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KNCCI charts new path after decades of bitter turf wars

By Biketi Kikechi | December 22nd 2019

KNCCI president Richard Ngatia during an interview with Tony Gachoka on Point Blank. [Wilberforce Okwiri]

On last week’s Point Blank talk show on KTN, the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) president Richard Ngatia rekindled challenging times that institution has gone through over the years.

Before businessman Kiprono Kittony took over its leadership, the business lobby had been known more for leadership wrangles and scandals than advocating for interests of commerce in the country.

Journalists who reported on KNCCI activities in the 1990s to 2009 covered a chamber that was full of chaos, especially during the late Kassim Owango’s tenure as chairman.

The chamber at that time appeared to serve the interests of a few who were more of activists than business people. Many of them never owned or ran any businesses worth mentioning.

Violent and chaotic leadership wrangles were common in most branches. Some of those feuds were either covertly or overtly supported by the national office in Nairobi.

The systems that Ngatia and his team have institutionalised were lacking and players in the industry never benefited from local and global programmes that could have built business opportunities and capacity.

“When we took office, my secretariat and I set to transform KNCCI to a leading example in Africa and the world over, that is why we have developed a lot of partnerships to help members and the overall business environment in the country,” Ngatia told Sunday Standard after the programme was aired.

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He said they have ensured all members - both at national and county government levels are not left behind.

The priority areas were to improve membership and service delivery, financial stability as well as strengthen chamber chapters. This was in addition to embracing chamber advocacy and promoting equity in running the chamber affairs.

The fact that KNCCI can now address the media when reporting its achievements without turf wars is welcome.

In 1999, KNCCI made headlines for months, all for the wrong reasons due to feuds between the head office and the then Mombasa branch chair Gasper Walele.

The matter ended up in court with both parties filing suits after the Owango group accused Walele of illegally taking away some of the organisations property including typewriters, expenditure files, cheque books and a title deed.

The KNCCI later in 1999, withdrew the case and asked Walele to reciprocate by withdrawing any cases he had filed against the chamber.

They appointed a committee to take charge of the office - bringing to an end a protracted two-year stand-off in the year 2000. In August the following year, the chamber witnessed more drama after a 17-man caretaker committee led by Nairobi businessman David Mburu kicked Owango out of the KNCCI office that was then on Wabera Street, and changed door locks.

Endless wrangles

Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, Owango returned to the office three days later, in the middle of the night, with police officers and broke the doors.

The chamber was thereafter embroiled in endless wrangles. One of the local dailies wrote an editorial the following year 2001, asking: Why won’t Chamber boss Owango let go?

“Whatever is going on at the KNCCI is in very poor taste. What’s more, it is turning violent. And the solution to these problems is, in our view, very simple. Chairman Kassim Owango should leave office now... For he has had his turn and trying to force a longer stay through court injunctions and police action is not likely to restore the chamber’s dented image,” the paper wrote.

For another decade, the leadership wrangles continued haunting the trade lobby. It struck again in March 2012 sending into disarray polls that were to herald its rebirth.

The polls were cancelled amid allegations of irregularity.

Patrick Obath, who was the chair then, claimed that old rivalries had emerged and had to be addressed. Efforts by the new leadership to revamp KNCCI and rebuild its image is laudable. Court battles that led to the loss of property ended.

The KNCCI credibility was restored when the Kittony team took over the leadership mantle and normalised operations.

This created a professional institution with a sound foundation that the Ngatia’s team have used to transform and realign the trade advocacy while lobbying for opportunities.

To increase membership, Ngatia’s team started monthly recruitment drive in Murang’a, Embu and Kirinyaga counties and visited other counties for capacity-building programmes.

The aim was to de-risk SMEs through financial literacy training. They have also developed enterprise support forums to empower members on automation for the application of the certificates of origin for import and export.

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