I first arrived in Nairobi in July 1971, three weeks after my wife, Anna, and I had married in her home town in Italy. The previous November, living in Ireland and employed at the country’s leading media group, I had spotted an advertisement in the appointments section of the UK’s Sunday Times.
A Kenyan printing and publishing group — as yet unidentified -— was looking for a marketing manager, a position that even in Europe at the time was relatively new. As with my previous employer, I was to be the Nation group’s first marketing manager.
Thus, still in our 20’s, Anna and I set foot in Kenya for the first time, a country which was to be our home for close on eight years — but a country with which I would, as a director of the group, maintain an on-going association for close on forty years.
Kenya, just eight years into independence, was a vibrant country adapting to change. The new managerial post at the Nation involved immediately developing an understanding of readers, their interests and demands and by so doing, seeking to build circulations.
At the same time, in view of the key importance of advertising revenues in the funding of the operations, it also entailed understanding advertisers, their needs and demands and delivering to them relevant audiences at competitive advertising rates.
The already established independence and editorial quality of the Daily Nation, Sunday Nation, Taifa Leo and Taifa Weekly, directed initially by people like John Bierman, Jack Beverly, Hilary Ng’weno, Boaz Omori, Joe Rodrigues among others, had given them, after just a decade, a lead over the much older publications in the market.
This was a situation we were able to exploit achieving significant annual increases in sales and market shares, helped by the early introduction of full colour.
At this early point in the company’s history, the Nation newspapers division was very advanced technically, under the charge of two senior printing professionals, Frank Pattrick and Stan Denman.
It was running one of the very first web-offset daily newspaper printing presses outside North America, as well as pioneering an early system of computerised typesetting. In effect these two advances represented cutting edge newspaper technology, neither of which was widely adopted elsewhere until many years later.
Parallel to the drive to develop newspaper circulations and advertising sales and to moving the company into profit after its start-up losses of the early years, planning commenced to launch the group — then known as East African Printers and Publishers — on the Nairobi Stock Exchange.
This ambitious decision, was largely driven by the charismatic chairman, former Fleet Street editor Michael Curtis.
It involved, among other things, changing the names of the group company and its subsidiaries to better reflect their activities and geography, developing a unique group logo that to this day remains the Nation group’s readily recognisable emblem, and widely promoting these and the individual businesses of the group and their performance record in order to set the scene for the offering of shares on the Stock Exchange in 1973.
This exercise was a remarkable success with the demand being such that the offer was two and a half times over subscribed and not just by institutional investors but also by many individuals throughout Kenya.
Becoming a publicly quoted company, one not only staffed by Kenyans but largely owned by Kenyans, was a long established objective of the group’s founder, the Aga Khan, and a key part of the strategy in assuring the independence of the Nation.
A financially weak media holds the danger of becoming an ethically compromised media. Therefore the fact that the group was solidly profitable and that its ownership was now spread over those initial 3,200 shareholders, was crucial in the years ahead, especially at times when its editorial independence was challenged.
This situation was reinforced when, in 1988, further shares were offered for subscription, resulting in the number of shareholders approaching almost 10,000.
Transferring from the group company, I was appointed managing director of Nation Newspapers in 1975. The priorities for the Nation at this point included an increased emphasis on Kenyanisation, through various recruitment and training initiatives in respect of every aspect of the company’s operations.
In particular, sustained effort was dedicated — as it would be over the succeeding decades — to developing reporting, writing and editing skills.
These initiatives expanded to cover important specialist areas, such as business, legal, education and medical reporting.
Attention was also given to other areas including technical and sales. When I left Kenya at the end of 1978 — though retaining my connection with the Nation through continuing board membership and regular visits to the country — out of the staff of just over 600 at Nation Newspapers, the 45 expatriates that were employed in 1971, had been reduced to 11. Indeed my own position had, itself, been Kenyanised.
In the 1970’s, the group had assumed an increasingly prominent position within the business community in Kenya. These were very exciting years to be in newspaper publishing. The Nation was expanding in the face of increasing competition.
While circulations were growing month by month, advertising sales required challenging the old ways, inaccurate perceptions and some fairly solid prejudices.
By utilising various reader research techniques, not only were our editorial decision-makers made more acutely aware of the nature of their growing readerships, but advertisers were provided with the impressive readership statistics and detailed demographic profiles that gradually won over major clients and an increasing share of their annual advertising budgets.
But there were other challenges. The environment was not always conducive to a free press. At times media legislation verged on being penal, reflecting its origins in the earlier colonial period of government.
Journalists were subject to arrest and in some instances work permits were withdrawn, individuals deported and photographers often had their film and equipment confiscated.
At this time, both radio and television were limited and restricted to state ownership, the Nation group only being granted licences in these fields three decades later, in 2000.
The challenge was, from time to time, to remain independent — and remain in business — in the face of the selective levying of heavy duties on essential imports, more particularly newsprint, the imposition of severe controls on pricing and, from time to time, the withdrawal of lucrative public service appointments and tender advertising.
Some of the major stories of the 1970’s were the coup in Uganda which brought Idi Amin to power; Kenya’s victories, led by Kip Keino winning the 3,000 metres steeplechase, at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and the Entebbe Raid in which the Israeli military spectacularly rescued their fellow citizens held hostage on an Air France flight diverted to Uganda.
Others were Kenya’s boycott, along with 26 other African countries, of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games in a protest related to the apartheid regime in South Africa; the foundation of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement by Wangari Maathai; the imprisonment of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, author of Petals of Blood; the break up of the East African Community consisting of Uganda and Tanzania in addition to Kenya.
The other stories were the growth in Kenya’s economy with the country’s success as a leading international tourism destination, rivalling the traditional role of tea and coffee as a substantial earner of foreign exchange; the failed efforts of vested interests to change Kenya’s constitution shortly before Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s death, changes that would almost certainly have impacted the succession; and the transition to the twenty-four year Presidency of Daniel arap Moi.
On the international front the Nation, recognised for the independence, authority and quality of its reporting, was quoted increasingly around the world in relation to important stories emanating from the region.
The murder in Nairobi of the parliamentarian, J.M Kariuki, in 1975, was one of the major news stories of this period, the reporting of which, however, resulted in a significant but rare crisis of credibility for the Nation, just as I was assuming the position of managing director.
This particular incident — where the Nation, having been responsible for actually breaking the story of his disappearance, subsequently incorrectly reported that Kariuki was in Zambia — certainly impressed on me the degree to which so many Kenyans trusted the Nation and the extraordinarily important role the group’s publications played in their lives.
In this sense— as virtually the sole independent newspapers in Kenya at the time — the Nation and Taifa had thrust upon them a role that proved often more intense than that of many national newspapers elsewhere. The common definition of the function of a newspaper as informing, educating and entertaining its readers found special expression in the Nation.
Gerard Wilkinson is a former Nation Group managing director. He is now a board member