Tall, lean and stern-faced, Miriti Mbui would have been a renegade cowboy in another life.
The hotelier and farmer with numerous enterprises to his name approaches business like a soldier, often bursting into new towns with guns blazing, spattering bullets of investments all over and reaping his harvest thereafter.
Mbui has 40 exotic cows that produce milk for sale, he grows maize, beans and hay, and has 55 pigs, which he rears for pork.
The farming endeavour dovetails neatly with his hospitality enterprise where he supplies milk, maize, beans and pork to his hotels and the waste food from the businesses is used to feed his pigs.
“I do not buy any produce from outside my farm for my hotels. All the food I sell in my hotels comes from my farms, where I control how it is produced.” This symbiosis gives him a tidy saving.
His farm in his Itugururu home, about 40km from the Chuka main road, is a lesson of how to successfully farm.
And as with his hotel business, Mbui does not buy feeds for his animals, he makes them himself.
His most recent venture is hay making. It’s not hard to see why it has him fired up. From the 11 acres he cultivates, he harvests 15 tractor loads, each of which he sells at Sh25,000.
A possible Sh4 million return from the harvest is impressive seeing that he only spent Sh15,000 to buy seeds. Apart from the fodder, his cows that produce 60 litres a day have the capacity to bring in an estimated Sh90,000 a month (a litre retailing at Sh50), although some of the milk goes to the hotel.
Mbui finds market for the pork in his butcheries as well as among individuals who come to buy pigs from his farm. He owns three butcheries — one at the Kimwa hotel, another in Marima and another in Mitheru. The pigs are priced at between Sh16,000 and Sh17,000 and in a month, up to 30 animals are sent to the butchery or sold off.
The constant litter of piglets that he breeds replenish the supply.
The farmer also sells maize and beans, which come from his farm to retailers, keeping some for the hotel. In a year, he harvests up to 250 sacks of beans and 100 sacks of maize. A 90kg sack of beans goes for Sh6,000 while a sack of maize Sh3,000.
But it has been a long journey for the astute businessman, who has literally risen from ash.
Mbui saw most of his property, including a farm in Kisumu, razed during the 2007 post-election violence.
Striding into Kisumu 24 years ago, Mbui conquered the town without a fight, making himself a millionaire living a life beyond his wildest dreams.
Kisumu would, however, later unleash deadly salvos that would send him running back home, where he found refuge in farming.
Mbui is the man behind the famous Kimwa cluster of hotels that once dotted the Kisumu skyline.
What makes his legend even more remarkable is the fact that he never stepped into a classroom. He had managed to rise to the top through his own creativity and hard work and in a big way embodied the African dream.
In his Itugururu home, Mbui has two hotels: one is under construction while another is ran by his son. The hotel under construction will have five floors and 87 rooms.
The Kimwa hotel in Chuka, the only one left standing after his Kisumu business was burnt down, has room for 122 beds. Each of his hotels in the lakeside town had a 120-bed capacity. Mbui explains that it was his lack of education that had him target the hotel industry and farming.
“I had not been to school, so I found it easy to do the two because it is just about looking at how much is coming in and going out,” he says.
It was his father’s procrastination that saw him miss out on school, getting promised week after week that he too would join. His older and younger siblings eventually attended school, but he was left taking care of cattle at home. His father later gave him a cow as if in consolation, which Mbui would use to get into business.
The businessman started by selling samosas on the roadside and markets at the age of 14, opening his first shanty hotel at 16 in his Marima hometown. It was a foreshadow of the megaliths that would later dominate the Kisumu skyline.
Mbui’s enthusiasm for whatever work he puts his hands to is clear.
“I used to wake up at 3am and I was the one doing everything — cooking, serving and washing dishes,” he says.
Although the hotel closed down after a year due to rising commodity prices, it was to lead him to his next ventures of selling second-hand clothes in Maua, setting up a butchery in Marima and running a matatu business between Chuka and Meru town.
Mbui’s Midas touch became even more apparent there, where he sometimes made double his capital outlay in a day. He became something of a celebrity in the village when he bought his first vehicle in 1975 at only 22, motor vehicles being a rare sight in the rural area at the time. The Land Rover was to be used as a matatu.
He grins widely as he recounts the hedonistic turn this later enterprise took, leading to huge losses. On one particular day, they carried girls for free on almost all trips and were left with no money for fuel or tea.
The hotelier and farmer presciently pulled out, preferring to sell the vehicle at a huge loss of Sh4,000, having bought it brand-new at Sh69,000.
“When I look back, this was a lesson. I learnt that money must be taken care of,” Mbui says.
Perhaps indicating that his home area had given him all it could and that it wanted him to travel further, business started to dry up.
Mbui then went to Kitale, where he immediately opened up a butchery, outselling other shops by opening his doors at 6am when others opened at 9am, and closing at 11pm when they closed at 6pm. He was later to open a pub beside the butchery, to cater for late-night revellers.
It was in Kitale that the farming bug hit him hard. He began with planting an acre of maize and then 20, later moving into dairy, drawn by the sheer aesthetic pleasure of owning a beautiful maize farm like others around him.
Some 14 years down the line, Kitale’s fortunes dwindled, numerous other butcheries having sprung up and pushed prices down.
Mbui then decided to pack his bags again and head to Migori with a lorry he had acquired, which he used to transport goods to Ahero. It was just a few months of doing this, before he heard and responded to Kisumu’s siren call.
The entrepreneur’s initial plan in getting into Kisumu was to transport sugar to the lake for export.
Noticing from his dealings at the lake that there was a lot of money to be made in exporting goods, he tried his hand at it and in a few months had gotten a lucrative deal to export beer to Mwanza.
Mbui eventually acquired five boats. Each made Sh50,000 on each trip and moved across the lake five times a month. From the boats alone, he was raking in a clean Sh1 million.
As if feeling that his soul had finally found a place to call home, Mbui settled in Kisumu, expanding his transport business, opening a hotel chain and embarking on large-scale farming. He named his speedily expanding enterprise Kimwa holdings, from a combination of Kisumu-Mwanza.
For 24 years, Mbui and the residents of the lakeside town lived together harmoniously, his businesses multiplying and thriving, only for the December 2007 election to turn her against him.
“I didn’t see it coming, it all happened as a shock,” Mbui says.
He watched helplessly as his hotels and vehicles were looted and burnt to the ground. But that was just the beginning of the horror. Rioters also invaded his house, ransacking it of all its contents, before burning it down.
The hotelier’s family and members of staff only managed to survive by getting sheltered by neighbours and being quickly escorted out of town by a contingent of police.
Broken by the tragedy, Mbui had to be airlifted to Nairobi by a police chopper, after which he reunited with his family in Chuka. The drama had led his health to deteriorate and he had gone without eating for days.
Mbui lost much: three hotels, a shopping complex, vehicles and three residential houses. Having gotten into farming in Kisumu as well, he owned a 28-acre farm with 83 cows, which supplied over 300 litres of milk daily to hotels, schools and individuals.
The cows, chicken, goats, housing structures for the animals and staff, generators, water pumps and other farming implements were stolen and burnt down. The total loss of his hotels, houses, shops, vehicles and farm, came to millions of shillings.
BACK TO NORMAL
Since then, things are more or less back to normal and life has picked up its usual pace, thanks to farming.
“I don’t remember it, I didn’t carry bitterness," Mbui says.
They did it without knowing what they were doing, things were just happening on a day-by-day basis. The police were too few to prevent all that was happening.”
Mbui had been in Kisumu with his two wives Susan Chesilak and Sophia Muya. Now, he grins cheekily as he says that he now has two-and-a-half wives, being in the process of marrying a new one. His experience indeed has parallels with hard-pressed Job of the Bible.
Does he have any new plans?
“With my farming, I am aiming for something easier. I am growing old now so I want something medium size. I don’t want a big ranch or something too small. I want to expand my farming empire,” Mbui says.