Why Chamber of Commerce needs steady leadership

Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Richard Ngatia dances with delegates from Coast region at the Kenya Red Cross hall in Malindi on Sunday, May, 7, 2023. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

Any modern nation has its fulcrum on a solid economy driven by trade and commerce. A country thrives against her neighbours and the world when the balance of payments is in her favour. 

Yet for business to grow, a country needs powerful lobby to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), leverage on technology transfer and strategically get cheaper imports for local production. 

The Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) has occupied this space since independence. At the dawn of independence, KNCCI marshalled all racist based chambers of commerce including the European, Asian and African to a one national outfit. 

And since 1965, the chamber was instrumental in implementing the Sessional Paper No. 10 that among other things pushed for Africanisation of Kenya’s economy.

At the time, Planning Minister Tom Mboya reasoned that while Kenyans had achieved political independence, the native population was still subjugated economically. They didn’t have licences or space to trade.

The Chamber under its first national chairman Joseph Gatuguta, was tasked to implement a programme that required diversified directorship of companies that required licences to do business here.

Supervised by then Minister of Commerce and Industry Dr Gikonyo Kiano, the Chamber led in securing economic independence of native Kenyans. But divisions in its leadership arose. The chamber was embroiled in leadership wrangles and court battles.

But ten years ago, Mr Kiprono Kittony implemented changes in the lobby including new laws that changed the leadership structure where conflicts didn’t have to find their way into courtrooms.

In 2019, then Nairobi Chamber chairman Richard Ngatia won the president of the chamber unopposed after his competitors stepped down for him. He put up the Kenya Business Awards in recognition of excellence among Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMES).  He set up a budget and put county chamber CEOs on full-time salaries. He pushed for establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in partnership with county governments.

His tenure came six months before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, offering the toughest test for him and all businesses. Many businesses were closing down due to strict social distancing measures.

Businesses needed intervention in terms of liquidity and human capital to remain afloat. Ngatia mobilised funding from partners such as Mastercard Foundation and Equity Bank to offer soft loans to businesses. Other partners such as Trademark and FSD offered business resilience training. 

Today, he has taken business diplomacy a notch higher, singing MoUs with foreign chambers as well as embassies to facilitate better trade between Kenya and the world.

A state visit by Colombia Vice President Marques Elena is a product of his meeting with Mrs Marques in February at the World Chambers Federation as a council member in Bogota. Next month, he will be seeking a second term.

The writer is a communications specialist