We built Coop from scratch, Pioneer coop man who presided over construction bell-bottom cooperative house says

Bernard Kathanga, founder chairman of Cooperative Bank of Kenya, during an interview on his profile, in Nairobi on Thursday, February 14 2019. [David Njaaga,Standard]

The man under whose watch the Co-operative House, a sturdy Nairobi landmark that withstood the August 7, 1998 bomb blast was built lists the 25-storey bell bottom shaped building among his key achievements in a life spanning 90 years.

“President Jomo Kenyatta gave us land for the bank’s headquarters after I led a delegation to him with the request,” says Bernard Kathanga.

He recalls how then powerful head of the civil service Geoffrey Kariithi was ordered by President Kenyatta to write a letter allocating the land to Cooperative Bank after he tried to argue that it belonged to someone else. 

Save for a stubborn hobble incurred from a healed paralysis, Kathanga is fit as a fiddle in his nonagenarian days.

“I view the building as the acme of my life long contribution to Kenya’s cooperative movement that started shortly after high school in 1947,” he says.

Kathanga rates three secondary schools he helped elevate in his backyard among his top achievements. Kabare Girls High School is today a national school while Kerugoya Girls’ and Kianyaga Boys’ High Schools are centres of academic excellence. “I guaranteed loans worth millions of shillings for the schools to improve infrastructure while serving as managing director of Kirinyaga Coffee farmers cooperative union,” he says.

Political animal

A political animal from his early days, Kathanga in 1955 formed and chaired Embu African Democratic Party that together with Tom Mboya’s People People’s Congress Party and Nairobi African District Union of Argwings Kodhek later merged with Kenya African Union to form Kenya African National Union (KANU) in 1961.

The man from Gatunguru in Gichugu division, Kirinyaga County is an avid farmer with over 5,000 coffee trees to his credit besides bananas, vegetables and trees that have gradually mutated into a mini forest.

His sprawling bungalow bespeaks finesse, with smart hedges, well-kept lawns and a medley of attractive flowers as beautiful as they come. “I got some of these flowers from the late Mbiyu Koinange’s compound when he was a powerful minister in Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s Cabinet at a time I was MP for Gichugu,” he says.

“He was instrumental in my appointment as founder chairman of the Cooperative Bank of Kenya, a lofty achievement indeed at the time” he says.

He says similar plaudits for his rare feat came from Tom Mboya and then Chief Secretary, Geoffrey Kariithi.

“I went to my friend Tom Mboya for advice on the way forward and he asked me to take courage, citing his own example as Minister for Planning and Economic Development without the advantage of prior experience.” 

“I went to the Treasury for a loan and was given Sh125,000 by Finance Minister James Gichuru to start with instead of the Sh1 million I had asked for.

“Money started flowing after the meetings and I never went back for the remaining Sh750,000. Routine meetings followed, putting the bank firmly on its feet,” he says.

Financial flow triggered off the opening of branches countrywide, starting with Kisumu whose hinterland was the richest in co-operative societies followed by Meru, Nyeri and others.

Kathanga was chairman of the bank he founded for 15 years with Charles Rubia, Nairobi’s first African Mayor as his deputy.

His expertise in the cooperative movement saw him serve as board member of the defunct Kenya Coffee Planters Cooperative Union (KPCU) for 18 years and as interim secretary general of Kenya National Federation of Cooperatives at its formation.

He played a pivotal role in the formation of Cooperative Insurance of Kenya where he served as Vice Chairman to Henry Kinyua.

Kathanga’s career in the co-operative movement dates back to 1948, after School Certificate at Kagumo African Government School in 1947.

He landed a job as a clerk in the accounts department of Maize and Produce Board on the strength of his good command of mathematics and the English language.

“I was posted to Kisumu where I worked until 1952 when all Kikuyus were rounded up and detained on suspicion of belonging to the Mau Mau movement.

Kathanga was to spend two years at Molo detention camp followed by three months in Nakuru and four months in Gilgil before he was transferred to Embu and later released after one and a half months.

“I stayed at home for three months, only to be asked after an interview pitting me against six others to volunteer my services as secretary at Kabare Coffee farmers’ Co-operative Union under which a coffee factory was being constructed at Kiringa. I agreed.”

Kathanga remembers how a white agricultural officer in charge of Embu District came to inspect the new factory and recognised him as the young man with whom he had worked in Kisumu.

“The white man had been my trainer in book keeping. One thing led to another, culminating in being hired as an accountant at the Embu Farmers Co-operative Union, hence marking the launch of my long career in the co-operative movement.

Kathanga was four years later promoted to Deputy General Manager.

When Kirinyaga District was hived off Embu in 1964, Kathanga helped form Kirinyaga Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union of which he became general manager. He was elected councillor in the County Council of Kirinyaga a year later.

When Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union swept politicians including then Gichugu MP Njiru Gichoya from Kanu prompting snap elections in 1966, Kathanga threw his hat into the ring on a Kanu ticket and was elected.

His path in public service is littered with awards, among them Moran of the Burning Spear awarded by President Kibaki in recognition of his contribution to the cooperative movement and fellow of International Bankers Association. He has eight children by his two wives, the late Dorcas Karioko and Joyce Wanjiru.

We are undertaking a survey to help us improve our content for you. This will only take 1 minute of your time, please give us your feedback by clicking HERE. All responses will be confidential.

Co-operative HouseNairobiPresident Jomo KenyattaKANUCooperativesJames Gichuru