If you finish half-an-hour of conversation with the Transport Principal Secretary without either the words “Griffin”, “Chelsea” or “Maryanne” popping up, then perhaps you are speaking with the wrong Irungu Nyakera.
The Irungu Nyakera who has been overseeing projects at the Transport ministry since last December will not take that long without mentioning Geoffrey Griffin, the late Starehe Boys’ founding director, while explaining his philosophies.
What’s more, there is a photo of Mr Griffin in the wallet of the 33-year-old, who is the youngest principal secretary in Kenya at the moment. And there is another Griffin photo stuck somewhere in his office.
“Everywhere I go, I have Griffin. It is because of the inspiration that he provided. That can never waver,” he says.
Somewhere along the chat, the name of Chelsea Football Club is definitely bound to show up because one of the photos behind him at his desk is that of him and his family, all clad in replica jerseys of the English Premier League team.
It may not be a good time to openly proclaim support for the London club whose prospects in the league are not looking good, having dropped from champions in one season to battling to finish in the top 10, but Mr Nyakera is unfazed.
“Things don’t always work your way. Sometimes you think you have the best team, you have the best track record. But somehow other guys, or the guys on the other side, are prepared better and have other ideas,” he says.
But being a man who lives by certain values — including loyalty — a poor season is no excuse to abandon his favourite club.
“As a fan you have to stick with them. Just because something didn’t work this time, don’t say, ‘Tomorrow, I’ll now go to Arsenal (another Premier League side)’,” he says with a chuckle, banishing the thought that he would ever consider switching allegiance to Chelsea’s London rivals.
Almost as soon as the Chelsea talk pops up, his wife Maryanne — the mother of their two children — comes into picture. She has been holding his family and his social life in one piece ever since he left Equity Bank to join the government, he explains.
“With the hours I’m putting on this (role), it would be a terrible family. She is a pillar in the family,” he says.
Maybe as a pointer to his sources of inspiration, his wife’s photo is adjacent to Mr Griffin’s in his wallet.
“She used to work … But she’s decided to take a break and go back to the University of Nairobi for another bachelor’s degree,” he says.
His wife already has a Master’s degree but decided to pursue her passion in architecture by studying for a bachelor’s while also taking care of the children.
For a man who reports to work at 6.30 am and leaves way past 9 pm, works even on Sunday afternoons and had just cancelled a wedding anniversary trip with his wife to South Africa when he spoke to Lifestyle in early February, an understanding spouse is all he could ask for.
On matters work, Mr Nyakera admits that government posting is way more demanding than what he had been doing in the private sector.
“It is certainly not the same as Equity. It is certainly worse, a lot worse. But anyway, tuliitisha kazi (we applied for this job),” he says.
Before President Uhuru Kenyatta nominated Mr Nyakera for the post during a November 2015 reshuffle, he had worked in various posts in the private sector.
His first ever posting was at the Citi Group in London after graduating from Stanford University in 2007. He returned to Kenya in 2008 when the company’s fortunes dwindled in the middle of a global financial crisis.
It was during his stint in London that he met his wife, a Kenyan who was working in the UK.
After his return to Kenya, Mr Nyakera — who holds a Master’s in Finance and Decision Engineering — joined NIC Bank as the senior associate of NIC Capital Investment Bank in February 2009.
He rose to deputy general manager in July that year and in February 2010, he became the general manager of NIC Capital. Two years later, he was the managing director.
Interestingly, his current boss — Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary James Macharia — was also his senior during his stint at NIC Bank. Mr Macharia was NIC Group Managing Director until his appointment as Health Cabinet Secretary in 2013.
“We worked very well,” he says of Mr Macharia at NIC.
After four years at NIC, he quit the Kenyan banking industry to work as the regional head of East and Southern Africa at Frontier Markets Fund Managers, Guarantco, between March 2013 and July 2014.
Mr Nyakera later moved to Equity Bank where he helped start the Equity Investment Bank as managing director until his appointment to the government.
“We’d been talking with CEO for Equity (Mr James Mwangi) since 2009. At some point, I decided, ‘Let me take up a challenge of starting the investment bank at Equity — because I had done it at NIC’,” he says.
From Citi Group to NIC to Frontier Markets to Equity to the government in six years. Isn’t that too much fast movement in the corporate world?.
He answers with a No, but is philosophical about it.
“Griffin used to tell us not to be a grasshopper. So, I ended up being a grasshopper. But I think, actually not really,” he says.
One of his philosophies is never to cut ties between him and former employers.
“I don’t burn my bridges. I build my relationships, I build my networks. So, that’s why if I was sacked today, I’m sure I’ll go back to James Mwangi, and he will willingly take me back. He’ll probably need to figure out where to put me,” he says.
On his crossing from the private sector to the government, he says, there is consistency in his career changes. His move to the government, he says, is because he saw a chance to implement what he studied for.
“When I was convinced of the value I would actually add to government, and in particular infrastructure funding which is my speciality, I decided to take up the challenge,” he says.
Mr Nyakera came into office amid a storm of corruption scandals that had rocked the Jubilee government, with President Kenyatta forced to sack five Cabinet secretaries and several PSs when making the changes that saw Mr Nyakera join government.
The PS says he works late to ensure everything is done properly in the ministry, and seal loopholes that could allow corruption.
“I read through everything I’m signing. It takes a bit longer but I read my numbers,” he says, taking a brief look at the piles upon piles of files on his desk awaiting his attention.
He not only goes through the paperwork meticulously, he explains, but also asks questions.
“Before I sign anything I need to be very clear: this number that I’m seeing here, where else does it connect? Then I’m shown, where it is (I also ask), ‘Are there minutes?’,” he says.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges he has a good team at the ministry to oversee major infrastructure projects, including the Standard Gauge Railway.
His attention to detail was nurtured in his days as a student at Starehe Boys’ Centre and School, from where he sat his KCSE in 2000.
He studied at Starehe’s primary school section, which operates more like a children’s centre, before joining the secondary. His entrance to the primary school was courtesy of a sponsor because Mr Nyakera was born to a needy family in Murang’a County.
On completing his secondary education, he got a scholarship to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, USA, from which he earned another scholarship to Stanford University in 2003.
He explains that his appointment as PS was not out of the blues, as some would believe. He actually applied for the job, attended interviews and had been briefed before the President made the announcement.
“You have to go through PSC (the Public Service Commission) — so you have to apply. You are interviewed, and then from there you are recommended. The President is given a long list; he decides ‘these are the ones that I want as long as they’ve been shortlisted’,” says Mr Nyakera.
He sent his application for the position in 2015 after an advertisement in the dailies because “I have always wanted” to work for government.
“I think for me it is the attainment. I always knew I would end up working for government. Not for the sirens and other perks. This was more for the service,” he says.
Certain values like public service were instilled in those like him who went through Starehe, he notes. His desire to serve, he says, is what keeps him working long after office hours.
“If someone says, ‘why are you in the office early when you can come in at 8 am?’ Why are you leaving late when people know that things in government don’t move fast? These files that came today don’t have to go today. They can go out next week’ — that would betray the very being in terms of my working,” he says.
Another reason he gave for his desire to work hard is that he does not want to disappoint the youth.
“How I perform will also speak on the youth. I do well, the youth can say, ‘You see, we are ready to lead. Give us more positions.’ I don’t do well, the older guys can say, ‘You see, these guys are still not ready to lead.’ So, for me, it’s a test; which I know we will deliver well. And it will be a stamp that the youth are ready to take up positions of leadership,” he says.
He adds that, regardless of his age, he never feels lost among his fellow PSs during meetings.
“I feel I’ve sat on this seat; I deserve it. I don’t feel like I’ve been put there by mistake. No-one can tell me that it is not mine. If they want an older PS for Transport, that one doesn’t exist,” he says, smiling.
As the clock ticks on during the evening interview, the realities of travelling from one point to another in Nairobi are weighing heavy on Mr Nyakera’s mind.
“We like the irony of you being in traffic,” he says, quoting the words some people have told him upon arriving late for a scheduled meeting.
He believes the capital will only be saved from the traffic mess by an efficient train and bus system. “There is no decongestion without the commuter rail and the buses. That’s it.”
The interview ends a few minutes after 7 pm, with Mr Nyakera going back to his work, bent on reducing the number of pending files.
As I leave, there are three or four ministry officials at his office, all pokerfaced, making it hard to tell if they are really enjoying staying that late or they are forced to cope with Mr Nyakera’s style.