Profiles

Why retirement is not an option for Bob Karina

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Faida Investment Bank Chairman Bob Karina during the interview at his office in Nairobi County on January 31, 2024. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

Bob Karina is 71 years old but could easily pass for 58. However, you don’t look that much younger for no reason; he has played squash for half his life. [We forgot to inquire about the general state of his knees].

He frequently runs - 10 kilometres, 20 kilometres. He plays golf and swims whenever he can. He dabbled in tennis a bit. He’s tall and athletic, with a head that looks like it caught a light snow shower and a salt-peppered beard that looks itchy.

He hates anything with collars, so he often dresses like Narendra Modi [Indian Prime Minister].

You can’t tell he was a photographer once until you look at his hands, which look like an artist’s fingers. It’s these hands that he used to build Faida Investment bank, which started as a brokerage firm back in yore.

He’s an accomplished stockbroker and research analyst who served as Chairman of Nairobi Securities Exchange, director of Kenya Private Sector Alliance, and Kenya National Chamber of Commerce. Frequently, he hops into a plane and heads west, to Rwanda, where he’s the Chairman of the Rwanda Stock Exchange.

When you first became a grandfather, did you think, Oh my God, I’m a grandfather?

That happened 14 years ago. I must have been 57. My son was studying in London, and he had just married. My wife was there during the delivery, and I joined them later. It was very exciting to see this boy named after me because our culture has a specific naming system.

I have nine grandchildren who are always at my place over the weekend. Together with their six parents, my wife and I, we are a family of 17, which is a special number.

My father had four wives, and we were 17 siblings. I got married on December 17. Rina, my first daughter, was born on February 17. My father passed away on February 17. The brokerage number that we got when we were licensed was B 17. Many things happen on the 17th. So it’s a special number, and I like it.

How was it growing up in a polygamous home with 16 siblings?

Very tough. My dad was not wealthy. He was making do with small-scale farming in Murang’a.

First, food was never enough. I never ate until I was full; that’s how bad it was. But my dad had his special food, which we’d see as it was being taken to him as we were seated. We were just too many mouths. I looked forward to Christmas to eat well.

Secondly, we never slept. We were all squeezed in like two rooms, sleeping on the floor and sacks and sharing the same torn blanket. After Form 4, I lived with my uncle in Kaloleni, where we would sleep nine children in a 10 by 10 room, smaller than my office.

My dad hustled a lot. He started his photographic studio in Murang’a in 1952 after working for an Indian in a studio in Nairobi. I first laid my hand on a camera when I was seven, working in my dad’s studio. He then opened another studio here in Nairobi, but I never stayed there long to avoid my siblings thinking I was benefiting from it. I had to move on to let others come in.

When did things start happening for you?

I came to Nairobi and started working at the Central Bureau of Statistics, where we sat on an open floor that had a gentleman whose desk was facing us. One day, I asked my deskmate how one ends up seated there, and he said one had to study at an institute called the East African Statistical Programme Centre in Tanzania, and if one passed the examination, one would come and be the boss there. So I enrolled with six other Kenyans, passed with distinction, returned, and was promoted three grades up.

I became a statistical assistant and then an officer in charge of Nairobi, Kiambu, and Machakos. Later, I became a field coordinator. The government then sponsored me to study several courses, starting with statistics at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies.

After my statistics studies, I developed an interest in computer work. The government flew me to the US to study computer data systems under the US Bureau of the Census, then to Hong Kong and the University of Singapore to study systems analysis. I was moved from the Ministry of Finance to the Office of the President, where I rose to become the chief systems analyst and head of microcomputers at the Directorate of Personnel Management.

Then, there was a push to increase the number of players in the stock market because, in 1994, there were only six stockbrokers. In 1995, we got a licence to open our brokerage firm, Faida Securities. One of the conditions of running a stock brokerage was that the chief executive had to be there 100 percent. So, I had to resign from the civil service to get into this stock market, which I would say is deep.

Faida Securities became Faida Investment Bank. We also established a stock brokerage in Rwanda and became a director of the Nairobi Securities Exchange and vice chairman of the Rwanda Stock Exchange. In 2020, I became the chairman till date.

How did growing up lacking food affect your relationship with food as an adult?

Good question. The biggest impact is that I became a lover of chapatis because they were so scarce, only for special occasions. Nowadays, when I go to a party, and chapatis are not served, I feel like the hosts were not expecting us to come. Any spread of food should have at least chapati. Another thing it’s done is that I resolved that my children would never be hungry.

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Faida Investment Bank Chairman Bob Karina during the interview at his office in Nairobi County on January 31, 2024. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

Is there anything you find yourself doing now that stems from growing up lacking?

The impact of coming from a background like that is that you want the things you couldn’t have, like clothing. When I came to Nairobi at 19 years old, I was determined not to look like I was from the village. I wanted to look smart, to get clothes that fit me. I made friends with mitumba traders at Burma Market, who would call me first when new stock arrived. When I wore these clothes to the disco, nobody would tell they were mitumba; I stood out. Clothes tend to cover a lot and not just our bodies.

I read somewhere that people who grew up sleeping on mats buy big extravagant beds in adulthood. You can break into someone’s house and, from his bedroom, tell what kind of childhood they had by the size of their bed. How big is your bed?

[Laughs] Is that so? My bed is standard size. Anything beyond 6x6 is a big bed.

Who did you want to become when you were growing up in Murang'a?

I wanted to be a mechanic because my uncle was a mechanic. I used to be fascinated by how he would pull apart an engine into pieces and then put it back together, and the car returned to the road. I became a statistician by pure luck.

You have had a very gradual ascent in life, achieving a lot. What’s the one thing you feel like has eluded you?

Many of my good friends have made a lot of money in property development. I tried it, but it never happened because I didn’t put enough effort into it as they did. It’s foolhardy to expect things to happen if you don’t put effort into them. So, yes, real estate was something that I missed.

Do you ever feel any regret that you never gave photography a chance?

Yes, I do because it was something my father believed in, and it’s what paid our school fees. I used to run the studio in Nairobi. Before going to the civil service work, I would go to the studio to ensure everything was running well. I would also pass by after work. I was pretty good at photography, but when some of my siblings saw me buying a car and thought maybe I was getting money from the studio, I pulled out and left it for them.

How old are you now?

I'll be 72 in June.

Why do you still come to work early at 71? Why do you still come to work at all?

I am 71, but I don’t feel old. Some of my friends have retired, but I still don’t understand that life. I have never thought about not coming to work. I’m not the kind to do nothing, even on a Saturday or Sunday when my wife tells me no, why don’t we just stay home? I’d rather pick her up and go for a ride to a mall or visit someone.

You cannot find me somewhere on my own, just seated. I would get sick. I don’t have a reporting time. I come here [office] early in the morning because I waste a lot of time on the road if I leave home late. I’d rather come early and leave by 2pm, which I usually do. And I’m a very impatient driver. Sometimes, I’m one of those people caught by traffic police overlapping. After work, I go to the golf club or the gym, but I can’t stay at home. Maybe if I was sick. God has been good to me, probably because of keeping fit. I rarely get colds or anything serious.

How’s your fitness regime been like?

I have played many games. I even played championship squash. I’ve got trophies in the house. I played squash for 35 years. I was the captain of the Parkland Sports Club squash team. I tried a bit of tennis but then found the timing was so limited because, after work, you only have five to 6:30pm. With squash, you can play even at midnight. I’ve run for many years. I can do 20km easy. I do 10km in an hour and 10 minutes now. I used to do it in under an hour. I do weights and the bicycle. God has been good.

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