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Matiba the brewer and myth about his riches

By Wainaina Ndung'u | Published Tue, April 17th 2018 at 00:00, Updated April 17th 2018 at 09:17 GMT +3
Kenneth Matiba
Kenneth Matiba

For many years, Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL), the local subsidiary of the East African Breweries, straddled the beer market like a colossus.

For many years too, many Kenyans believed the myths that teetotaler Kenneth Matiba had a substantial stake in the brewery, that he earned royalty from every beer sold and that even one of their products had been named after him. But courtesy of his autobiography Aiming High, we know that most of that was a myth, perhaps a self conscious inspiration to the newly independent nation.

"The African would be imprisoned for drinking a European "superior" beer Tusker, which today has been boosted as a world famous brand through African consumption and participation in its brewery headed by mwananchi Kenneth Matiba, as the first non-European General Manager," wrote Ojwando Abuor in White Highlands No More, published in 1970.

Matiba confesses he left the public service after being put off by a property acquisition craze by his counterparts, fueled by kickbacks.

When he left the Government for KBL in 1968, the man who had become Permanent Secretary aged 31 in 1963 had up to five job offers, but picked the brewer's offer.

"I joined KBL as a management trainee, a concept which did not make a lot of sense to a lot of people for a man who had been in my position," he says.

He had been offered a structured entry into top management, becoming the personal assistant to Managing Director Brian Hobson after one year, and General Manager of Kenya Breweries in the third year, and then Managing Director in the fourth.

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It had much to do with the Africanisation policy that the newly independent nation had officially adopted.

Things happened pretty fast because by July 1969, he had become GM of KBL, only 12 months since joining. "In November the same year, I was promoted to position of Managing Director, two and a half years ahead of schedule," he said.

Hobson remained the Managing Director of EABL while Sir Michael Blundell, the former politician who had poached Matiba from Government, was chairman of both companies.

Although Matiba has remained a teetotaler all his life as he said in a 2000 interview with this writer, he was fascinated by the job.

Wangu Embori Farm, which he and his village mates bought and ran with amazing success, was a major supplier of barley to the breweries.

Learning the ropes in the sales department in Tanzania Breweries, he talks of a philosophy stringently followed to ensure no sales were lost due to failure to cover an outlet by a distributor. "The theory was that as long as there was beer available in the shelves, people would drink it," he wrote in his autobiography. "'Tempt the beer drinkers and they will succumb' was the philosophy."

Matiba gained popularity at home for connecting his village mates to jobs in the brewery, building the Kisumu Brewery and the Kenya Maltings Factory during his tenure.

Matiba is not among the listed top shareholders of East African Breweries according to disclosures by the Nairobi Securities Exchange listed company. Neither are companies associated with him anywhere in the top listed shareholders.

Most of Matiba's financial kingdom became apparent during his troubles with commercial banks that wanted to sell his property after his empire collapsed owing to his detention and personal financing for the 1992 failed presidential bid.

One could only conclude that had the myths about his stranglehold on the brewer had any truth, it would have come out the way his stake at Carbacid Limited was public knowledge.

At Carbacid, where as principal shareholder he had a tussle with a former cabinet colleague and the management, his creditors attempted to attach his annual dividends.


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