How wanted tycoon grew vast empire from a corner eatery

Billionaire Humphrey Kariuki. Inset: The former Green Corner restaurant in Nairobi. [File, Standard]
On April 25, 2005 billionaire Humphrey Kariuki put an end to one of the most exciting chapters of his life.

Acting under his instruction, a bevy of lawyers sat in a nondescript office on Nairobi’s Kaunda Street and finalised what could be termed as the end of an era. After enjoying decades of success, the businessman was cutting off ties with something that had been part of him for ages. Something that had provided a foundation on which many other ventures stood.

Perhaps, while trying to beat back last minute jitters over what was about to happen that Monday, he may have tried to blame the faulty typewriter in the stationery room or the broken Panasonic phone model number KX-T2310 tucked away somewhere in the dry good store. Or the grounded burger making machine taking up too much space in the production kitchen. Or the bust up Pioneer giant TV mounted on the wall of a pub a few metres away.

Flagship businesses

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But try as he may, none of these reasons were enough to make him sell his crown jewel. Something else was motivating him to let go of the popular Green Corner Café and Restaurant, its offspring Twigs Restaurant and their raucous brother Cactus Pub.

Amidst the chaos that are currently surrounding Kariuki’s business empire, Sunday Standard takes you behind the scenes and back to when the reclusive billionaire first started to make ripples in the business world. And more importantly how he eventually put his flagship businesses up for sale in pursuit of the faster paced world of oil and natural gas exploitation and real estate.

In September 1984 when many Kenyans were busy whispering about the possibility of the emergence of a strange disease that was taking no prisoners, Kariuki, bored stiff from his clerical job at the Central Bank of Kenya was opening the doors of Green Corner Café and Restaurant with only one promise to his clientele: delicious, high quality food in a clean environment.

“I was looking for an investment. Initially we planned to start an exclusive dry cleaning agency. The Green Corner was up for sale. It happened to be the right size for a dry cleaning business...when I studied the books I noticed coffee shops did moderately well and abandoned the dry cleaning idea,” Kariuki said in a May 16, 1991 interview.

Two years later, the hotel previously occupying only one corner at the ground floor of Tumaini House expanded to take up more space upstairs. Three years later, enjoying the success of the booming food business in the city, the hotel expanded to include the Twigs Restaurant.

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The new venture, moved away from food and became one of the few restaurants in Nairobi back then that specialised in different varieties of ice cream.

“The irrepressible Mr Kariuki has now got his thumb in another pie...,” begins one review of the new restaurant in a local daily published on May 16, 1991. “Fun and games is the order of the day - 23 different ice creams are on offer...”

With these three outlets up and running, Kariuki still harbored greater ambition. Those who knew him at the time told Sunday Standard that he still wanted more. Always meeting up with people perceived to be higher up the success pyramid.

His time at Central Bank gave him a taste of what life could be, leaving him forever in the chase of the next big thing. Something better. Something that would make the boy from Ndima Village, Nyeri, be remembered not just by his second name but by what he would achieve in life.

At this period in his life, the now 62-year-old looked up to one Joseph Kahora Waiguru. A former post independence DC and a longtime employee of the Central Bank.

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Kariuki was the second youngest in his family. The friend in conversation was Kahora who died on February 21, 2019. Kariuki’s businesses had been raided by DCI officers barely two weeks before the death of the man who introduced him to a life that he could never have dreamed of.

The appetite for success created by the achievements of his food business gave birth to something even he could not tame. The need for more.

It is rumoured that if a document was ever issued to Kariuki, be it a fuel receipt or a dinner invoice, he still has it. Both the original and copies too. So when in 1993 he pitched for business at the American Embassy, staffers were not surprised that he got it. Green Corner was then offered a contract to operate the American Embassy Cafteria for the next four years.

When this contract came to an end, his catering business was again awarded a contract to operate the Kenya Airways and KLM Lounges for the economy, premier and first class passengers. This was in 1997.

Two years later, in 1999, he got another contract to operate the Kenya Duty Free Coffee Shop and Bar for five years.

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In the middle of all this, Cactus Pub was opened in 1994.

“The creation of Cactus Bar in May 1994 was as a result of the changing needs of our customers. With first class entertainment and different themes for every day of the week, the Cactus soon gained popularity,” an internal business profile about the hotel done and circulated to prospective buyers says of the bar.

When the new millennium came knocking and nerds were fixated on the Y2K bug, Kariuki had done all he could in the hotel business. Growth seemed to lie elsewhere. With the technology boom, and the exponential expansion of the derivatives market, Kariuki reinvented himself. He had done a lot of cooking. He had done his bit of fueling people.

In 2002, he dove head first into energy and in April of that year, he registered Dalbit Petroleum Limited, an energy company with a footprint in close to half a dozen mineral rich countries. Although he grew up in the relative peace and quiet of the central Kenyan highlands, Dalbit has not shied away from operating in war zones.

In March 2006, delegations from Kenya and Sudan completed trade talks that had been dragging on for five years in a bid to cement trade ties between Nairobi and Juba. At this time, the world is well aware that Sudan would eventually break into two in spite of the bloody war that was going on in the oil rich Darfur region.

Mining interests

For the first time in generations, it seemed that peace would finally visit southern Sudan. Sensing this possibility, Dalbit moves in. Quickly. On July 10, 2006 Dalbit International Limited is registered by the government (in waiting) of Southern Sudan.

From Juba, Dalbit International moved further south and pursued other mega mining interests in Mozambique and Zambia.

Today, the 62-year-old Kariuki from Ndima village owns many more companies. His day does not end with balancing the books from the restaurant business or haggling over prices with fresh produce suppliers from the historic Marikiti market.

Instead, his brow is furrowed from more responsibilities complicated by crisscrossing time zones and humouring government officials from different nationalities.

Now, another line might just be added to his brow. He is wanted by the Kenyan government. A very large tax bill, Sh14.5 billion, accrued by the vast Kariuki Empire, the government says, is due for collection; a bill that can shake the foundation set all those years ago to the core and possibly bring several ivory towers standing on it tumbling down.

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Tax evasionHumphrey KariukiDalbit International Limited