Profiles

Daniel Ngumy's touch from God's hand

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ALN Kenya managing Partner Daniel Ngumy during the interview at his office in Nairobi on November 29, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

He may be intimidating at first instance with his looming frame, but he is gentle, with a baby face. A well-regarded lawyer, Daniel Ngumy, is a managing partner at Anjarwalla & Khanna Kenya (ALN), a leading corporate law firm in Kenya. He heads the tax practice. He made his bones working as a tax consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG Channel Islands, Guernsey office, and was also seconded to Stephenson Harwood LLP, London, and Pump Court Tax Chambers for four months in 2012.

How he got to run the tax practice is a corporate story of myth—after he was finished with his postgraduate certificate in tax law and a Master's of law degree from the University of London and did his consulting work, he one day picked up the phone and called ALN and said, “you guys need a tax practice and I can run it.” He was only 29. They said, “Er, you are young and we like your enthusiasm, why don’t you come in and have a conversation?” So he got in as a senior associate in 2009 then he worked his way up, bruising his hands and heart. In 2013, he was made a partner and revisited the initial conversation in 2014. Their tax practice was born. “No other firm had a tax practice when we started,” he says.

You could have been anything, why a lawyer?

Initially, I thought my career was going to be music. In high school, I was involved in choir. By my Form 3, I was pretty good. One time we went to the Kenya National Music Festival and the organisers didn’t have a piano accompanist. They’d heard me play the piano, the officials came and said, 'Listen we are looking for an accompanist but we know you are still in high school, so if we talk to your teacher will you sit here the whole day and accompany songs for us?' I said yes. I played through the whole festival.

During the nationals, we came to Nairobi and they gave me a job as an official of the Kenya National Music Festival as a piano accompanist. I was a 17-year-old in high school, don’t forget. I thought I would have a serious career in music. After high school, I spent six months practising for piano exams, seven hours every day. And then I made one fundamental mistake—you couldn’t photocopy the scores for the exams I was sitting for and I failed by one mark because of that. The examiner was British. That setback made me wonder if I wanted to pursue music.

I then enrolled to do CPAs [certified public accountant exams] as I took a break, licking my wounds and that’s how I discovered a unit called law and accounting, which led me to tax law. A fairly new path not many were taking in those days.

Music was so fundamental in your life, did it die? Does passion and talent like that just die in us when we stop giving them attention?

No! In high school, we recorded songs, we were part of a group called 712. More recently, we found ourselves with the people that we used to sing with in high school. So we have a WhatsApp group called Bush Mixed Choir. And those guys have been practising and singing, I’m yet to join them.

Music is very much a part of me. Together with some friends, we have invested in a studio. My music has been mostly in church settings, less professionally. But you’ll be surprised that there’s a whole area of gospel music that doesn’t necessarily hit the national airwaves, which people do recordings of and they need professional producers. I’m also training my children, with no piano teacher. My first two, the twins, will be sitting their piano exams this December. I’ve been tutoring them for the last four years.

Why gospel?

Faith and Christianity are a very core part of my life. After high school —I went to Alliance—I spent a lot of my time with the youth in church.

We sang, we messed around with the music. I believe strongly that my faith has contributed significantly to who I am today, to my moral compass, to the way I think, and to the things that I consider to be important to me. And, therefore, I don’t necessarily package myself as your conventional Christian or your conservative Christian where I only do gospel music or only listen to that, but it’s such a core part of my upbringing. The 712 group I told you about was a gospel music group.

What sort of parents were your parents growing up?

I grew up in Banana. First, my grandparents were very serious stewards of the church. They helped found the Anglican church in Banana. It’s called ACK Karori.

My dad grew up in that church, and I grew up in that church. A lot of my youth was spent in that church. So it played a very formative role in terms of who I became. My folks were teachers—mom taught at Karori High School in Banana for more than 25 years. My dad worked for the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. He was also a writer, he’s written a couple of books. They allowed us to become whatever we wanted to become. I think that’s been very helpful.

I taught myself to play the piano. Fine, at Alliance High School we got some formal training but the motivation was entirely self-driven. I’d say the same thing even for my career in terms of finding space. Very much an issue of self-drive. When doing my Master’s degree, I pushed myself to pay for myself. I was only 27. I didn’t get any contribution from my family. I didn’t grow up in a privileged background. It was all basically about self-motivation.

Back to faith and church. I don’t want to use the word miracle but has God ever shown you his hand, something extraordinary that happened that made you think, Oh, that’s God making a move?

Making a co-managing partner with Rosa (Nduati-Mutero) is God’s hand. [Pause] One of God’s hands is my last-born son Jonathan. I have four children, the twins are my first, a boy and a girl. Then a seven-year-old and lastly Jonathan who is two. When my wife was 19 weeks pregnant,  the baby started coming out and the doctor did something against the grain, he pushed the baby back using his fingers. He told us, listen, frankly, the moment you touch the amniotic sac, the likelihood of the amniotic sac breaking is very high and if it breaks now at 19 weeks, chances are that the baby will not live. But you know, you chill, we’ll see how it goes. After a day the water broke and we were told, look you will lose the baby because there’s no fluid anymore in the body. There is a five percent chance of the baby living when you lose the fluid and every week that passes the chances of the baby dying halves. This condition is called PPROM, pre-term premature rupture of the membranes. We went through many hospital admissions, blood tests weekly as we waited for the baby to be born prematurely at least. Jonathan spent 10 weeks in his mother’s womb with no fluid at all, facing a 0.0 chance of survival. He was finally born at 29 weeks, spent a month in ICU, and another one and a half weeks in NICU before we brought him home. We were told he might not be mature enough, that he might be beyond the scale of autism because of the jarring of the brain in the womb without fluid. None of this happened. He’s a healthy, normal boy. Is this a miracle?

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ALN Kenya managing Partner Daniel Ngumy during the interview at his office in Nairobi on November 29, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

What kind of boy is he?

He’s an interesting boy. At one and a half he plays football. Very joyful child. I think he’s probably going to do interesting things.

Which bit of fatherhood do you find challenging?

Availability and time. I think it requires a lot of being deliberate. When I grew up, our parents, our fathers, it may have been the same for you, prioritized provision over time. I intentionally spend time with my children, to listen to them and hear them. I take my son to football, which he loves. I teach them piano. I’m happy to give the firm all my Mondays to Saturdays but my Sundays are sacred because I will blink and the children will be 18 and then they are gone.

What are you most fearful about at 43?

I didn’t grow up with a grandfather. My dad lost his father at two. He was two years old. My children are lucky because my dad is alive, right? But I always think that it’s a tragedy losing a parent at a young age. I worry about my children growing up without me should I pass on and it’s driven a lot of decisions I’ve made in my life. I took out my first mortgage at 29 because I wanted to make sure that I had provided a house. A house will be half their problem should anything happen to me. I’m not afraid of death, but dying prematurely because of the impact it would have on the family.

This is a very abstract question, I don't know how you’re going to answer it. But if you were to apologise to yourself, what would you apologise for?

(Chuckles) I would apologise for taking too many things too seriously. I feel like I’ve been rushing from one place to another. I also look back and I think; it would not have been the end of the world if I had further explored the music side of life. Maybe one year, two years down the road, I’d have decided maybe this is not the thing, who knows?

I suppose one other thing that I could have done better is I would have created more time to see places, to go places. I love driving, and road trips. I should have done more of that. I think maybe that’s the apology I owe myself.

Is it too late to do all these things?

I don’t know. I would have loved to drive to Cape Town, which takes one and a half months. I don’t know where that time will come from. I’m also unlearning certain things that hold me down. I had thought of myself as a leader, someone strong and with answers. I’m learning to think that I don't have to know or have an answer. I'm unlearning thinking about the here and the now today and thinking more about the big picture. Legacy.

How can I contribute to this country? I’m leading the government’s e-mobility task force on the development of the National Electric Mobility Policy, Strategy, and Legislations and Regulations. This is an idea I had pitched to the Cabinet Secretary of Transport and it’s something I’m passionate about. Legacy is not that you're the best tax lawyer in the world, for me legacy will be that we helped Kenya be on the right track for climate change, the right side of history if we get this e-mobility thing right.

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