Kenneth Matiba: A man of many firsts

Monday April 16 2018

Kenneth Matiba, then Kenya’s Minister for Culture and Social Services with legendary boxer Mohammed Ali when he visited Kenya in 1980. PHOTO | FILE |

Kenneth Matiba, then Kenya’s Minister for Culture and Social Services with legendary boxer Mohammed Ali when he visited Kenya in 1980. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By JOHN KAMAU
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Kenneth Matiba was a man of many firsts. From becoming one of the youngest permanent secretaries to climbing the Himalayas, Mr Matiba was well-grounded in what he did.

On May 18, 1963 – and aged only 31 – Mr Matiba was summoned to the office of the colonial Permanent Secretary for Education, Mr David Gregg, who had good news for the young man: he was to be appointed the new PS in the ministry.

“I was astounded,” Mr Matiba later remarked.

As the first black PS in the ministry, which was then housed at Gill House, Mr Matiba was to oversee the africanisation of the education sector.

GRATITUDE

The next morning, Mr Matiba was taken to Government House (now State House)  where he met Duncan Ndegwa and Kitili Mwendwa. They had also come for their letters because in just a month, Jomo Kenyatta was to take over as the new Prime Minister.

“For that privilege I felt that I had to commit myself to serving all Kenyans and show my gratitude in a tangible way,” he wrote in his autobiography, Aiming High.

At first, Mr Matiba had thought of following his father’s footsteps as a teacher  and after leaving Makerere in 1960, he had decided that he wanted to teach in north eastern Kenya before moving to teacher training college. That was his ambition.

But this plan never worked after the Ministry of Education turned down his choice and he was posted to Kangaru Secondary School in Embu. But after only six months he was appointed deputy officer in charge of higher education at the Ministry of Education.

PERPLEXED

“My position was so crucial that no passport could be issued to any student going overseas without my signature,” said Mr Matiba

It was at this position that Mr Matiba met many students who would later be influential.

It was when he became a permanent secretary for Home Affairs that he got to work with Daniel arap Moi who was the minister. The two were bosom friends and when Mr Moi decided to jail Mr Matiba for his stand on multi-party politics, his friends were perplexed.

But it was at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Cooperatives that Mr Matiba started dealing with investors and he was thrown to various boardrooms where the government had interests.

While Mr Matiba deliberately refused to buy shares in companies where he could have conflict of interest, he watched as his friends made wealth through kickbacks. Rather than stay, he decided to quit and go into business.

JADINI HOTELS

It was in 1968 after he joined Kenya Breweries that he bought the Jadini Hotels in Mombasa. By this time, he had learnt about the hotel industry having been the director of Kenya Tourist Development Corporation which also gave him an opportunity to be on the board of Panafric Hotel in Nairobi.

At Jadini, Mr Matiba tested his survival skills in the hospitality sector. Every weekend, together with his business partner Stephen Smith, he would arrive at Jadini at 3am and the site meeting would start at 7am. They would then start the journey to Nairobi at 2pm!

But it was his climbing of the Himalayas — when he was Minister for Works — and walking from Nairobi to Muranga to raise funds, that catapulted Matiba to new heights. Mr Matiba managed to plant the Kenyan flag at the Island Peak, becoming the first Kenyan to do so.

At the Cabinet, Mr Matiba was known as the hard-working minister. Once, when he was Minister for Health, he ordered a clean up of the headquarters.

HOBBY

“I cannot tolerate filth wherever I am. I would personally clean toilets rather than leave them dirty,” he once told a reporter.

Before he joined politics, Mr Matiba was also an astute farmer.

“The farming I undertook at Limuru was something like a hobby,” he says in Aiming High.

Mr Matiba had first tried a pig project in Limuru and was at one time one of the largest African pig producers in the country, specialising in the production of porkers. The pig project collapsed after one of his workers overfed the animals and they all became too fat.

“In the end, the pig project had to close down. By then I was losing money. Luckily, it was not too difficult to sell the pigs…at give-away prices. I discovered that many entrepreneurs felt embarrassed and uneasy about a failing business,” Matiba would later say.

VEGETABLES

From pigs, Mr Matiba moved to growing vegetables in his Limuru farm where his wife, Edith, had been experimenting with capsicums and courgettes. It was this business that led them to the export business. The Matibas then learnt there was market for French beans and he investigated how the fruit, vegetable and flower business worked. Soon, he became a direct exporter and at one point he was the largest producer of French beans.

His only disappointment then was with the East African Airways which was going through serious problems and at times his cargo would be left behind. This forced him to rethink the vegetable business which was not making money. 

The cargo problems persisted to an extent that Mr Matiba decided to start an air freight airline. He even registered a company known as African International Airways and invited Mr John Michuki and Mr Charles Njonjo into the venture. This was during the days of East African Community and all the three countries operated a single airline.

65,000 POUNDS

Mr Matiba and his group managed to get an aircraft, a Britannia, and it was flown to Nairobi for inspection.  It was to cost them 65,000 pounds. But the matter was leaked to a Tanzanian paper which claimed that the Kenya government had overthrown East African Airways and wanted to register a new airline. The group decided not to go ahead with the project because it was complicating relations within the East African Community.

Mr Matiba was encouraged to go into flower farming by his two friends across the valley in Limuru who were exporting them to Europe. He had to convince the Agriculture Finance Corporation to give him a loan to start the project. It was this business that thrived and Matiba became one of the leading flower farmers in Kenya.

12,350 ACRES

Mr Matiba also took the lead in the 1970s when he helped form Wangu Investments Company Limited.

The initial aim was to buy shares in various public companies which they could then sell and buy land.

In 1977, Mr Matiba learnt that a Timau farmer, Mr Robert Wilson, was selling his 12,350-acre piece of land. But because many cooperative groups bought land and ran them down, Mr Wilson was not willing to sell to a group. The farm was good. It had 22,600 head of sheep, 2,500 beef animals and 700 pigs.

STILL THRIVES

The selling price was a staggering Sh34.4 million.

When Mr Matiba said he did not have that kind of money, Mr Wilson told him that he hoped that he would not organise for a co-operative to buy it. Mr Matiba assured Wilson that it would be a public company and that the farm would be run as it was.

Wangu is still surviving to date and still thrives – when all other big farms have collapsed. It was Mr Matiba’s gift to his Kiharu residents.