Profiles

An engineer at Kakuzi’s helm

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Summary

  • There are only three known Flowers in Nairobi. One of them is Chris Flowers, the managing director for Kakuzi Plc.
  • A Master’s degree holder in agriculture and engineering, Mr Flowers has for the past 25 years lived off the soil, working in Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, and now Kenya.
  • He has previously been involved in the tea trade and research.

There are only three known Flowers in Nairobi. One of them is Chris Flowers, the managing director for Kakuzi Plc.

A Master’s degree holder in agriculture and engineering, Mr Flowers has for the past 25 years lived off the soil, working in Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, and now Kenya. He has previously been involved in the tea trade and research.

He is a published writer on tea technical and agronomic matters. [OK, he contributed a chapter in a book his professor was writing on advances in Tea Agronomy.”] It has not been a smooth ride for Kakuzi until it faced an alleged human rights violation. Its parent company Camellia Plc paid Sh696 million to settle the claims.

At heart, Mr Flowers is an engineer and a keen photographer, designing harvesting machines, and entering the world of the wild through the lens of his camera. He met JACKSON BIKO at his office in Nairobi’s Westlands. 

Are you by any chance related to Robert Flowers, the owner of East African Canvas?

I know him, but we are not related. But it’s unusual because there’s a Flowers in Uganda as well, and maybe about two other Flowers in Kenya.

Your name must be a good icebreaker in bars and social events.

[Chuckles] It’s my father’s name, my mother is Lebanese. If you look on the internet we were iron-makers in the south of England many centuries ago. The name is derived from people who made bows and arrows in medieval times. It was a very difficult name when you are a child. Imagine being called Flowers. [Chuckling] 

My career started as an engineer, then I got into growing tea, and ended up in agriculture for the last 27 years. So yeah, what better name could you have! Yes, it is also a good conversation starter, ‘Hi, my name is Flowers, I’m an arrow maker.’ It also gets you out of buying flowers on Valentine’s Day because you can always say, ‘why do you want a flower when you already have one?” [Laughter].

Until recently, agriculture has always been the province of old men wearing ratty hats in the village. The question is how do you make it appealing to the new generation?

We’ve got 50,000 graduates in a year in Kenya alone, and how many of those graduates are going into agriculture? Very few. That’s where technology comes in. Kenya is moving into legislating the use of drones. We have to use this sort of technology in agriculture. Most young people who consider themselves as geeks would love to have a thing flying around with a little camera on it identifying pests. Then you can put something else up in the air that can block that pest with a spray. So instead of spraying the whole field, you’ve managed to do some form of sensing and realise I’ve got a hotspot here, a hotspot there. 

That appeals to people who like environmental issues, people who like technological issues, people who like biology, you can bring all these together. 

Does leadership come easy for you?

No. I’m an engineer. [Laughter] I think that’s a real challenge, leading in a way that develops people. Anybody can say ‘I’m a manager.’ But if you can’t develop people and get people to grow along with you then that is not leadership. Some people love my leadership style, others don’t. But I always try my best to lead rather than dictate. And I fail daily as a leader. There is always something you could have done better when you reflect.

The elephant in the room; how does something like an alleged human rights abuse by a company you run, change how you lead? 

Such allegations are extremely humbling on a leader. I have been faced with allegations dating back years before I joined the organisation. As a leader, you have to carefully consider the situation and act to resolve it.

I took a position that we needed to be more open and not be afraid to ask difficult questions or probe into every aspect of our business to analyse working practices, policies, procedures that could be improved. 

Do you find yourself carrying the burden of this scandal on a personal level? Or do you compartmentalise?

Such an experience does change how you look at leadership in that now more than ever you have to be very clear that the path you are taking the company on is correct both in the short and long-term. 

Anyone who hears that employees of a company they run are alleged to have been involved in criminal behaviour will be personally affected. It makes it even worse when the claims are made anonymously against unnamed employees. Anyone who is proven to have committed such criminal offenses should be put in jail. We do not condone any criminal act and we remain bound by the laws of the country.

Have things turned out the way you expected them to be at your age of 48?

Oh no! [Laughter] I wanted to be retired and sitting on a desert island at 48. [Laughs]. But there’s absolutely no regret I have. 

Why do you take pictures?

My two extravagances right now are probably whisky and photography. I think I like buying good second-hand cameras, and there is only so much you can buy. The waiting for that shot gives me adrenaline. Tranquillity is very therapeutic. The ability to just sit there in the middle of nowhere and just listen, that sense of peace you get by not having to rush around is fantastic. I get a kick out of getting a unique shot. 

It’s not something I’ve shared with others until quite recently when somebody said, ‘why don’t you put them on Instagram?’ So I started doing that. But you know just looking at the photos on my computer screen makes me quite happy. My best photo? An elephant giving themselves a dust bath. 

How long have you been married for and how many children do you have?

I met my wife at a party in Dar es Salaam. She was new in town and I heard she was going to be there. We got talking and we found out that our lives had intertwined and it seemed like I was following her my whole life. Serendipity. 

At the party, we talked a lot about agriculture [Chuckles]. She has a Doctorate in Forestry. The person who had brought her to the party had had too much to drink so I said, ‘let me drive you, he won’t be able to drive you home.’ I told her I had enough space in my house. The car wouldn’t start. I’m an engineer, so I whacked the battery terminals with a hammer and it started. 

The next day my grandmother died, before I left for the UK for the funeral I told her, ‘would you please stay here and look after my two dogs when I’m gone?’ When I came back from the funeral I said, ‘look, why don’t you move in with me? Besides, my dogs also really like you.’ [Laughter]. That was in 2008. We don’t have children, we decided not to. 

Fascinating. Do you sometimes have a longing to have children?

First, we found each other when we were much older. We were also living in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania, which would present a different challenge when it came to schools to send them to. I also just think there are enough children in the world. Is there a longing? No. And not that I don’t like children [Chuckles]. They’re fantastic, but would I have patience for children? I’m not sure I would. There’s going to be a time when we will have to start thinking as a world about population growth. 

What do you fear now?

Being unwell and being trapped in a hospital. Ending your days with some disease. [Pause] That and going blind. Of all the disabilities, I think, not being able to see is particularly scary for me.