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Kakuzi turns on the charm after Sh694m hit for rights abuses

By Boniface Gikandi and Wainaina Wambu | August 17th 2021
By Boniface Gikandi and Wainaina Wambu | August 17th 2021

Ithanga MCA Waweru Mwangi, Kakuzi Assistant County Commissioner  Crispin Otien and Kakuzi General Manager Dr Willis Odiyo during the opening of Kahuroko- Sunset Road.[Boniface Gikandi,Standard]

The art of image management is likened to the engineering of public consent.

And for several months now, agricultural-multinational firm Kakuzi must have given public relations scholars enough study material.

This follows a tumultuous year in which it had to shell out £4.6 million (Sh694 million) in an out-of-court settlement with 85 victims who had sued the firm for human rights abuses.

The Makuyu-headquartered company in Murang’a County, which trades on both the Nairobi and London exchanges, has been on an overdrive to repair its tainted image.

Last week, it appointed former Attorney-General Githu Muigai to lead its human rights reforms in what is aimed at settling alleged abuses on its expansive farm, including rape and violence.

Githu will chair the firm’s newly created Independent Human Rights Advisory Committee (IHRAC), whose role will be providing technical advice to the board of directors.

Alongside IHRAC, Kakuzi has also enacted an Operational-level Grievance Mechanism, benchmarked against the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Members of the IHRAC include former Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) Board member Grace Madoka, former Finlays Kenya Legal and Human Resources director Dr Brenda Achieng, and Kakuzi’s non-executive independent director Andrew Ndegwa.

Kakuzi also retained the services of public relations firm Oxygene Marketing Communication Ltd to help shore up its media image. Oxygene is headed by several former journalists with years of experience in Kenya’s media landscape.

Scores of blue-chip firms and top government agencies have the marketing firm on retainer and it’s famous for having the best crisis managers. It appears like the company has been working quietly to fulfil the conditions of the out-of-court agreement.  

Interviews with several victims of the alleged abuses reveal they have received their payments.

Most of the families have since invested in upgrading their dwellings.

The company has also bought youths in the area motorbikes as a way of empowering them financially.

Kakuzi is majority-owned by the UK’s Camellia Plc, which entered an out-of-court settlement with the victims after a case filed by law firm Leigh Day in a British court. The company paid a heavy price over the allegations, losing lucrative supply contracts for avocados to leading UK supermarket chains, including Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Tesco when the news of the court case filtered in last October.

Kakuzi is sparing no expense in rebuilding its image and has also gone big on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

It’s now among the first companies to align itself to best practices. For example, in April, it “welcomed” a global report by the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), acknowledging the commitments it has made on labour rights.

In November last year, Kakuzi announced changes to its board in a shake-up that saw John Kibunga Kimani appointed as a non-executive director.

Mr Kimani is Kakuzi’s largest individual shareholder but couriously went without a director’s seat for years.

Kimani is said to have been born into a squatter family at the expansive Kakuzi farms. These strong societal ties to the land are believed to be his driving force in acquiring shares in Kakuzi, which is estimated to sit on more than 39,000 acres in Murang’a South.

The move has seen Kimani-backed squatters make it into the top 10 list of Kakuzi shareholders in just a few years.

A visit to the area around Kakuzi shows the firm has initiated development programmes and hired “gender-sensitive” guards to man its vast installations in a bid to endear itself to the community.

It has also additionally opened at least two public roads cutting across its plantations after the neighbouring community accused it of unlawfully blocking the roads, forcing them to use the circuitous routes to access their homes from the nearby highways. Two roads were opened last week in a public function.

Residents of Mwania Mbogo, Kirima, among other villages at the edge of the farm, used to travel more than 15 kilometres to access Kinyangi chief’s offices and health centre, a distance that has now been cut by over 10 kilometres following the opening of the new roads.

Almost daily, Kakuzi has been splashing pictures of its CSR activities on its social media pages, including notices of where individuals can lodge complaints against its workers.

Community health worker Antony Thuku said the opening of the roads makes a big difference in the lives of the local population.

Mr Thuku said the Sunset-Kahuro and Sunset-Kinyangi roads are 3.5 kilometres and four kilometres long respectively.

“We are opening a new chapter with Kakuzi and especially get an easy way for the sick to easily be taken for treatment at the health centre,” said Thuku.

Monica Nyaruai recounted how expectant mothers had suffered for ages due to a circuitous bumpy route to access the nearest maternity services at the Makuyu Health Centre.

“It might appear a small gesture, but the opening of the road is a big relief to many of us who have the unpleasant experience,” said Ms Nyaruai.

She also lauded the firm for ensuring there are more female guards than men in a bid to end instances of sexual molestation of women trespassing on the firm’s land, which formed a significant part of the petition that had been filed in the UK.

Ithanga Member of County Assembly Waweru Mwangi said the political leadership in the area is happy that the company has made some amends to comply with the out-of-court settlement.

“What is important is mutual respect from the two partners going forward so that we may never get into a similar situation again,” said Waweru.

The firm is also helping rehabilitate infrastructure at local schools, with Kakuzi Primary School being one of the major beneficiaries. Kakuzi General Manager Willis Odiyo pledged more assistance to the neighbouring communities, especially in addressing water provision and renovation of schools.

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