Want to make it in business? Gospel according to 83-year-old investor

Kapurchand Depal Shah

Mr Shah: “ They said I was killing African business, which was not true.” /Joseph Kanyi

At 83, Kapurchand Depal Shah is one of the oldest businessmen in Nyeri Town. For the last 59 years he has scoured the town and its environs following his dream. He still reports to work at 8 am, at his office in New Highlands Stores, and works up to 5pm.

And while a good number of business people in Nyeri describe the town as “sleepy” in terms of business, this veteran says it is “heaven.”

“It is the best place climatically and also in business,” says the tyres and maize flour trader. Yet it has not been an easy ride to the top for the Asian entrepreneur who locals call “Kabuuro”.

The journey to this town, on the slopes of Mt Kenya, started in 1940 when Depal first landed in Mombasa from the town of Jamnagar, Gujarat to join his grandfather Sojpar Shah who ran a groceries shop in the coastal town. Depal was 15-years-old then.

Three years later, young Depal travelled to Nyeri, to join a small band of Asian friends who had set up small groceries and cloth shops in the then colonial town.

“It was the Second World War then, and there was a growing settler community in the town, especially because of Kiganjo police camp,” he recalls.

The camp played a major role in the British East Africa war campaigns, besides offering a perfect business opportunity for the young— and old entrepreneurs.

“We used to supply police uniforms to the camp, as well as school uniforms for the children,” he says.

Six years later, in 1952, Depal Shah ventured into a business of his own—a small wines and spirits shop. Then the settler community had grown considerably, and the wines and spirits shop expanded beyond his wildest dreams.

Nyeri was part of the Happy Valley, where rich revellers would stop over on the way north or towards Mt Kenya.

“It was one the biggest wines and groceries shop in the region those days,” he recalls with nostalgia.

But this was cut short by the Mau Mau war from 1952 when a state of emergency was declared.

As the movement of people and goods was limited the then middle-aged Depal saw this as yet another business opportunity. He used his network of friends to supply foodstuffs to African traders. It was around this time that Depal bought his first car— a Peugeot 504 for Sh6,000.

From then on, he changed tactics depending on the political environment and survived the tumbles that came after independence.

By 1972, Depal was into the clothes business, a business he ran until 1975 when he decided to venture into manufacturing industry.

He is today credited for setting up an edible oils industry in Nyeri—Abardares Oil Millers Ltd— the company that used to manufacture Crispo Corn oil, and Swara bar soap.

Today, Depal is into tyre and flour milling business. He owns prime property in the town, whose value runs into millions of shillings.

Yet the going has not been smooth all the way for this elderly Asian. 

In 1972, for example, his trade license was abruptly cancelled, in what the old man still feels was a plot by his competitors to ruin him.

“They said I was killing African business, which was not true, I actually helped so many of my African friends set up their own businesses.” It took the intervention of Simon Nyachae, then Central provincial commissioner, to get his license back.

In 1998, thugs broke into the family home. One of his night watchmen was shot and injured in the attack, but the Asian trader escaped unscathed.

Three years ago, his wife, Kasturben Shah, passed on.  Her death cost the old man a close friend and business partner.

But Depal says all these tribulations have left him unbowed. And although his eye sight is failing— despite wearing glasses, he carries around a magnifying glass to help him scrutinise business records.

“I am still strong.”

So what is his secret, how has he survived in business for more than half a decade without quitting?

“Honesty,” he says, “ if you practice honesty in business you can never go wrong,” he says.

After truth, there is family. Mr Depal beams with pride as he speaks of his family. His wife, Mrs Kasturben, and three sons—Kilit, Ramesh and Lalit, he says, have stood by him all along.

Of the three sons, only the second born, Ramesh Shahhas stayed home to help run the family business.

The first born, Kilit Shah is a chartered accountant practising in Nairobi, while the third born, Lalit Shah is in a pharmacist in London.

A couple of his grandchildren are into banking and accounting business; two are opticians, and one is an actuarial scientist.

“I am very proud of them, they have got the best education I could give them.”