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Nizar Juma: ‘What Makes Me Tick’

Jubilee Holdings Chairman Nizar Juma
Jubilee Holdings Chairman Nizar Juma. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

Like a scene in a mob Hollywood blockbuster, his juggernaut screeches right at the entrance of Nairobi’s Jubilee Insurance Centre. Two doors fly open. He steps out, a big man: Suited, a white mane, silver mustachioed, long arms.

Now hunched with age, and maybe the weight of his responsibilities, he hulks swiftly towards the entrance with a determined tunnel version. An assistant keeps at his heels carrying two leather attaches.

The guard stationed at the entrance steps aside from his approaching hurricane as he makes for the executive lift. It is raw power at play but power is what Nizar Juma dabbles in.

He is the chairman of Jubilee Holdings and 70 other companies in food processing, telephony, pharmaceutical, energy, fibre optic cables, textile, among others. Nazir has been playing the long game as far back as 1974, when he was the sole manufacturer of Adidas sports equipment.

He met JACKSON BIKO in his rococo office to speak about, among other things, The Blue Company Project, a campaign that seeks to have companies be corruption-free.

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You are 75 years old. You have done your time. You could be anywhere; the beach, some lodge in the woods, you could wake up and do other things with your life, yet you come here to work, why do you do it now?

(Pause). Different things make different people tick. This makes me tick; it’s my way of giving back. I have been doing this since 1968. I have three children in Australia, the US and the UK, who weren’t too keen to continue with my businesses and who are happy in the directions they have taken in their lives. What this meant is that I had to become more involved in the business and it made me diversify into other areas. I got into voluntary engagements with companies like Diamond Trust Bank. Now I’m helping the industry, it’s good for me and the country.

Of all the things you’ve done in your life, what are you most proud of?

Supplying balls to the 1978 FIFA World Cup. It was a proud moment because we were regarded as an indigenous manufacturer.

When do you think you had the most fun in your life; your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s or now in your 70s?

When I retired from active business and then started voluntary work. I was around 56 years old. I still had a lot of energy. I was appointed to chair the Aga Khan Health Services board, then IPS and later on Diamond Trust Bank boards … and these opportunities kept coming. I am now busier than I was when I was full-time.

What do you want people to remember about you?

(Laughs). Nothing. (Laughs)

You just want to leave planet earth like you were never here?

If I’m remembered I should be remembered for what people think is important and not what I think is important.

You look good for 75. What do you do to look this way?

I meditate at 4am every day, that helps me a lot. I also do my routine exercises every morning. Being involved in active work also keeps me buoyant because if you decide, at whatever age, to curl up and stop working, then your whole being also stops because your body reacts to your brain and not the other way round.

So I’m doing exciting things like the Blue Company Project where we encourage companies to join us and be free of corruption. We already have 500 major companies.

People in business say if you can’t bribe you can’t survive but I’m saying, no, you’re wrong. You can. We want to make corruption-free fashionable again. Today our children are growing up saying, “If you can make money very quickly through corruption, why work hard?” It is a wrong philosophy.

Talking of philosophies, what’s your philosophy of success?

That if you act with integrity in everything that you do, eventually you will succeed. It may be a little bit harder, but eventually that philosophy will succeed.

At what point in your life did you realise that, OK, now I’m succeeding, now I’m successful?

My God! (Pause) You ask odd questions. (Laughs). I think when you are young you think money is success because we are judged by it and in the beginning you fall into that track. But drug dealers also have money. Are they successful? Yes, they get to control a lot of power, but what kind of power? It brings us back to integrity. Money is important to be comfortable, but ask people who have it if they can hold their heads high if they think of how they made it. I started having different money conversations with myself at 46. I changed my perception of pursuing it for success.

Do you remember a point in your life that you lacked?

Of course, my father wasn’t a rich man. I was born in Uganda. I went to a primary school in a little town called Masaka. It’s a village. I went to secondary school in Kampala in Uganda, then to University of Wales in the UK. I came back in 1967. But I have also lacked in character before. I lacked a sense of direction in my earlier years. I lacked integrity. I don’t think we are born with a strong sense of integrity, it develops over time. It was easy to let go of my principles because the pursuit of money was more important than anything else. (Pause) I lacked so many things. I lacked patience, I had anger, and I had a huge ego. It takes time to conquer ego because it feels good to be able to say, “Do you know who I am?” But I think it takes more to be able to be judged by what you achieve.

So, for you to come out of it, is it a product of age or experience? Or it’s something that just happens organically?

It’s all of those things. Spirituality helps. I don’t mean religion. If you ask me if I’m religious? My answer is, no, I’m not. But I’m spiritual. Being spiritual is different. You adopt it, you find success with it and you find good.

You started doing business in the 60s until now. Certainly things have changed, do you think it is easier or harder to do business now than it was in those days?

It’s harder. Sure, there are many more opportunities today, because now we have young men in Silicon Valley becoming multibillionaires before 30, which never existed in my days. There are more opportunities now but also more difficulties. Today, there are seven billion people in the world, that means greater competition.

What are you learning about yourself at this point in life?

I’m learning my priorities. I’m learning to decide that my life is more important than what people think of me.

If there is such a thing as reincarnation, would you come back as yourself?

(Laughs). Yes, I think so. But I would do things differently, I didn’t give my children enough of the money I was making when I was coming up. I was also too busy.

Are you married?

I’m divorced, since 1992. And no, I didn’t remarry.

Do you have a girlfriend?

(Laughs). I’m quite self-sufficient.

What does that mean? Everybody needs to be loved.

As I said, I am spiritual, I am a meditator, I have three wonderful children who have spouses and I have seven grandchildren. I don’t feel that there is a gap that needs to be filled.

Really? You don’t get attracted to females?

It doesn’t mean that I don’t have female friends because I do. I just don’t feel the need to tie them. I don’t feel that’s necessary. I think as I said, I am self-sufficient. (Laughs)

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