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Profiles

From Tatters to Porsche

Philips East Africa general manager, personal health. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Philips East Africa general manager, personal health. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Danish Oyugi’s childhood was crowded; 17 siblings, two mothers and a policeman father. It wasn’t easy in the grass-thatched hamlets of South Nyanza. Actually, it was very hard.

He went about without shoes for long, just enough clothing to cover the essentials and meagre food. Education was the only way out and so he studied hard— Maranda High School (which he passed with what they called back then “flying colours”) and later a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and Economics at University of Nairobi.

Then the steady climb began starting from Reckitt Benckiser (area sales manager), Unilever (key account manager), Nokia (sales manager), BlackBerry (regional sales manager), Samsung Electronics (country manager), Lenovo (country manager) and now, Philips East Africa (general manager, personal health).

He’s 40-years-old and he’s grateful, lucky, validated and mostly, retrospective.

He met JACKSON BIKO at Nairobi Serena Hotel for tea on a rainy morning.

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Jackson is a very common name, but you don’t meet a Danish all the time unless it’s Danish pastry.

(Chuckles) Actually my name was Denis but when I was registering for KCPE exams, the spelling got mixed up and I just took the name Danish from there. I haven’t come across many Danishes.

How was growing up?

It was village life; walking barefoot, looking after animals. Very humble background. The only person that I looked up to was my elder sister who was working as a clerk in a bank.

I repeated Class Eight three times even though I was the best student. We didn’t have access to bursaries. I was repeating because my sister was paying fees for my big brother who was in high school and she couldn’t afford to pay fees for two of us, so I had to wait.

I only went to high school when he joined university and then later my uncle who works for Radio Africa paid my way. My brother became my next influence because he did Bachelor of Commerce and got into sales, working for Eveready. He had a company car, that was very exciting for me. (Laughs)

What has surprised you the most about your journey to this point?

I have been very lucky in my career. I was already working when in university so I have never been without a job. I have also been lucky to work in very progressive working environments.

Reckitt Benckiser was a big responsibility just after university. Unilever was my learning ground, dealing with big supermarket chains.

It shaped me in terms of training, business knowledge and building relationships. It was also high pressure. Nokia was one of the best places I have worked, the working environment was very encouraging and friendly.

Samsung was different. The Koreans aren’t the easiest to work with because of the cultural difference. They believe in shouting. Coming from Nokia, I found it strange. At some point I found myself shouting back at them. (Laughs). In all this journey, you realise that if I’ve done something bad along the way no one will want to work with you. So integrity is very key for me.

How does growing up in a background of 17 siblings and a polygamous family shape you as an adult?

It’s limited resources. It’s war! (Laughs) Each wife had nine children. My dad was a policeman and he retired when I was still in primary school, so you can imagine how hard it was. When he retired, we were still living in those grass-thatched houses. There was so much poverty. My brother used to tell me that we have to break this cycle of poverty that came from our forefathers and education was the only way. It’s a choice you make.

Are you going to try and top your father’s legend of 18 kids? Do you have the chops?

No, no, no. (Laughs). It was easier then when my father would send a Sh100 and that would last a month. (Laughs). Now we send my mom money and it’s never enough. I married the lady I dated in university. My first born daughter is now 16- years- old. I always say I left university with a degree, a wife and a baby. (Laughs) My second born is 12, my third is a son and I have a one year old.

I started responsibility quite early, that grounded me. I had to provide. I had to get a one-room house in Umoja after university. I was providing for my family, my mom and paying for other siblings, nephews and nieces. This shaped me, made me work hard and gave me a lot of focus. It still does.

What do you fear?

Dying and leaving my children so young. I try to put things in place to make sure that should that happen they will comfortable, that they will not live a difficult life I led as a child.

Is that past life a constant shadow in your life now, does it never go away?

Not anymore. But of course I feel it when I go back to the village every second month. It’s there for me to see in the village.

My mom is comfortable though. I make sure that she lives the same life I live in Nairobi; she lives in a nice house, she has electricity, she watches TV, she opens her fridge, she eats like I eat. I want her to live longer because she suffered a lot. She needs to enjoy this now. That is very important to me.

What can the Danish at 40 years tell the Danish at 32 years?

(Pause) Invest while it’s still early. I have tried my best to set a few things up. But I would say, when you’re still young, invest that money. Invest in the right things.

And are there any benefits to having two wives? Given your father’s experience?

Yes and no. Yes because you have two families, you have maybe two plates to eat from. If this house was lacking he could eat in the next house. (Laughs) But seriously, it’s difficult. If you have the means well and good.

Would you consider polygamy, if you had the means?

I would. (Laughs)

Is that on the record?

(Laughs) It is.

If you were to have dinner with one person who would that be? And what would you ask them?

Uhuru Kenyatta and I would tell him that there are some very capable people in the private sector who can drive this country forward. He should reach out to them. I think there is a lot of potential in private sector to shape this country’s future.

Your car key is very interesting, is that a Porsche?

Yes. I told you I love fine things. (Grins) I treat myself to very good things so I bought myself a Porsche last year. I love German machines so I have always been a Mercedes-Benz guy until late last year. The Mercedes-Benz GLA was a good car but a bit squeezed for a big family. There was a choice of the Mercedes ML but I find its shape ugly. I was told a Porsche is very good; a very smooth drive and it’s top class. So I went for it.

From a thatched hut to a Porsche. Life has been kind.

(Laughs) I see it as inspiration and mentorship. During my time, there was no one to look up to. When you go back to the village now the people who used to see you walking barefoot with shorts that don’t cover your behind, see you as an inspiration. You represent hope. They tell their kids to work hard in school: “look at Danish, from zero to where he is now. He has built his mother a nice house, his mother is living well, work hard guys, work hard and build me a house.”

I do mentorships in the school I attended in the village. I tell them it can be done, it can happen to them. It goes a long way, I can tell you.

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