Rajiv Raja finds success struggle-free


Bila Shaka Brewery Founder Rajiv Raja during an interview at Sarit Centre in Nairobi on March 20, 2024. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

A teenage zebra once took a bite of Rajiv Raja’s right calf. This is not odd at all. It’s typically something that would happen to Rajiv. He’s the kind of fellow with a One-Match rule; when starting a campfire, you only have one strike of a match. You waste that match, you spend the night camping in the cold. No fire for you. 

He’s the type that touches trees to feel their energy. He swims in open oceans at midnight. He knows hundreds of birds by their sounds and even more by their sights. He will never resist touching the heads of animals; goats, cows, dogs, sheep, ostriches, camels, and geese. It’s a communion of sorts. He worries about trees, donkeys, and nature. His spirituality is based on a tenet of never harming any living thing. He picked that from his mother. “My parents are the most gentle of people.” 

Talking of parents, his father owned Equator Bottlers Ltd, the bottlers and distributors of Coca-Cola, before selling it off after 40 or so years. Down at Kedong Valley, along the edge of the Great Rift Valley, he runs Bila Shaka Craft Brewery that produces Bila Shaka craft beers using biofuel. He’s its founder and CEO. He also runs Mayers Natural Spring water. “We farm water, young water,” he says under his dark, boyish curly hair, “we don’t pump it; we allow it to come out naturally, like nature intended.” When Rajiv Raja talks about harvesting water, you will want a cold beer. 

What have you learned from your old man?

Humility. He is the most unassuming man. He believes in the value of working with one’s hands. When I was growing up, he would fix machines in the plant when they broke down. He’s very practical and pragmatic and never does anything for the show. He’s also very introverted and likes his corner. 

What did you want for yourself when you were young?

I can’t think of anything specific, but I remember being very good at mathematics. Maths is my passion. Even now, I’ll mess around with statistics. If one of my cousins has a statistics question on a level that he can’t figure out and he sends it over, I won’t sleep until I crack it. It doesn’t matter that I’ve got to work the next day; I’ll be there until three in the morning. And if I get the answer wrong, I’ll be very restless. 

Unsurprisingly, I ended up studying mechanical and aeronautical engineering. When you understand chemistry and physics, you understand the elements. So, when you talk about aeronautics, you’re talking about fluid dynamics, how water moves, how air moves around an object, and how to generate energy from a moving turbine.

[Pauses] Right. I think what has always defined me is the love of nature. If I walk somewhere and see a tree, I will not resist the urge to touch it. I touch every animal I run into, you know, touch its head.

Where did that come from? Did you grow up with trees and animals? 

My mom. Both my parents are very gentle people. Growing up, they always believed in nonviolence against all creatures. My mom, though, takes it to the next extreme. Nonviolence for her is not abusing anyone verbally or having bad thoughts about them. I appreciate this version of gentleness in life. She is the type to blow away an insect [instead of squashing it]. 

Did you grow up with pets?

I didn’t have pets, but I have a lot of pets now. We’ve got five dogs on the farm and nearly 50 donkeys rescued by the Kenya Society for the Protection & Care of Animals. We offered to take them in and care for them when locals in Naivasha were slaughtering them. When they are rescued they are mostly damaged and injured and we try to rehabilitate them and give them a safe place. 

What has nature taught you about yourself?

[Pause] Man, this is a deep question. I thought you were going to ask me about beer and water. [Pause] I only believe in the elements of nature. Humanity can make up its rules and regulations, but ultimately, we are reduced to the fundamental nature of earth, wind, and fire. That’s what we’re created from. You can be religious or liberated, but ultimately you return to nature.

That’s why I’m attracted to the forest and the water that comes from the ground and into this pond, 60 metres of fresh water and swimming in that pond at midnight, and you can hear the hyenas in the background, which is pretty mesmerising. You can’t blame nature for anything, can you? It’s there. It doesn’t care about you. You’re at his mercy. It doesn’t owe anything to you.

Is your personality closer to fire or water? 

I’m fire, that’s why I love water. I can go swimming in the sea at night, right towards the reef, until fear sets in. If I find fresh water, however cold, I’ll swim in it. I think it’s because I have a fiery personality that needs to be calmed and tamed by water. Deep down, I think I’m a pyromaniac; give me a chance to start a fire and sit by it. I’ll start a fire.

You must camp a lot.

Yeah, a lot. Once every two months, I go with my wife and son to Tsavo East or the Aberdares. I like to sit by the fire. Generally, I have a one-matchstick rule while camping: You have to start a fire with one matchstick. If you don’t, then you just have to sit there and pay the price. However, now I can’t stick to the rule because my son is with us.[Chuckles] He’s only four years old. 

What do you want your son to learn when you take him for camping?

To respect and love nature. Whether he’ll be good at maths or music, I don’t mind; this is secondary to me. Fundamentally, I think it’s just a love of nature, to go anywhere in the world and just sit by a tree, find a park and find peace there and - [turns to look - lovingly - at a noisy bird that’s suddenly perched on the next table]... that’s a Bulbul, they like to chant like that in the morning. 

When we travel with my son and wife, and we happen on, say, a Rosy-throated Longclaw, I’m happy when my son says, pointing, ‘Papa. rosy- throated..” He picks this from us. I hope he learns about fear. When we camp near a river in the Tsavo and hippos come grazing near our tent, and he’s scared, I tell him that being brave is not the absence of fear, that it’s okay to be scared, and that I’m afraid too. But that bravery is overcoming fear. I hope he remembers that one day when he is under attack by life’s forces.


Bila Shaka Brewery Founder Rajiv Raja during an interview at Sarit Centre in Nairobi on March 20, 2024. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

You mentioned at the beginning something about when you see a tree, you just touch it. What’s that about?

I always feel like a tree is an old friend you can no longer communicate with. I grew up in North London until I left in 2002. Twenty years ago, there was a massive storm that knocked down this huge oak that, even when I was there, was still disintegrating on its bark. Whenever I go back with my son, we touch it. People have scratched all manner of writings on it now - I was here, remember me -but when I stand there and touch it, I still feel like we have a connection. Maybe it’s still alive, maybe it’s dead, and most likely, it doesn’t have any idea who I am, but I think it’s a connection to the past. 

Rather than promises of the afterlife, I believe I’ll return to nature. At the end of the day, you’ll become part of earth, fire, and water again. So, in a way, it’s almost just like a connection to that. [Sighs, sips coffee] This interview has turned into a philosophy discussion, exactly what I didn’t imagine it would be. 

Life is about truth and meaning, isn’t it? What are you most afraid of now?

Being a father blew everything in the wind. Anything that I was fearful of before failed in comparison to anything harming or coming in the way of our four-year-old, innocent, and almost defenceless being. Every parent throughout history, including nonhumans, has that fear. 

Has that changed the person you are significantly? 

Yeah, you start thinking of sacrifice. It’s always been about me, me, me, but now there is a child who didn’t ask to be born, and I am fully responsible for him. That has a significant impact on how I navigate life. 

What’s your struggle now as a 45-year-old middle-aged man? 

Apart from my back pain? I tend to pick random fights that I really shouldn’t be worrying about; a neighbour’s quarry that’s affecting the environment down at the farm. How do I replant this acacia tree without killing it? My farm workers think I’m crazy. They often say, ‘We have all these thousands and thousands of trees, why are you going nuts over this one tree? Cut it down and plant another one,' they are quick to urge me. But I don’t want to cut a tree and disrupt its life. 

I also worry about yeast and fermentation…[Pause] Look, I could talk about things that revolve around nature, but I will sound like a broken record or a crazed preacher if I haven’t already. I realise that compared to many people, I don’t have struggles apart from my back pain. 

Many people have started businesses with nothing and created something. I didn’t. I grew up fortunate. I’m not self-made; I’m made by my parents. I was lucky enough to be born with that. I have great respect for people who built themselves from nothing. Those people can talk of struggles, but I shouldn’t. My struggles are self-inflicted and those don’t count. 

What do you find to be holding you back at this point? 

You should have asked me 20 years ago, now nothing. I don’t have a course that I’m following. I’m doing stuff. I started a brewery in Mai Mahiu three years ago. I never expected to have this restaurant [at Sarit Centre’s rooftop]. We bottle natural, young spring water. I don’t think anything’s holding me back because I don’t have a destination, which is actually most probably more frustrating because people who have a singular target have something to drive for, not me. 

You must be a vegetarian… 

Yes, I am. I grew up veggie and it wasn’t a religious thing. It was my mom’s thing to not harm living things. She never told me not to eat meat and then I rebelled later. I have friends who grew up like that but later rebelled because they were told that meat is bad.

Like I said, I’m not a preacher but if I find a cow, I will touch its head. If I find any animal; a goat, or sheep, I will touch its head. Once, during one of our trips out in game parks with my wife and son, I tried to save a teenage zebra that was trapped in barbed wire and he bit me on my calf, and tried to rip my leg off. I managed to save him but he ripped my jeans all the way to my boxers. That day, for some reason, I was wearing orange boxer shorts with little rabbits on them. 

The last question, I’m afraid, might be a bit philosophical. What’s the value of a man? 

A man, as in masculine male or?

Yes, a man like you, me, a man. Male. 

I don’t think there is any value to a man. Value for a man is a self-inflicted value. You grow up with an ego and you use that to create value. But really, if you ask the fundamental value of a man, is it to take care of your offspring, which is also self-inflicted? Most of these values we go seeking them. Society in itself is full of ideals and values that are also created by itself. 

These are all difficult questions and ideas and I’m sorry I’ve gone on and on with some and bored you but I honestly thought you would ask me about the technical sides of enzymes and brewing. [Pause] Value of man…can I just say that If pushed for an answer the value of a man is the ability to make another person laugh? To bring laughter to a child or a full-grown man without regrets is a unique value. You can’t go to school to learn to be funny and if you do, you were never funny in the first place. That’s value. Money doesn’t bring a smile to somebody’s face, at least not a pure smile. A good joke, though…

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