His flagship businesses include the Swiss Lenana Mount Hotel in Milimani and Nginyo Towers along Koinange street
By Undercover Reporter
He was a poor, orphaned young adult of 25 when Kenya earned her independence in 1963.
Lawrence Nginyo Kariuki died this February 24, an old billionaire business magnate-who coined his dough from selling manure.
But picking golf balls and becoming a caddie, then a golfer, proved far more profitable. Besides obvious business acumen, it was brushing shoulders with the Who’s Who at the club that laid the network of contacts, and with it, business opportunities that accounts for his secured billions in large-scale agriculture, property, real estate and hospitality.
Nginyo Kariuki, the father of seven who died at 82, lived on a 200 acre coffee farm with a white and gray pad in Redhill, Tigoni. Bought for Sh40, 000 in 1972, it would now cost the upwards of a billion to change ownership. He bought it from a departing mzungu doctor at the Kiambu Golf Club.
It was in this home where the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team went to take his personal views in August last year.
Tigoni is in Kiambu County, home of the richest old money Kikuyu Oligarchs; The Kenyatta’s, Koinanges, Githunguris, Njonjos, Kanyotus and the Karumes-but whose fortunes have slowly gone to the sands since the death of patriarch Njenga Karume.
Nginyo Kariuki joined the list of Kikuyu Oligarchy without the blue blood that comes with advanced education, political connections or marrying into elite families. He was just a Class Four dropout who made his fortunes the old fashioned way: hard work, seizing opportunities and good old mother luck.
Nginyo’s flagship businesses include; the Swiss Lenana Mount Hotel in Milimani, Nairobi and Nginyo Towers along Koinange Street where he had an office on the ninth floor, its elaborate geometric crown.
Both properties sit on priceless parcels of real estate.
Nginyo Towers is located just opposite Cianda House owned by the late Karume while around the bend is Stanley Githunguri’s Nairobi Safari Club Annex and the iconic Lilian Towers.
His ventures are held under Nginyo Investments Ltd, but it all began when his father died when he was four in 1942. His elder brother, Major Mbugua took over, but alas when the State of Emergency was declared in October 1952, Mbugua was arrested and spirited to Manyani Prison from where he was killed trying to escape in 1956. That was how Nginyo’s education stopped. At Class Four.
He made so much money people got into manure and supplying green grass, diluting his monopoly
With time on his hands, he began helping his mother sell bananas, beans and vegetables before hitting the Mother Lode selling manure-after failing to secure a job.
See, manure was available in settler farms around Ndumberi, Kiambu County where small scale farmers needed it. Young Nginyo, filled a gap in the market.
The demand for manure was such that Nginyo began contracting lorries to ferry the manure from which he earned Sh10 as commission. He would have 20 lorries meaning he could be walking around with Sh200 when a shilling was a shilling, a dollar was a dollar, a pound was a pound, a Rupee was a bad joke and the Euro was not even a rumour in the 1960s.
He also ventured into supplying green grass for dairy farmers. The grass was available for free from Karura Forest. He made so much money people got into manure and supplying green grass, diluting his monopoly.
To diversify, he moved to supplying ballast for carpeting the many bad roads in Kiambu at the time. With his lorry contracts it was not hard for Nginyo to get the carpeting jobs, earning Sh15 a lorry.
At the time, Africans were either using the bush, or a long drop toilet. Mzungus, however, needed their pit latrines cemented. When not leveling roads, Nginyo was cementing latrines. While the State of Emergency lasted in the seven years to 1959, many boys were being admitted into Approved Schools and contracts for cemented pit latrines increased so much so that by 1960 he registered Kiambu General Agencies as a formal business.
Among the mzungu pastimes that interested him was golf due to the proximity of the Kiambu Golf Club where he began collecting stray balls for a fee before graduating into a caddie, practicing with broken clubs, enroute to helping found the Ndumberi Golf Club for Africans in 1961. It still stands today, despite aspiring golfers skirting grazing cows not forgetting matatus obstructing a tee while parking at the bus stop!
At the time, Kenyans were grabbing golf courses as the mzungu sport required too much land-which was what fighting the colonialists was all about-land and freedom.
But alongside Duncan Ndegwa, later Head of Civil Service and Kenya’s first African Governor of the Central Bank, Nginyo helped save many courses around the country.
From a caddie, he became an amateur and then a professional golfer, representing Kenya in a career spanning 15 years to his retirement as a pro in 1985, earning good bread, home and away.
Majority of well-paid Kenyans earned between Sh100 and Sh120 per month, Nginyo negotiated for Sh350
Other Kenyans who took golf with gusto and made money from it included the late John Mucheru, father of ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru. Besides the priceless acres that are the John Mucheru Golf School in Karen, he also operated the Olympics Sports House along Koinange street.
Being a golfer later opened untold business opportunities for Nginyo when Kenya gained independence in 1963-the year he came to Nairobi searching for greener pastures.
One was securing employment with Ugandan billionaire family, the Madhvanis. Back then, the Madhvani Group, manufacturers of sweets, salad and vegetable oil and glass products, employed Nginyo as a salesman.
While majority of well-paid Kenyans earned between Sh100 and Sh120 as salary per month, Nginyo negotiated for Sh350 monthly salary on his way to being elected vice chair of Kenya Chemical Workers Union and later the Nairobi branch chair of the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) by 1965.
Kenya began Africanizing businesses previously owned by foreigners and the Kenya National Trading Corporation was formed in 1967 for that purpose.
Ngiyo quickly aligned his Kiambu General Agencies for a piece of the bonanza. He was awarded a franchise, importing padlocks from Romania, bicycles from Britain, vegetable oil from Uganda besides exporting ghee.
By 1970, he was doing so well, but despite earning Sh1,300 a month as a salesman, he quit his job and resigned from his positions in COTU- to concentrate on business.
Teaming up with an Asian buddy, Nginyo founded Sawa Enterprises, distributing wines and spirits imported from Britain. He later renamed it Nairobi Wines and Spirits until he closed it down in 1990. Money was so good that he had bought a coffee farm, but by 1972 he acquired 140 acres of tea plantation complete with a farm house in Tigoni. A mzungu doctor who was leaving Kenya was offloading it for Sh40, 000.
He had met the doctor while playing at the Kiambu Golf Club. At the time, he had spotted some plots in Ruiru, which being by the road side were ideal for a petrol station. The Managing Director of Shell & BP at the time was the late Nick Muriuki, a fellow golfer.
Shell rented Nginyo’s plots for Sh50, 000. He grabbed the dough, paid Sh40, 00 to the doctor and used the balance to buy a truck!
The National Bank of Kenya had been formed to help Africans with loans. Using his 140 acres as collateral, Nginyo borrowed Sh150, 000 to develop the tea estate besides buying off 60 more acres from neighbours. The farm is today the Farlyndum Tea Estate in Tigoni. The proceeds enabled him to buy a 1000-acre coffee plantation from an Asian in Makuyu, Murang’a County besides acquiring the plot on which Nginyo Towers stands on Koinange Street.
He was always at the right place, at the right time with the right connections and business acumen
While Stanley Githunguri bought his plot on which Lilian Towers sits from President Jomo Kenyatta, Nginyo bought his from the President’s daughter, the late Margaret Kenyatta in 1976-when she was the first African woman Mayor of Nairobi. It had a one storey building but since tenants often defaulted on rent, she decided to dispose it.
Before Nginyo could demolish it, another offer came in form of a 50 bed hostel in Milimani called Lenana Court mostly used by trainees from Posta. The Asian owners were selling. It was turned into what is today the Swiss Lenana Mount Hotel, a 150 bed five star affair- as he wanted residents to enjoy what Nginyo had experienced what staying in hotels abroad when he was a golfer. It is run by his son, Anthony Kariuki who studied hotel management in the UK.
It was with an easy transition, that Nginyo Kariuki moved from business to politics, but never becoming Kiambaa MP during the single party state that was Kanu regime. The coming of multiparty politics saw him barking the wrong trees-standing on a Ford Kenya ticket instead of Ford Asili which was popular in Central Kenya in 1992. Picking Kenya National Congress instead of Democratic Party, he lost to Njenga Karume in 1997. He tried a hand at the Senatorial seat in Kiambu but lost to Kimani Wamatangi.
Nginyo Kariuki, third born of Kariuki Ikonya and Njeri Mwicigi’s seven children, was always at the right place, at the right time with the right connections and business acumen to take full advantage of the world around him.