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Kenneth Mbae: Intern who rose to manage Sh24b property portfolio

Kenneth Mbae (in white polo-shirt) Managing Director Centum Real Estate and James Mworia, CEO of Centum Investment (blue polo shirt) during a construction inspection visit of Loft Residences at Two Rivers Development [Courtesy]

Few have handled multi-billion transactions before hitting age 35. Mr Kenneth Mbae is among these few.

Mr Mbae was recently announced as the new managing director for Centum RE, a subsidiary of the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) listed Centum Investment.

In a span of 12 years, he has risen from an intern tasked with small errands to now managing a Sh24 billion real estate portfolio with plans to list in the next three years.

In an interview with Enterprise, Mr Mbae shares his journey to the top including creation of wealth not only for shareholders but also across the value chain and uplifting local communities.

The start

In 2010, aged 23, he joined Centum fresh from campus as an intern - shuttling across various departments for experience.

“I ended up in the real estate department and automatically fell in love with it ... It was about creating things that have never been done before,” Mbae recalls.

Around that time, Centum Investment was finalising the land acquisition of what is now the Two Rivers Mall – a Sh25.2 billion mixed-use landmark where people live, shop, work and play.

“I was the youngest in that real estate team and the lowest ranking, so I was responsible for making sure we fence and plant trees.”

“The first Annual General Meeting (AGM) was done here and I facilitated that. I also helped in doing a lot of the market research on all the firm’s projects across Nairobi. I got to learn a lot about how things are done,” says Mr Mbae of his formative business years.

Burning ambition

Did Mr Mbae ever think he’d occupy the corner office?

When he joined, he found an equally young management team led by the CEO Mr James Mworia.

Mr Mworia, one of the highest paid executives in corporate Kenya taking home Sh43 million in 2021, also joined Centum aged 23 as an intern back in 2001.

In seven years, he rose to become CEO and is credited for growing Centum from a Sh6 billion asset firm to over Sh40 billion, managing over Sh140 billion third-party funds.

“When I came here, we were young guys who were extremely over ambitious, so I knew I would do something big,” says Mr Mbae. 

It still is and was, he explains, a team of young people who’ve never done it before but were offered the opportunities to make a difference.

This created an aspirational workplace where workers believe they are transforming the Kenyan and regional scope by offering investors inaccessible opportunities.

“Opportunities are put together or they arrive looking as impossible situations, those impossible situations are what an opportunity to us is. For instance, a project like Two Rivers had never been done before in the region, there was no reference and it seemed impossible. When presentations used to be done, you’d see people really doubting,” says Mr Mbae.

He also cites the inspiration of the late multi-billionaire industrialist Chris Kirubi who had served as the Centum Investment chairman.

Mr Mbae’s ambitions have also always been big. He knew he’d either be a big business owner or running a business conglomerate and giving thousands job opportunities.

He now leads a team of over 50 and indirectly gives jobs to hundreds.

Preparing for future opportunities

Mr Mbae was the founding managing director of Vipingo Development, in Kilifi County which is the largest Centum RE subsidiary spanning over 8,000 acres.

He set it up from scratch and is credited with transforming it into a business valued at over Sh20 billion with over Sh9 billion in sales and Sh5.3 billion in cash collections.

The job came to him by way of “preparing for opportunities that don’t exist.”

Around 2013 to 2014, Mr Mbae had been sent to Uganda to help set up the prime Pearl Marina Estate. There, he completed the land acquisition, assembled the team and was the main guy “on the ground” until the project launched.

He had since gotten the experience of setting up a project and then handing it over to an experienced team to execute.

At Two Rivers, he’d established the estate and mall management business after its construction.

“So when the Vipingo land acquisition was done, I was the development manager responsible for doing feasibility, assembling the team and the master plan on what could be done,” he explains.

Initially, he says, they were to do 30 houses but this grew to hundreds ending up with over 500 houses.

“I’m a practical businessman... if you are talking and doing nothing you are sort of attracting poverty but if you are doing it, your results speak louder than what you are saying.”

Prior, Vipingo had been a 10,000 acre sisal plantation. They did a feasibility study on the area and saw demand for housing, industrial and shopping real estate.

Another big demand they saw was for fresh water which is a headache in the coastal region.

They would travel the world looking for firms to help them build a sea water desalination plant.

The plant has a capacity of three million litres of water daily and provides over half of that each day. The plant is a key competitive edge for Vipingo and provides safe, clean water to residents.

He was also leading a lean team of three dedicated guys who wanted to solve real estate solutions.

“It (Vipingo) was done by a team with no experience. We just got experts armed with the know-how and did affordable projects. We’d done research and found out that no one was addressing that market.”

The units they developed in Vipingo including Palm Ridge Apartments and Awali Estate were quickly snapped up by diaspora where they’d done roadshows to market.

Diversification

They also birthed a cashew nut plantation out of experimentation on whether it would do well in Vipingo as a substitute for sisal.

After research, Mr Mbae and his team had learnt that Cashew nuts were introduced from Brazil and grew well anywhere between 0 to 1,500 metres above sea level.

Then went to Kenya Agricultural Research Organisation (KALRO) and got seedlings which they planted on 20 acres and increased it to 100 acres.

A Sh1 billion nut processing factory tipped to employ over 1,000 Kilifi residents at full capacity has since been set up in partnership with international investors.

Eating failure for breakfast

Mr Mbae refers to his method as a dose of confidence mixed with proper market research. He’s never afraid of failure, describing it as “what we have for breakfast here.”

“If you’re doing this business you can’t be afraid of failure ... For every ten things that you do, just make sure six are positive. The four you fail, learn quickly from them and on your next business move you can know why you’ll fail or not fail,” he says. 

For instance, he points out that an industrial park was scheduled to be the anchor project for Vipingo.

An industrial park, he figured, would be a hot cake to serve the EPZs and other manufacturers in the area.

However, when they started talking to investors and making presentations, they kept being asked about accommodation and amenities such as shopping and entertainment.

They quickly changed tack.

“We realised there were missing components to the industrial park, so we quickly set up residential and it took off. In essence, the industrial park didn’t go according to plan but we didn’t give up ... you fail, learn quickly and then move up,” he says, noting that they never abandoned the industrial plan and it’s picking up.

Having a vision and strategy

Mbae had previously also served as the chief operating officer at Centum RE. In his new role as managing director, he says the vision is to grow it into an over Sh100 billion business and have it listed in the next three years.

“Because the business is well set up and well organised. We can only grow.”

Secondly, he says that their track record is attracting a lot of international capital from the diaspora.

They also want to expand the business taking real estate solutions to other counties and further to the larger East African region.“As the population grows, the one thing that will not run out of demand is housing,” he says.

He describes himself as a proper workaholic but there’s a method to his efficiency. “I’m result oriented, so when I come to the office it’s not necessarily the number of hours I’ll apply. It’s how dedicated I’ll do something to get the desired outcome.”

He prefers minimum meetings and spends 90 per cent of his time developing new ideas. He’s also a dedicated family man who ensures he’s home early enough daily to help out with his daughter’s homework.

Building wealth and touching lives
Centum RE has over the past few years handed over 800 houses and has a pipeline of almost 1,700 under construction.

“Since 2019 to date, across our projects, we have paid out almost Sh7 billion to contractors, architects, design, marketing and anyone who’s involved in offering services,” he says.

Total sales from all these projects is over Sh20 billion.

Mr Mbae remains modest, attributing his achievements to hard work. He says that it’s been a rewarding journey not only making a difference in his own life but also on those of others.

“Through the projects that we’ve done, we’ve offered opportunities to many people across various sectors. We’ve been a catalyst of economic empowerment through construction, we employ thousands of people and you also impact several businesses across the value chain.”

It takes about three years for their projects to complete and this has offered a lifeline to most businesses.

He also helped set up the Vipingo Scholarship Fund that offers full high school scholarships to over 250 bright and needy students.

“Some of them are on campus and you can imagine what they’d do when they finish school and start working to give back to their community,” he explains.

They also offer vocational training to youth taking guys with no employable skill sets, training them on construction related courses and having them certified so they can be absorbed into the job market.

“We’ve been touching several lives. This is more fulfilling than anything else. Real estate investment is a bit long term, so everyone else gets something out of it and the investor is the last in the value chain,” he says.

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