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Profiles

The wine collector

Nyawira Kariuki, CEO of Africa Spirits Ltd. PHOTO | Courtesy
Nyawira Kariuki, COO of Africa Spirits Ltd. PHOTO | Courtesy 

Before everything else, Nyawira Kariuki was a lawyer first. A bachelor’s degree from the University of Kent in the UK, then a master’s degree from Essec Business School was added to this academic repertoire.

Law did not seduce her enough to practise, instead her spirit was lured towards the more lifestyle end of the things. A stint in Paris followed where she worked in the wine industry before coming to Kenya to join Wines of the World (WOW) Beverages as a marketing executive.

After a few years, she is now running Africa Spirits Ltd (ASL) as the COO in charge of some their popular brands like Bluemoon Vodka and Legend brandy.

In her free time, she has a furious love affair with the mountain Bongo antelope and as chair of the board of trustees of Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, she is involved in a passionate project to rehabilitate the endangered animal.

To meet JACKSON BIKO she hopped on one leg (minor ankle injury) for the meeting at WOW offices on Nairobi’s Mandera Road.

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So for how long have you been hobbling around with one leg?

(Laughs) It’s been a couple of weeks.

Do you find that people are kind to you now that you are on crutches?

Where I work everybody is a lot kinder to me. (Laughs).

Well, they have to be kind to the boss regardless...

Maybe. But out there, nobody is really kind. You find that you have to protect your space a lot more. I’ve learnt that we are not a very disability-friendly city. From where you have to climb up stairs to how you enter or exit a building. People aren’t very conscious of your disability, they knock you over. When you are on crutches you empathise with the struggles of people with disability and I think we have to push for better services and infrastructure to accommodate them.

From law to selling spirits, what sparked this change?

It was coincidence. I graduated from law school but then realised that law was not my cup of tea. I enjoy the theory, later in life I could consider teaching law, because I really like the thought process, but practice wasn’t something that I enjoyed that much. I got an internship by coincidence with an agency that helped French wine makers export their brands and that internship turned into a job and training. I stumbled upon the fact that I love products and consumers.

What’s your own relationship with alcohol?

(Amused) My relationship with alcohol?

Yeah, when did you start drinking? And how much?

(Laughs) I am lucky, I didn’t grow up in a household where I was told alcohol was evil. It was something that we were informed about and we had to make a sensible decision of understanding what it was and meant. I started drinking around that time of university. Wine is one of my favourite.

The minute I got to understand the product, the passion, the process to it, I appreciated it more. When I started working in a wine company, I was excited. I saw the passion, what it takes to create a bottle of wine, from the work on the vineyards to selecting the right grapes, to blending correctly.

What is the most fun thing you do off work?

I’d say one would be the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. It’s a project I got involved in a couple of years ago, which is about conservation education, the protection of endangered species like the Bongo.

It’s going out there and being one with nature. Fifteen or 20 years from now, I would still want these animals in the wild. As long as we make every Kenyan see that wild animals add value to their lives, then it’s something that we can do. We have taught over 100,000 children to understand that wild animals are like them, competing for a habitat but they have a right to live. Not just seeing that it eats my family’s sheep, or it eats our grass, it’s learning to co-exist.

From a consumer’s point of view, how can I tell that this wine is fake?

(Sighs) It’s about the establishment. When a very cheap offer for a drink comes to you, you should question it. We live in a country where consumers should be checking every bottle. I think it starts with the trade, with the government...
Same way, it’s really hard to tell a fake Rolex, it’s the same category. Or a cologne. Because the person who does that as a business, he’s good at it, so it is the law makers and regulators to protect the consumer.

Which of your habits are you least proud of?

(Pause) Perfectionism. I will do it over and over again until it’s right. Which means that everybody has to be perfect. You’d be sent something back five times by Nyawira (Chuckles) till it’s exactly how it should be. It’s not really perfectionism but it’s thriving for things to be correct.

What are you reading right now?

‘What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School’, by Mark H McCormack.

And what’s that so far?

So far, it’s the new essence of business. It’s not the hard, it’s the soft, it’s learning how to negotiate and read somebody, it’s seeing what’s the point that you push back at, how do you develop your organisation and what are the areas that are not so much bottom line.

It’s understanding how to create a culture within an organisation that outlives you. The soft skills to a business would be what it’s about. So I’m not that far in but that’s what I’ve gotten from it so far. I’m on the chapter on people.

You have been invited to a party — a fun party, not the stiff ones where you have to dress up — very casual but cool, good music, interesting people. It’s a house party. The host has a dog. What drink would you carry?

(Laughing) You just had to add a dog to fill the story completely? (Long pause) For this party, I would choose wine. I have very many different categories. If the host is a whisky person I would bring a bottle of... what do people drink that’s not too expensive? Famous Grouse Smoky Black. I have a favourite whisky but I won’t mention it by name because it’s not in my portfolio. (Laughs).

If the host is a wine lover, we have the Bellingham Homestead. For red wine, I’d take the Pinotage, a full bodied rich grape.

If you were to invite one person for dinner, dead or alive, who would that be?

Winnie Mandela. She is someone I’d like to understand. How did she do all that she did? She didn’t give up. Sometimes we do things and expect to be recognised and yet this is a woman who was persecuted and really misunderstood! Who was she? I have a curiosity to strong female characters.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

(Pause) Actually it is wine. I collect it. I live in an apartment so I don’t have a cellar but I do have space that I’ve created to keep my wine.

Married?

No.

Kids?

No I don’t have any.

A dog?

No.

Cats?

No.

A horse?

(Laughs) No. I have plants though. (Laughs) My plants don’t count?

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