Nana Gecaga gets into Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) like a heat-seeking missile — a bundle of energy pinging off walls.
She is the CEO, two years now, raising the profile of the State corporation and diversifying its portfolio beyond conferencing. (You also might have noticed the notable concerts with big international names.) When you Google “Nana Gecaga” you will get 25,000 results in 0.40 seconds. (Depending on your Internet provider).
The first page is frivolous; breathless tabloid-y reports of her lavish 40th party et al, articles to do with beers, society photos and other floating debris — headlines on her that reference her uncle, the President.
However, she is much more than that, it turns out as JACKSON BIKO discovered during an interview in her office. She wants more for herself as a CEO, a mother and as a human being.
Most importantly, she wants to stand out as Nana Gecaga first; because she has the chops for the things on her plate.
It must be tough to be you because no matter what job you get, whether you are qualified for it or not, people will always say, “Ah, she got it because she’s the President’s niece.” How does that make you feel? What does it do to your self-esteem?
These past seven years, I've been labelled as the President's niece, before that it was Mzee Jomo Kenyatta's grand-daughter or Udi Gecaga's daughter. So, there are a lot of labels out there. But I think one that is emerging now is Nana Gecaga. It's not that it's been staged or orchestrated.
Yes, I have been in government as an adviser to Phyllis Kandie, the Cabinet Secretary. Before that, I had my own company. I can waste my whole life trying to firefight or prove who I am out of their shadows. I could have decided to fight back or tweet but I decided to do what’s needed to be done. Now after a year and a half of being at KICC, we have been able to set our core straight internally, and out there, you can see what we're doing. I hope my work speaks for itself.
When I think of KICC, I see a museum, an aged place with old things; old chairs and old suits. I don’t know who looks at KICC and thinks they’d have an office in it. How do you plan to make this place sexy?
Well, you are right. People don't really know what happens here. First of all at KICC we play two or three hats, let's say. We're a landlord because we house government officials. Secondly, we're an iconic building. As an iconic building, we’ve sort of lost our sexiness. This was a landmark, a meeting point before the era of mobile phones. Lastly, we are a golden square; on one side we have Parliament, then we have City Hall, Judiciary, Treasury... Here is something not many people know; KICC's average age for the staff is probably about 32 years or lower.
These past few years we have been fortunate enough to make a bit of profit for the first time. We’ve positioned it as an event and concert venue. Every month we get requests for probably six concerts. We’ve had major international artistes performing here in the recent past.
How do you know that, professionally, your ideas are being adopted because they are smart or because you are Nana Gecaga? How do you know people are not thinking, ‘She’s in the centre of power, let’s agree with her ideas, lest we offend her”?
I like to put testers out there. I will occasionally suggest very ludicrous ideas to see if the team will go along with it. I get angry when people agree with me just for the sake of it. I like to be challenged, I have been challenged all of my life. So one thing I've made very clear is ‘Don't always agree with me just because I'm the CEO’. That story of the emperor's new cloth comes to mind. I want to be told when I’m naked.
If you were to change one thing about yourself, what would that be?
(Pause) Stubbornness or hardheadedness. (Chuckles). If someone tells me it can’t be done, I will want to prove them wrong. It's also just self-challenging. Also being the third born, the youngest in the family where you always have to shout to be heard, I have had to be a survivor. I'm very vocal. If there's something I do like or don't, I'll say it.
Given your privileged background, what’s the one thing you’ve always wanted and couldn’t get?
(Chuckles) Oh that’s a tricky one … I know the answer to this. (Her PR guy — Anthony — shakes his head.) I could lie to you …
I know you won’t. And don’t listen to PR people …
(Laughs) Well …(Sighs) … Getting a genuine partner, I would say. (Pause) I have struggled with relationships. I have had a couple of good relationships, but mostly it’s been difficult because the people have not been interested in me as a person. But this is not supposed to elicit sympathy. (Laughs) I don’t say I wish I was not born in a family like this, the love that they provide is undisputed. Like I said I've got three beautiful children. I am a single mother and I am not dating or anything like that.
I expected you to be a bit insufferable, stuck-up, or maybe standoffish. Thankfully, you aren’t any of those things, it seems. But you could have turned out that way in life, yet you don’t seem to have. How were you socialised?
Thank you! People always say that we are not what they expected. We were never sat down and told ‘OK family 101, as soon as you walk out this door you're gonna make sure you don't act stuck-up.’ We were praised and challenged at the same time, which is a very good thing that makes me grounded. We were taught not to look down on anybody, you know that famous quote that I always talk about, unless you're helping them up. We were never made to believe that we were special or better than everybody else. We were taught to use status for good.
If you're given a choice to come back as a farmer's daughter, a teacher, a clerk, or whatever, would you take the chance just for the different experience?
I would, but the only thing I'd ask is to retain my character. Character is better than status or position. I’m a happy-go-lucky person and I wouldn’t want to come back as anything else if that wasn’t part of the deal. But I would like to come back as a man.
Oh! Why is that?
I would be 100 times further than I am today. There is a stigma around being female. Many times, back in the day, I’d speak to someone on phone, rock up for the meeting and they're like ‘OK, let's wait for Nana,” because they’d think I’m Nana’s personal assistant. (Laughs) This was years back before people knew me. But I’d like to break those gender barriers and empower women. I’m also a sucker for children’s rights and for women who are being held down. Those give me sleepless nights.
Does it get old to see your grandfather's picture in a currency? To know that the father of the nation is buried 500 metres from your office? To call the President “Uncle”?
(Pause) Gosh! I don't know if it's going to sound bad but I don't look at the currency and be like ‘Oh! God, grandpa!’ (Chuckles) And again, there are some people who come and be like, ‘Grandpa is out of the court’ and try and make a joke out of it. I cut them short, very quickly. I'm like ‘that is Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya.’ This is not a family business. The only time anybody hears me mentioning Mzee Jomo Kenyatta or His Excellency in any way that is not formal would be privately with family. But there is pride, of course.
Quick favour, when you see His Excellency, would you please tell him that the day he finally agrees to an interview I will simply retire, pack up, go to the village, and start a life of fishing?
(Laughs loudly) When I next see him, I will definitely tell him that.