Joe Wanjui Profile: Billionaire businessman Joe Wanjui is a director at UAP Holdings. He is perceived as one of Kenya’s most shrewd businessmen with international business connections.
He has been a Chancellor of the University of Nairobi. Until 1996: Managing Director and eventually executive chairman of EAI. He has also been the Chief Executive Officer of East Africa Industries (now Unilever).
He has seen four Kenyan presidents since Independence, but his perceived influence during Mwai Kibaki’s two terms from 2003 to 2013 is the most storied.
In the book on Joe Wanjui profile, The Native Son: Experiences of a Kenyan Entrepreneur, he admits he prefers an advisory role, mostly to ensure a conducive business environment. His disinterest in political office seems to derive from what he thinks is the dishonesty and chaotic nature of “the dirty game” in Kenya. “Matatu politics”, he calls it, comparing the survival-of-the-fittest tactics to the notoriously messy public transport system.
That he was in the engine room of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) campaigns in 2002 is not in doubt — even serving as chairman of the presidential election board that helped remove Kanu from power.
Wanjui does not know exactly when he was born. “The exact date of my birth is something I cannot record with certainty. I have no official birth certificate. But my passport and all my other official documents indicate I was born on May 24, 1937,” writes the sixth child of Wanjui Munana and Elizabeth Wanjiru.
He had previously been told he was born between 1936 and 1937, but upon completing high school in 1957 he was required to provide an exact date while applying for a passport. He settled for May 24, which he reckoned would be easy to recall as it was also the designated British Empire Day. Such pragmatism is to be found in almost all major decisions he made in his life.
Wanjui’s life stories stress the importance of one’s heritage. My Native Roots, for instance, goes into detail about his family and the Agikuyu way of life, providing a rich vein of anthropological information.
After a humble childhood that was split growing up between what is now Kiambu County and Njoro — where he lived with his mother and siblings after his parents separated — Wanjui started his basic education in Kahuho in 1946 and ended it in Nairobi where he had gone to live with his brother James Mbatia. He later attended Kabaa Mission School and Mang’u High School between 1951-1957.
But it is a decision he took after completing high school that some would have considered irrational: he declined a chance to join the prestigious Makerere University in Uganda, the only such institution in the region then, much to the dismay of the British colonialists.
Instead, he saw better prospects abroad and applied to Ohio Wesleyan University in America where he was offered a place plus full tuition fee.
Even then he did not have air fare and money for upkeep. It took the intervention of Robert Stephens, the cultural attaché at the American foreign affairs office in Nairobi, for Wanjui to travel.
He later got Fulbright and African-American Institute scholarships for his studies. But life abroad was not easy, especially for a black man in a country where racial discrimination was rife.
After completing his BA at Ohio Wesleyan, Wanjui applied to Ohio University to study electrical engineering before joining the prestigious Columbia University for a masters of science degree, which he completed in 1964.
While the sole aim of his American sojourn was education, he also ended up finding love in this quintessential land of opportunity.
It was during a party in the apartment of a Kenyan student in New York City in 1961, just after Wanjui had finished his undergraduate studies, that he met his future wife. He had earlier briefly met Elizabeth Mukami Githii when she was a student at Loreto, Limuru, and he was at Mang’u.
Wanjui and Elizabeth got their first children, twin girls — Wanjiru and Nyathira — on December 10, 1963, two days short of Kenya’s Independence Day.
The young couple had travelled to America as British citizens — subjects of the colonialists – but returned home on Kenyan passports. And it was a time of socio-economic, cultural and political transition. “Back in Kenya, Elizabeth and I were what could be regarded as the sixties version of the ‘Yuppie’ couple: young, upwardly mobile, well-educated, ambitious,” he writes.
While Elizabeth got a teaching job at Ngara Secondary School and later at State House Road Girls, Wanjui continued to work for multinational Esso (later known as Exxon Mobil). “Indeed, we found ourselves propelled straight into Kenya’s upper middle-class lifestyle – sophisticated, doing well, getting ahead. We were earning good money and had an increasing circle of important friends: ministers, top civil servants, company executives and more,” he says.
Wanjui would later leave Esso to head state-owned Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) as “a national duty”. “It was at ICDC that we launched the first post-independence wave of African-owned enterprises, and a network of indigenous retailers and wholesalers, who changed the face of African commerce in Kenya,” he notes.
But in 1968 he joined East African Industries (EAI) as Technical Director. The multinational, now known as Unilever, had popular flagship brands like Kimbo, Cowboy, Omo, Lux, Blue Band, Treetop and Mama Safi. He rose to become the managing director and eventually executive chairman of EAI, serving the company for 19 years before retiring in April 1996.
But it was no easy task as he details his battles with government, mostly over price controls, as he sought a conducive business environment.
Wanjui, who ranks as one of the biggest local investors, has been a board member of many organisations, using this to share his expertise and mentor future corporate leaders.
He now chairs the UAP board, a company he partly owns. He believes his role in forming the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the Kenya Institute of Management has helped shape the economy. His involvement in capital venture investment also provides useful lessons.
As his career grew from the 1960s, so did his family. The couple had two more daughters — Jo-Ann Wairimu, born in 1966, and Joyce-Ann Muthoni, born a year later. But the marriage that the young couple thought was “made in heaven” did not last and they divorced in 1972.
“At some point, the relationship began to get frayed. Neither Elizabeth nor I found it easy to put a finger on what exactly went wrong. Was it the pressure of our careers, combined with that of the new life we had suddenly been thrust into? Or was it our own ambitions and fear of failure? I do not know,” he writes.
After bringing up the children as a single parent, he later remarried Anne Njambi Kiarie, with whom he has a son, Joseph Wanjui, and a daughter, Jean-Anne Wanjiru. He, however, remained close to Elizabeth until her death in 1998.
Wanjui represents the pioneer African Kenyan capitalist class with a global connection. But at the same time his story tells more of what Kenya could have been – or still could be – with the establishment of institutions to guarantee home-grown entrepreneurship and a friendly business environment.
This feature on Joe Wanjui Profile is partially adapted from the Daily Nation.