Weekend with the CEO

Michael Okwiri: Senior bachelor with bad boy persona


Michael Okwiri, Nairobi-based businessman and former Airtel Africa Vice President for Corporate Communications and CSR. FILE PHOTO | POOL

The problem with telling people what to do is that more oft than not, they will pay no heed.

Denial, in truth, is the source of all evil. Ergo I won't tell you what to do, I will tell you what not to do.

Don't Google Michael Okwiri. You will find a fountain of fodder here, and a splash of gossip there. Okwiri, in person, is more of a dripping spigot: a drop will come your way in the end, if you listen patiently.

For instance, he is not a morning person. He works for only three hours a day. At 59, he is a silver fox, looking like a right swipe on Tinder with the airs and graces of a bad body who could seduce a bird out of the trees.

Is he a bad boy? Maybe, maybe not, but he has beautiful manners, the chef's kiss to his Museumesque house in upmarket Westlands, where he peels back the years and confesses that he spends a fortune to live well, an art collector par excellence, with a keenly appreciative eye for pretty things, who makes me feel like a paparazzi prying into private life.

Because you didn't listen, and because human beings are painfully predictable, what you'll also find when you Google Okwiri is that he has been around the (office) block a lot.

Starting his rodeo as a marketing analyst at Marshalls East Africa before joining Coca-Cola where he was head-hunted to quench the thirst of Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) as the head of marketing.

Kenya Airways soon followed before Airtel came calling where until recently, he served as vice president of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility.

Beyond the mementoes and memories, the joie de vivre and mischievous twinkle lies a man acutely aware of his mortality, he talks like he could just have walked out of a Franz Kafka novel.

His inquiries linger in the air, like warm mist after a rainy August afternoon. Sitting, then standing about five times—or was it six? — he lays it all on the line, some on the record, others off the record (you should have been there); his willingness to be embarrassing and abrasive edging into a kind of vulnerability.

This is the heart of his appeal. Some might call him a gentleman of leisure others a secular saint, but what he is, is a storyteller. Ah yes, I remember. It was six. He stood up six times.

Are you a bad boy?

Haha! It is a very difficult question to answer seeing that I am a single guy. How do I carefully answer it? I'll say yes! Haha! Okay, yes and no.

If you Google me I come across as a very bad boy, but the image has evolved. It's not a conscious bad-boy vendetta but if you looked at me from the outside in, then yes I would be one.

Is that your only defence in public opinion court?

I have a couple of very bad friends who are senior people. Unlike me, they are married and can't afford this kind of publicity. I feel sorry for them haha! It's not that they are not doing stuff, but we have omerta here haha!

The dating scene is a madhouse. How do you remain sane as a senior bachelor?

My physical routine. I make sure I go to the gym, and I have a personal trainer who charges me for being late. Every weekday, for the last four years I am at the gym at 5 pm—I am no morning guy.

Weirdly, I am getting a lot more done now in three hours a day than ever before in my life. There are people I know who have accumulated money over time and don't have the traditional 9 to 5.

Someone would call you for a lunch meeting which deteriorates into other things! And this is every day. I can't drink every day—so any meeting I have has to be after my gym session.


Michael Okwiri, Nairobi-based businessman and former Airtel Africa Vice President for Corporate Communications and CSR. FILE PHOTO | POOL

Oh, and I recently bought a bicycle, and I'd cycle to The Oval with it, although it was quite dangerous with how reckless driving is in Kenya.

But now I can't because the bike is stuck at a former flame's house haha! I am trying to eat better, live better, and drink less.

Since retirement, I travel a lot too. Recently I was in Namibia—and before that Europe where I was on a cruise ship eating badly because I was experimenting.

At my age, it's a bit of a conundrum—you could have money but you look bad.

Some would say when you have money the looks don't matter

I've heard that but that always comes from the guy who has no money haha!

Ouch! Offence aside, why a cruise ship?

I kept moving till three months back when I went for a medical check-up with some highly specialized doctors.

It does help to have this kind of physical checks—it was recommended to me. My doctor told me 'if you stop drinking for 21 days the liver will regenerate itself."

I went 21 days, then 30, then three months without a bottle which is when I realised my social life in Nairobi revolves around clubbing.

It's either that or biashara (business) or you are at home. But for three months I was a totally good boy. Haha!

What's your favourite travel destination?

Italy. The people, the food—especially the food. My perception of pizza was the bigger the crust and the more toppings the better, but I was disabused from that fact.

When I got to Rome, they brought such a thin slice and a smattering of toppings—and that was a slice of paradise. Have I mentioned the culture and architecture? Molto bene!

Then you retired and went into business?

No, I took a year off and then went into business.

How much do you need to be happy?

You'll never be totally happy. Or let's put it this way: I can live the way I live for 10 years without doing anything. But I am still scared.

I get up in the morning because it's no longer about money. You can only buy so many cars, and wear designer clothes up to a certain point, it's a finite index—but then you get an extended family who needs support, friends et al.

Half of my relatives don't work…or choose not to work. But in essence, you can help and that's what matters.

What's the dumbest thing you've bought?

The Maybach. It's not practical. I basically only use it to show off, when going to a wedding, or when people borrow it.

It's good to have and not use it than to want to use it and not have it…I agree. But I went on a spree, I bought this, then I bought a Porsche, I bought another Mercedes and a VW and three bikes.

Now, the Triumph Rocket III has fluttered its eyelashes and caught my eye. It has the looks, a 1800CC engine, and my heart. That's my next dumb decision.

What's the soundtrack of 59?

I have never thought about it.

Do you go to the village often?

Not really…my father passed away 10 years ago. I only go on occasion, but not as regularly as I'd like to.

Are you smart or lucky?

Lucky. Some things just happen. People talk about hard work, there are lots of people who work very hard but you do have to have a bit of luck, like being at the right place at the right time or saying the right thing to the right person.

What do you think is your superpower?

My eye for art and design. It has helped me at home and work. Everyone wants their space to look good. I used to read voraciously on art scapes and architecture—I have hordes of magazines in the toilet.

But now the phone has taken over, a necessary evil. But I curated my house myself.

Does that explain the audiophile vibes?

Yes, I evolved into one. My ultimate stereo system was Bose. You hear sound but you don't see the speakers. I think it was my fourth boss who egged me on and introduced me to the Klipsch.

At the end of the day the sound matters. The quality of the sound and the size of the speakers are mutually exclusive. I said okay. He told me the price I said okay.

And I have never looked back. That said if kids come to my house and start poking it, it's adios for me.

Do you have any children?

Not that I know of. Unfortunately.

Never wanted or never had the time?

I was married, but we never got any. After that, I just never had the time. Now I am wondering if it is too late.

If I get a kid now, it's fine, but by the time they turn 20 years old, I am a daunting 80-year-old man. What value are we adding to each other haha!

Do you have a secret talent nobody knows?

I have a private pilot's (PPL) licence. I got it when I was 18. When you have a PPL, you are not allowed to fly commercially.

For you to make money you need to have a commercial licence. My parents wanted a 'normal' degree. A pilot was not a big deal.

It would have meant not going to university so I could specialise in it. That's one of the two worst decisions I ever made.

What's the other one?

I was working at KCB as the head of marketing and we were going through the process of turning KCB around with a guy called Gareth George, who had been poached from Barclays where he was CEO.

I was head-hunted from Coca-Cola where I was working at the Africa office. Look, most of my life I had never worn a suit, so I had to buy a suit to meet this guy. Expansive office.

We talked and he told me what he was looking for. I told him I am no banker. He said 'I know. I have 5,000 bankers. That's not the problem.' Haha! He wanted to change the culture.

He tells me to see him after a few months. Damn, I had to buy another suit! I went, and guess what he told me to see him after another six months, my offer would be ready then.

I went on that day, I did not call, and showed up, cold turkey—new suit. Third suit. He gave me an envelope and I looked at the figures. It was three times more than what I was getting at Coke.

And what I was getting was not bad—I was the Africa head of allied brands. At that time, I was married and he told me to go and discuss it with my spouse. In my mind, I was like, "Why?" I never told her haha!

Over the weekend I thought if they could give me that much, they could give me more. So, I asked for more. 20 percent more.

The HR guy just laughed because even the current offer delayed because they had to get approval. But that's when my life turned around. We rebranded from Kenya Commercial Bank to KCB.

Here's the dumb decision: KCB then used to own lots of houses, which were not giving us revenue. We decided to sell them. Staff were to get priority. I am staff, right? Right.

I went straight to the houses on the beach. I saw one. Diani. Beach house. Sh3 million and the bank was giving you a loan to get it.

What's the catch? It took me a month to decide, but by the time I was handing in my proposal, the house was gone. The previous day.

Since then, I have watched it appreciate from Sh3 million to Sh60 million. I still cry. That was a bad decision.

What's on your bucket list?

South America. That's the only continent I have not done. That and to go to the north pole. I want to see the northern lights. But my surprise location is Vietnam.

When my travel agent suggested it, I was like 'Who goes to Vietnam?' My then Lesotho girlfriend—a great lady—convinced me: you get five-star hotels for less?

In the middle of the waters? Sign me up! Plus, it's always nice to go with someone who likes the place and is interested in the culture.


Michael Okwiri, Nairobi-based businessman and former Airtel Africa Vice President for Corporate Communications and CSR. FILE PHOTO | POOL

What's the craziest thing you've done?

You can't publish the craziest thing haha! But I can hand you some stuff which sounds okay, something publishable haha! Let's go with buying four cars like Steve Okeyo.

Is there a special treat that you do just for yourself?

My living space. And the electronics. It's a minor treat to a large degree but I am a sucker for electronics.

If any new phone or TV comes out, I am there. No wait. It's cooking. Cooking is my thing.

What's your signature meal?

Salmon. I'd buy the whole fillet, cut it into bits and when I feel a little puckish, I'd butter the grill, and voila!

I've bought all sorts of electronics just for cooking. Come let me show you. (Shows me all manner of kitchen electronics).

Did you grow up seeing your dad in the kitchen?

Never. How it started is…I had an Italian girlfriend. Daniella. Beautiful Daniella. Daniella was an amazing cook. She was so serious about it she wouldn't talk when cooking.

There was a time I'd take shortcuts in cooking and she'd go off the rails. I started to walk in and watch, and she'd do the more traditional way of cooking which is kazi mingi (a lot of work).

I decided to go the electronics way. Recently I picked up the French art of cooking, sous vide where you wrap the food in an air-tight bag that comes with the equipment.

The food heats up within its juices, and it comes out of the bag cooked straight through. If you eat that kind of steak you never go back.

When you think of the weekend what food comes to mind?

Steak. In every form. But the doctor has spoilt the party warning me to reduce my intake. But my favourite meal is ugali because I rarely get the chance to eat it. Ugali and eggs…with some dark green veggies, for the culture.

Ugali and eggs are the quintessential bachelor meal. Are you a happy man?

I'll say I have a lucky life and I am grateful for it. When I get up in the morning, I think whoop! What's going to happen today? I am not comfortable—I need to make more money, do more things.

But not work too hard and focus on me right now. Honestly, I got like 10 healthy years to go. It's subconscious.

Memento mori. I got to make the most of those years, somehow. Because when you go, you stay gone.

I think you are more honest about your relationships, especially if you don't need somebody to look after you, it causes me moments of anxiety.

Do you ever feel the pressure that you need somebody?

It's always at the back of my mind. Because everybody needs somebody—especially someone who shares your aspirations.

I do get the sense but it is what it is—and a lot of the females in Nairobi are quite materialistic.

It's not entirely a bad thing but I'd rather live with somebody who has bigger aspirations, we can work together to build that cash.

Have you found that person yet?

Obviously not hahaha! Sitting here and watching TV. But I have a potential candidate, let's see how it goes.

If you are the giver, what do you take?

Yes, I am a giver, but when it comes to taking, maybe time because I have been financially fortunate. I take time.

What did you know then that has helped you now?

Connections. Make friends because your luck revolves around who you know. And the right friends too.

Cultivate your circle of associates and friends and respect them—and whenever opportunities come up, they will drift toward you.

What's the best piece of advice you have received?

Go see Gareth George. Because of what happened at KCB—and because of what I was doing at Coke, I was rather insulated in a bubble—I learned a lot.

He gave me access to the financial world. He asked me a question that changed my thinking—he wanted to rebrand KCB and I said I can come up with a few posters and logos— 'What is branding?' Branding, he said, and rebranding is changing the way people think about an organisation in totality. It's not about the logo.

What do people think? You can paint something and people still think the same.

So you change everything—from the people to the culture, to the logos—when people interact with an organization they walk away with a certain feeling, a word, whether it is 'efficiency' or 'helpful' et al.

Who do you know that I should know?

There are two types of people: those that want to be known; and those that are very exciting and don't want to be known.

The guy I know is my business partner—Nelson—but he is not interviewable. He has made a lot of money but he is quite eclectic.

You'd tell him let's meet across the road, he'd agree and half an hour later you call him, and he'll tell you he is in Mombasa. "Nelson how did you get to Mombasa haha!" He is eclectic, but in that eclecticism, he is a genius.

His mind works differently. There are days he'd be off-grid in a pub and then bang! Back to work.

Any regrets?

I could have managed some family relations better than I did. I wish I could have fostered some family relationships a lot better.

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