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Chris Kirubi’s narrow path to success

Chris Kirubi is a Kenyan industrialist and entrepreneur whose interests lie in insurance
Chris Kirubi is a Kenyan industrialist and entrepreneur whose interests lie in insurance, media, manufacturing and more. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Chris Kirubi has a cold. But he has had worse. He is in his residence recovering from that dreadful disease that we will not validate by mentioning by name. (He does not mention it by name either for the two hours it took to interview him. So, neither shall we).

On this beautiful sunwashed afternoon, he is shuffling around the grounds of his residence where he has lived for the last 30 years, past a lawn so green it looks like a magician’s illusion. There are construction workers all over. He is constructing his dream home at 79.

His age, however, belies what he is wearing now; a red half-sleeve bomber jacket and a matching red Ferrari cap. Although frail by body, when he speaks his voice ferries out his strong, boisterous spirit inside. It is like watching a grass thatched roof catch fire.

You do not sit on the fence with Kirubi, he polarises public opinion. He forces you to take a stand because he is many things to many people; an uber businessman, industrialist, deejay, farmer, Yin and yang, purveyor of hedonism, philanthropist, exhibitionist — whatever floats your boat, really. He cares little.

He speaks repeatedly about “being true to self” when he sits with JACKSON BIKO for a chat at his residence; lucid, sharp, cocky, reflective, blunt, unbowed, only taking short breaks to sip hot dawa through a curved green straw.

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In what ways do you think falling sick has changed you and the people around you?

One thing I’ve come to discover is that in the end you’re alone. Your friends may love you, but eventually you have to deal with your sickness personally. You think about the past, the things that you could have done, the things that you have not done, and what you can do to compensate for things you ignored. It is a time of reflection. And prayers from friends do help, a lot.

Being in a good hospital, with good doctors, adds a certain value to your life. I was just wondering what we can do to make sure, in a poor country like Kenya, everybody receives the best treatment possible rather than mass treatment. Because to tell you the truth, if I had been here maybe by now I would be long gone.

Talking of which, it’s ironic that we’re all living towards our deaths. Are you more or less fearful of death after this experience?

Death is rest. A rest from daily hustles. This is something that is irreversible. You’re born, you grow, you die. In the end, it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter the age or what you do to try and elongate your life. But at the same time, nobody wants to die.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Be yourself and trust in yourself. I was very young.

Did you set out to be this man you are now, successful and making moves? What was your ambition at 30?

I never set out to make lots of money. I grew up poor. So I always dreamt from very early on that one day I’d make it. I believed in myself. I was disciplined. But I’m not yet successful. I have a dream. I still have more hills to climb. I work more now in my home than I worked in the office. I have five to six meetings in a day. Many people come to see me because I’m sick. My people want to come and consult with me. I still run my companies. I’ve never switched off.

You mentioned that when you were growing up, you wanted to “make it.” What is that? How did making it look in your books?

You’ve asked a critical question. And that question is based on who I am, what I was and what made me believe that I could make it. It is the trust in myself. I knew if I worked hard, I would make it.

So when did you know you’ve made it?

I’m still trying to make it. I’m building my dream house. I built this house we’re sitting in 30 years ago. I bought this land when this area had only white settlers. Roger Whittaker’s (who sang “My Land is Kenya”) parents lived across the bottom of my plot. To be successful you must trust yourself. Don’t believe in others’ judgement. Jesus Christ followed a very narrow path. The narrow path has its own challenges, but as long as you believe in yourself, you win. I don’t follow crowds. I only believe in one person; Chris Kirubi.

You still work even now when most would imagine you’d slow down. What are you working towards now? What are you working for? Obviously, it’s not money.

I work for achievement.

Have you not achieved?

No. I’m sure in your pocket you have one of my products. A medical card, a smart card... There is no medical insurer that isn’t using my smart application. My ICT company has nearly two million subscribers. I look forward to having four million and I’m sure by the time I have four million, I’ll want to have six million more. Why? Because I contribute to people’s wellness.

You bought land here 30 years ago and built a nice house. Now you want to build another beautiful home. You have two million subscribers and want to grow them to four million. Would you say making money is akin to chasing your tail, a never-ending cycle?

It’s ambition. Ambition is what makes life. The day you have no ambition you die inside. Anybody who says they’re successful, they’re satisfied, will not live long, they will get in a coma, metaphorically. So, ambition is part of living.

You have to continue being ambitious. There is always another hill to climb and you don’t see the end. Success is a mirage.

But how do you make sure that ambition doesn’t get harmful? That it doesn’t consume you like a ball of fire?

(Chuckles) I’m not obsessed with money as such. I’m only interested in doing things that make sense. If I’m doing activities that bring me wealth, well and good. We give many scholarships to poor students; we just don’t make noise about it. We are doing a lot of work in Kilifi in this regard, a very poor county.

You have been doing business for dog years, how do you know that you will do business with someone when you meet them?

(Pause) Instinct. I ask myself, ‘Do I feel I can trust you?’ However, I do business with international companies. I don’t like problems with people as might often happen when doing business.

Newspapers refer to you as a “mogul”. As a mogul, do you know how much you’re worth or you stopped counting?

I also don’t know what a mogul is. (Laugher in the room) If people are not calling you a thief, a liar, then you don’t have to worry. If they’re calling you a mogul, a billionaire, you are being blessed with that wisdom to become one if you’re not already one.

I’m very proud that people think I’m a billionaire. It comes with perks, people answer my calls. Why? Because that is Dr Kirubi calling. But it’s important to continue developing yourself so that you do not let down the press that has accorded you that title. (More laughter).

You forgot to answer the other bit of the question - whether you know how much you are worth…

I don’t know. I never count. Counting means looking back and I don’t look back.

Contentment and happiness. What is the relationship of these two in your books?

Contentment is a yardstick of what you want to achieve. Happiness is an illusion. It’s what we all look for but describe differently. Is it flying your own plane? Is it driving a good car? Is it sitting with friends and talking? Is it drinking wine?

Happiness is in your mind.

Are you happy?

From time to time, yes. But what I know for sure is that you can only attain true happiness when you make others happy.

A man of your stature, I suppose that you always have many people you meet wanting something from you. What’s the one thing that you find most people want from you?

(Scoffs) Money. Mostly. Some want jobs or access to it. People usually want help to succeed.

How does that make you feel?

Proud and powerful that there are people that can trust me. That I can solve their problems. It gives me incentive to help them. Giving makes me happier than receiving.

I’m reading a book by Richard Reed, titled “If I Could Tell You Just One Thing…Encounters With Remarkable People…” What’s the one thing you can tell me about anything?

Believe in yourself.. It’s really up to you in the end, not anyone else.

What's the biggest failure in your life?

Not to have been a mogul by now. (Laughter in the room) I’m on a journey which no one can distract. I’m satisfied with where I am going.

Today I can order a new car from a dealer, they will send it to me. But is my ambition to order two or three cars? I’m not wasteful, I want to feel there’s nothing I want I can’t get.

When I want to look for better healthcare, I want to be able to fly to go see a good doctor. That is my satisfaction of wealth, that when the need arises you can meet those needs.

Are you closer to God now or less closer?

I’m closer to God now because I’ve believed without God’s will I could not be who I am today. It took me many months lying in bed sick to believe that God is most powerful. And it’s a shame we always go to God when we need Him, but God will never turn you away because you came to Him later rather than earlier. God is merciful and forgiving.

Is there one thing you’d like to change about yourself?

To stop working so much. I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to switch off. When I was sick in the US, I was still making calls. I didn’t know how to lie in my bed and be sick.

I want to learn to be more satisfied with the little I have.

Of all your companies, and they are many, if they were to be taken away with the exception of one, which one would you save? Which one is after your own heart?

My my my. (Chuckles) I don’t know. I’ve never thought of that. (Pause) I don’t see it as saving a company or my favourite company, but as my relationships with individuals. It’s about relationships, not the companies.

How do you feed your mind at 79?

By the constant and intentional belief that I can do anything I did at 25.

You’re building a massive dream home, have you thought of marriage, someone to share it with?

Marriage comes to you and it is a blessing, but you don’t go chasing it around because you will get the wrong partner. If I’m blessed then I will be blessed.

What do you think is your one unique true talent?

Thinking. I think positively. I also analyse things very quickly. I see patterns where people don’t and I connect them before they have figured it out.

Last question, are you a good person?

It depends on what people think.

What do you think?

What is good? That is a very broad question.

Do you have a good soul?

I’ll have to sit with my pastor and discuss that. He will be able to tell if my soul is clean or rotten. I mean, you tell me, you have interviewed me. Am I a good interviewee?

You are.

There you go.

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