Rise and rise of cement tycoon under Kibaki, Uhuru regimes

Sunday May 26 2019

 Narendra Raval

The chairman of Devki Group, Narendra Raval, after winning the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in Nairobi on December 5, 2018. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

BRIAN NGUGI
By BRIAN NGUGI
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Last week’s announcement by billionaire businessman Narendra Raval, who founded the Devki Group of Companies, that he would acquire struggling cement processor ARM for Sh5 billion has turned a new spotlight on the tycoon, who has built a massive business empire amid intricate political connections.

The deal announced Wednesday will see National Cement Company Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Devki Group, acquire all cement and non-cement assets and businesses of ARM Cement PLC in Kenya, cementing the businessman’s vast interests in the construction sector.

Marriage of money, power and politics is not strange to Kenyan business oligarchs and Mr Raval’s rise to fame and fortune is punctuated with the hallmark of the explosive mix.

Some of the most successful tycoons in Kenya have behaved as Charles Darwin would advise — adapting to their new environment by lying low and acting loyal. This perfectly fits Mr Raval, according to analysts and observers. Observers said the businessman has best mastered the art of cunning blandness while courting the political class.

Mr Raval admitted on Friday in an interview with the Sunday Nation that he has deep-rooted friendships with the country’s top political circles.

But the soft-spoken, astute tycoon whose rise to fame and riches is the perfect tale of grass to grace, vehemently denied that these connections have catapulted his business empire.

“No doubt in politics we know all as good friends and well-wishers,” Mr Raval told the Sunday Nation. “But we never did or do any business with government as a policy of our company. And you can't be successful businessman if you are deepening your business on political confection.”

However, observers think otherwise.

“He has always played a long term game and built many interlocking relationships across the political spectrum,” said Deepak Dave, a Nairobi-based analyst of Mr Raval’s rise.

“Equally, by running clean and well-meaning businesses, he has garnered the support of powerful development finance organisations who monitor his practices, so it shows they must be happy with his governance and tax compliance,” added Mr Dave.

Kenyans first got a public glimpse of Mr Raval’s dalliance with the political elite through former vice-president Kalonzo Musyoka’s memoirs titled Against All Odds, co-authored by former Nation journalist Caleb Atemi.

In the book, Mr Musyoka reveals how a surprise meeting over dinner at the home of Mr Raval days to the 2007 General Election set the stage for Mr Kalonzo’s appointment as vice-president.

Mr Musyoka, who had fallen out with Orange Democratic Movement’s Raila Odinga to run for the presidency on his own, writes that he had been under intense pressure from Mr Kibaki’s emissaries to drop out of the race and support him.

“Efforts by Kibaki and his allies to get me to his side had been going on for many months, even before the elections and I had rejected all of them,” Mr Musyoka writes in his memoir.

Coalition government

Mr Musyoka names the Kibaki allies who were putting pressure on him as former Equity Bank chairman Peter Munga, the bank’s chief executive James Mwangi, Nairobi tycoon Chris Kirubi and Mr Stanley Murage, a former Kibaki adviser and strategist.

Their message was simple; Drop out of the presidential race and support Kibaki in return for forming a coalition government if he wins, he writes.

Mr Musyoka says he rejected all the approaches until the surprise meeting at Mr Raval’s home.

“One evening,” Mr Musyoka writes, “Just days to the election date, I was invited to dinner by Mr Narendra Raval Guru, the chairman of Devki Group of Companies.

The group is one of Kenya’s biggest players in the construction in­dustry. In its stable are Devki Steel Mills, National Cement and Maisha Mabati Mills. Mr Guru then lived in a palatial home in the neighbourhood of Nairobi’s Runda estate.

“I arrived at his house and, as we made small talk ahead of the meal, I was surprised to see Kibaki walk into the room in the company of Stanley Murage, his adviser and strategist.”

Mr Kibaki was eventually declared winner in the tightly contested election and his closest challenger Mr Odinga, disputed the victory.

Mr Raval’s Devki Group of Companies has a regional presence with companies manufacturing cement, steel products, and roofing sheets. Mr Raval was in 2015 featured in Forbes Magazine ranking of Africa’s top 50 richest people with his fortune estimated at $400 million (Sh40 billion) at the time.

The Devki Group was already generating about $650 million (Sh65.8 billion) annual revenues by 2015, according to information on its website.

Mr Raval owns a cement grinding plant in Lukenya (Machakos County) and a clinkering plant at Simba town in Kajiado County.

His Devki Group owns steelmaking factories in Athi River (Machakos) and Ruiru town in Kiambu County.

Companies under the Devki Group conglomerate include Devki Steel Mills Limited, National Cement Company Limited Uganda, Maisha Mabati Mills Limited and Northwood Aviation Limited.

In 2017, Mr Raval announced that he was beginning construction of two Sh3 billion cement factories, each with a capacity to produce 750 million tonnes of cement annually.

The first plant is located in Mariakani, Kilifi County, while a second plant is in Rongai, Nakuru County.

This adds to another new cement clinker plant that he set up in Merrueshi/Mbirikani (Kajiado).

Personal experiences

His 2018 autobiography titled ‘Guru: A long walk to Success,’ documents the journey of a boy from a little-known village of Mathak in Gujarat, India, into creation of one of East Africa's biggest privately held business groups straddling building, construction and aviation.

“These practical guidelines for succeeding as a trader or an industrialist are all based on my personal experiences in the world of commerce and industry, not drawn from any management textbook,” he states in the book.

The entrepreneur, popularly referred to as ‘Guru’, is also one of the country's notable philanthropists, spending millions annually on scholarships.

In 2017, he pledged to donate at least half of his net worth to causes in education and health, as well as other social programmes, to benefit Kenya’s poor.

“I have decided in my will that I don’t want to go on keeping the money for myself,” Mr Raval was quoted saying.

“I will keep 50 per cent for my children and the other 50 per cent will go to charity in Kenya.”