caltex and Agip.
However, only Agip had firmed its order, with the other two multinationals refusing to commit orders after developing political cold feet. Can Esso help out and buy their cylinders?
I replied that Esso had a demand for cylinders and we would give his request a serious consideration. However, he should let his commercial manager deal with us from then on.
In 1980s, foreign exchange allocation for imports by the Central Bank was very difficult to get.
Foreign exchange reserves were low as agricultural exports reduced to a trickle, and corruption diverted much foreign exchange into overseas banks.
Esso import licences for LPG cylinders were for many months stuck at the CBK, as was the case with the other oil marketers.
Without new cylinders, LPG market growth had literally been frozen, and that is why I saw in the EAS offer, an opportunity to grow Esso market share. All I needed was courage to commit business with a firm that was apparently politically blacklisted by the Moi regime.
I prepared an internal aid memoirs (note for file) to document my decision making process which I copied to my CEO and other key managers.
Esso was to buy as many EAS cylinders as they can avail, provided they passed a technical evaluation by an Exxon expert and that the cylinder costs were comparable with imported cost from Thailand. Justification was an increased Esso LPG market share with associated profit margins. We issued a purchase order to EAS.
When the first batch of cylinders was delivered, the EAS commercial manager came into my office sent by Jaramogi. The government banks had cancelled EAS credit facilities leaving the company with meagre working capital.
“Mzee says that since you have already decided to walk with us, can you assist further and alter payment terms from 30 days to payment on delivery” was the request which got my CEO approval.
Subsequently, EAS invited me to a business partners cocktail party at the Stanley. I asked two of my officers to deputise for me and they flatly refused, sincerely explaining that they cannot risk being caught on media cameras in an “opposition” function. So I attended the function (see the photograph) and was surprised to note that only Agip expatriates were visibly at the function.
When I took the cocktail photos home, my late wife said the photos should be hidden. She correctly argued that Moi’s State intelligence can smell anything, anywhere, anytime.
Like a “mother hen” instinctively protects her family she hid the photos, and I only found them many years later when rummaging through her documents.
This narrative shows how low Kenya had politically and economically descended in 1980/90s, and why we should guard against targeting businesses to settle political scores.
Many successful businesses and agricultural sub-sectors collapsed due to political retribution.