CEOs share their festive plans as they recharge for the new year ahead

Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund CEO, Victoria Sabula. PHOTO | NMG

Little encapsulates the journey from the heave-ho and yearlong chip fat to champagne more vividly than the holiday season.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—goats, cows, chickens, turkeys—name it give up their life to fill up their bellies.

Champagne bottles pop, and people pop up at parties, whether with family or friends or alone. The excitement is palpable, the mood palatable.

Top executives too dump the suit for the sweatpants, and as they tell us, can hold their own in the bush or beach.

The holidays are irresistible and everyone dances to the tune of Feliz Navidad and a Happy New Year, which are on the song from the time you press send on your Out-of-Office message.

What’s common though is that everyone has a tradition. Travelling or staying in. Late nights or long days. Doesn’t matter. Even the most resolute executive finds something to enjoy.

Victoria Sabula

If God had a sister with a coy, crooning, comforting voice, then Victoria Sabula would be her.

Many people urm and aahh and eehh their way through conversations. Not Victoria. She cackles. Chuckles. Lets it all out.

If God’s sister laughed, that’s the way it would sound. There is no arrogance to it. None whatsoever. Her cackle is instead light-hearted, the sun through which her words orbit, which felt broadly representative of her ebullient mood.

Maybe it’s the spirit of the season. Maybe it’s just who she is. She is the CEO of the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) which provides funding and support to small businesses in agriculture and renewable energy in Africa. 

Her passion to eradicate poverty burns as hot as the sun down in Bunyore at this time of the year. She is in Bunyore for the season, at the cradle of the Abanyore people, where everyone keeps gifting her chickens.

So, she is laughing and her laughter sounds like the boom of artillery fire. She is laughing as if she means to kill it.

What’s it like to be you now?

I am on holiday but it is tough to be me. I am in the village but I keep wondering why there is such increased crime here.

Is there something about the curse of development? People are handed freebies and this makes them dependent, a catch-22 situation. Is it really helping the community?

Bush or beach?

I am a bush person. I love nature and I hike a lot. Bunyore has these rocks and would you believe it if told you I did an eight-kilometre hike which was amazing?

That early morning quiet of the village and enjoying the wonderful green is the definition of paradise. But I am also a water person, in all its different forms. 

Do you travel solo or with family?

It’s very hard for me to be away and not have my husband around. He is my best friend. We go everywhere together, to the market, and the river, and work around the house together.

Favourite childhood holiday memory?

I grew up in a family of nine siblings, all between one and a half to two years apart. We did things together. Ah, now I remember. [laughs] We were going for mushrooms that used to pop up down the river.

We would need to wake up at daybreak to find the mushrooms. Denis, our cousin who used to live with us was the biggest competition. If you beat Denis, you were the ‘person.’ The person who gets the mushroom was the King or Queen of the day. [laughs]

Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund CEO, Victoria Sabula. PHOTO | NMG

A travel experience that changed you?

In November I travelled to India and met an organisation that works with rural households to solve the energy crisis.

They work their hearts out to ensure issues relating to poverty are resolved. They are passionate and own the future of their people.

They moved away from I want to make it to I want to see another household not get trapped in poverty.

This trip was a man-in-the-mirror moment for me: Are you doing enough, Vicky?

There is a book I am currently reading, Everybody Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath, that has deftly challenged my outlook.

What is the one thing you can’t miss on a trip?

A book. [Laughs]. Physical book. I am those people who like to smell books. Completely.

What’s the one thing you are saying no to this holiday?

No to work! I have a life but the thing is, I am a leader. For instance, I’ll be working this Thursday despite being on leave. It’s called knowing when to stretch yourself for the greater good.

How do you judge a place?

[laughs] My husband would love to hear this answer. [laughs] I judge a place by the presence of a quality face towel. [Chuckles] I don’t like going to places that don’t have face towels because I don’t like to pack face towels.

Alex Tutu Muiruri, 32

Two days. That’s all the break Alex Tutu will take over the festive period. The father of a daughter is chirpy yet collected, a contrarian if I ever saw one.

He’s legalistic, almost Clintonian. He was once gifted company shares, and won’t disclose its actual value because the man knows the importance of a good myth.

At 32, he is the Regional Managing Director sub-Saharan Africa of Dentsu. (Dentsu is the largest advertising agency in Japan and the fifth-largest advertising agency network in terms of worldwide revenues.)

Alex Tutu Muiruri, Regional Managing Director Sub-Saharan Africa, Dentsu. PHOTO | NMG

Why vacay for only two days?

It’s reflective of the year that has been. The workload in our system so far and I can tell January will also be heavy. Normally Q1 is a bit slow but this one is different. I need to be ready.

What’s the itinerary for those two days?

I will be spending time with my family. I shall be going to my mom’s place and teach the little ones how goats are properly slaughtered. They have to learn why nyama choma is one of our best delicacies.

Your favourite childhood holiday memory? 

The sodas, back in the day were just different. Especially because they were hidden under the bed, and somehow always tasted sweeter.

And of course, that uncle who assigned himself the enviable role of safeguarding the meat.

At what point do you stop replying to your work calls while on holiday?

I am a firm believer that when you set that OOO (Out of Office), stick to your word. There is a time to trust the team and delegate.

But always respect people’s time to unwind. Best believe that I will not look at that phone unless there is a deep crisis.

What is your favourite travel destination?

Overseas or local? I love to support my local people. I come from Nakuru and I would drive through the Rift Valley because driving gives me control. 

But I’ll only be there for a day before my true north beckons: anywhere with a beach. Diani has my attention but Cape Town has recently piqued my interest.

What’s your holiday soundtrack?

It’s different. But I get to play the songs that have lifted me up over the year.

 However, I know it will be high-pumped, high-energy music just to anchor myself: who I am and who I want to be in the future.

Worst travel experience?

When I was in my teenage years. We had planned everything within a set budget only to find out somebody did not do the Math correctly and we ended up stranded for a day. Or two. 

A travel experience that changed you?

Rule #1: never got to the Rift Valley during a jam-packed season. It gets insane and the traffic will drive you up the wall [chuckles].

However, I remember deciding to drive to the Mt Kenya Safari drive with my family. It was supposed to be a one-day thing but we ended up spending the night.

We had not carried any kids’ clothes. Just two diapers. But luckily we were able to get a few essentials to last the trip.

Are you on diet? If yes, does the diet go out the window during the festivities or do you stick to your particular regimen?

I am conscious of what I put in my body. I don’t think I overdo it, just moderation. Nothing changes much. What I eat in January will most likely reflect in what I eat over December.

Bush or beach?

Beach. I love to relax and unwind. I find the long drive to the bush takes a toll on the body. Holidays are meant to get in touch with yourself and meditate.

Gifts or experiences? What was the best gift you ever received?

Both. I like gifting. It’s a form of love which expresses how you feel and view this person. 

Experiences meanwhile challenge your ways and how you view different cultures. But life is full of seasons.

There are seasons you get to experience and there are seasons you get to gift. The best gift I have ever got was shares. Company shares.

What is the last thing you do before the lights go off?

I start and close my days with prayers.

What is the one thing you can’t miss on a trip?

A shot of Jägermeister. And of course, my cologne. Another rule: Look good, smell good. And shoes. I pack a lot of different pairs of shoes.

Airbnb or hotel?

Airbnb has let me down sometimes, so I’ll take the tried and trusted hotels. 

Early morning or lie-in?

I always request the latest checkouts.

What’s the one thing you are saying no to this holiday season?

Drinking and driving. Overspending. And of course, compromising on family time.

The times I have dedicated to family and friends remain sacrosanct.

Are you a planner or spontaneous?

If it’s a long-distance journey, planning early is ideal. If it is short distances, those can be spontaneous. If there is not much to do in Nairobi, I ask myself, why not? And hit the road. Why not?

Heavy packer or just what’s necessary?

Just what's necessary. But living in a household of girls, it saves my life because I tend to forget to pack small things like lotions and painkillers. Luckily, the two girls zig to my zag there. 

Memorable childhood holiday?

That has to be Mombasa. We did a whole month there. Yes, a whole month. 

What is your holiday go-to rule?

Plan early. To save on costs. And also speak as a household. Have a bucket item, because tastes are different. This year may be my taste, and then next year her taste.

 Recently, my daughter put up a request: she wants me to take her to the North Pole. Haha.

You should take her. What is the first thing you do in a new place?

I judge a place by its Vanilla milkshake. The thicker the better. If you get it right, then I know the food will be alright.

 I find Vanilla bland and boring. You see the way it is bland and boring, people mess it up. Either it is too light or too thick. There is a sweet spot.

Touché. Gun to your head, where is that one place you’d want to keep a secret to yourself?

The first place I fell in love with was Kerio Valley. It is magical.

The aura felt just right. It’s also where I first encountered Fanta Citrus. I kid you not, I bought a crate and felt at home. That is one place I desire to build my holiday home.

Jawad Jaffer, 56

Jawad has always been good at tennis. These days, however, he says the game is faster and stronger. And he is just not the young man he used to be.

Lucky is the first love of a man, but luckier still is the last love of a man. And his last and maybe eternal love is branding.

His wife, he says, told him that he just gets it. He was part of the Kenya Lawn Tenis Association, who were always looking for tournament sponsorships.

He would have his abroad friends who were distributors visiting, and he would talk them into funding the clubs. People kept asking how he did it. But he says, he always took a chance.

Like the Korean Ambassador of Samsung. Brookside. Name it, and he took a chance, or they took a chance on him. When he went into branding, everyone wondered what he was doing. Now, everyone is a brand.

Now, he is the project director of Superbrands East Africa, the first African subsidiary of the London-based international brand that surveys organisations.

Superbrands East Africa Project Director, Jawad Jaffer. PHOTO | NMG

Jawad, the father of two —a son and a daughter— loves to frolic at the Mara, despite being a beach person. 

What’s your perfect holiday like?

Anywhere in Europe. I like to be very casual. I tend to do a lot of walking and exploring restaurants.

When you think of Christmas, which food springs to mind?

As a Muslim, I am not celebrating Christmas per se but I partake in the festivities. Turkey is the food that comes to mind.

Your holiday soundtrack?

Anything to do with jazz. Simple music. I am a classical man.

Do you travel solo or with family?

I used to travel with family before my two children left for studies in Canada. My daughter is celebrating two months of marriage, and my son is working.

So now it’s just me and my wife. We look forward to becoming grandparents, however. I am told that is the best gift. No pressure on my daughter haha! 

Best travel memory?

The [Maasai] Mara. The hospitality, and the game drive. For me, it’s either that or the beach.

When I am in the Mara I always book three days and on the last day, I am like, can you extend my stay for a few nights? It’s fantastic, especially when you get to do a walk.

A travel experience that changed you?

My experiences at the sea bring calmness. You get slower, and you get refreshed.

At what point exactly do you stop replying to your work calls while on holiday?

Nowadays this phone can make you go mad. So now, I am forming a habit of not picking it up or answering WhatsApp.

But by 10 PM, I am out like a light.

What is the last thing you do before lights go off?

Most probably watching Netflix. Drink some water. Then go to sleep.

Airbnb or hotel?

Hotels. Mostly because they have bigger spaces, look more organized and there is a varied food menu. When you find a good chef, you are a blessed man.

The problem is, even on holidays, I am still an early riser. Once you form a habit, you are in it for the long haul.

How do you judge a place?

By the food. If it’s Mombasa, it has to be very simple fresh seafood.

Are you a planner or spontaneous?

A planner. I like to know everything is in check. That way there are no surprises down the road.

Favourite childhood holiday memory?

We used to go to the beach a lot as a child. My dad was a very good swimmer, I am an okay swimmer. Exploring the sea was an adventure.

I might be biased but the best beaches are in Kenya. And I love reading a book, by the sea—which is also a book people should read haha!

Alice Munyua, 54

She is a woman you could bet your house on. She bamboozles friends and foes with her small stature but God help anyone who thinks they can ignore her.

Her glacial voice and cunny sly modus operandi restore the hierarchy pretty quick.

In this age when C-suites executives are keen not to be on the wrong end of Twitter or social media, she is refreshingly outlandish—not one in the business of preaching to the believers. You soon learn, to be Alice is to be a contronym.

She serves as the Senior Director of the Africa Innovation Mradi at Mozilla, leading the re-entry of Mozilla in Africa through Kenya. She was educated by Jesuits, at the Vatican University, learning with priests.

But it’s a lonely journey, and as a black woman, she tends to find herself as so, a tacit conspiracy between a long voyage to fulfilling her dreams and the horde of voyeurs and fantasists in the dark that is ourselves.

It’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ all over again—wandering through the desert if only to reach the promised land of ICT policy and regulation.

Senior Director, Africa Innovation Mradi at Mozilla & Founder Kenya ICT Action Network, Alice Munyua. PHOTO | NMG

What is travel to you?

When I get on that plane, I let go of everything. It all feels like a spiritual experience. Most of us tend to want control, which is why we have so many problems.

I don’t take it for granted because travelling is a privilege, and I remind myself to just be.

What is your favourite travel destination? Overseas or local?

I always come back to the local. Despite my middle name being Wanjira which means wanderer in Kikuyu, I always come back home. I have travelled to every continent except Antarctica, but only Kenya refuels my soul.

Worst travel experience?

There was an Air France flight going to Buenos Aires and that same flight coming back dropped in the middle of the ocean and has never been found.

I had missed that flight on account of waiting for my bags. I was supposed to be on that flight.

Gifts or experiences?

Both. The kind of work I do is intuitive. Through my experiences, I have learned to trust my gut.

What is the last thing you do before the lights go off?

I love listening to sacred music. I have been listening to Handel’s Messiah every single night especially since I stopped watching cable news which was messing up with my morale and mental health.

What’s the one thing you are saying no to this holiday season?

People-pleasing. It’s the realisation that I am just me and I cannot solve all the world’s problems on my own. Saying no to others means saying yes to yourself.

What do you judge a place by?

The food. I am addicted to smoothies. Fruit smoothies. All the berries and lots of veggies.

I could live on a liquid diet if not having to remind myself to take my carbs and proteins.

Are you a planner or spontaneous?

I am both. Personally, I am spontaneous. At work, I am a planner.

What is the first thing you do in a new place?

Finding the wellness spa and the gym. And of course, a yoga instructor. I have been practicing yoga for 21 years.

What does your Out-of-Office message say?

Thank you for your email. I am on PTO. I will get back to you on the 5th of January when I get back to work.

Favourite childhood holiday memory?

My mother worked for KQ before and if you did very well in school, she’d ask you which part of the world you’d want to go to.

My answer was always Rome, where as fate would have it, I still went back to do my studies. Sometimes they’d be no seats in the plane and I’d have to stand or sit on the floor next to the pilot.

What is the one place you would recommend for anyone to go to?

Kenya. I love Mt Kenya and the coast. Rome is also very interesting. It reminds us that empires collapse too. It’s a sobering cue, that you are not going to be Caesar for long.

When you think of Christmas, which food springs to mind?

Nyama choma and mukimu on one end and pilau and mahamri on the other.

On Christmas day, pews or PJs?

Definitely PJs. That is why I go to Zanzibar. To avoid the over-commercialisation of this holiday. If Jesus came back, he definitely would not be happy. Christmas is a time for simplicity, reflection, and introspection.

Interesting. Who is God to you?

God is me and me. I am who I am. It is more of spirituality than this God who is in heaven that punishes you and rewards you. God is in us.

He exists, just not in the way we have made him be. I blame the Jesuits for this kind of thinking they installed in my operating system.  

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