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Muthaiga: Inside one of Kenya’s elite golf clubs

Muthaiga Golf Club. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

If you want something done, give it to a busy person.

There’s a truth to this statement when one meets Ronald Meru, chairman of the Muthaiga Golf Club. His two phones are in an endless buzz as he artfully dashes to attend to each of them.  

But there’s clarity to his uncompromising priorities – family, business and golf.

“I hold several leadership positions. But above all, I’m the chairman of my own home where I have a loving wife, a five-year-old daughter and a son who recently turned one,” he tells Financial Standard.

“I balance many things, but everything is clockwork.”

His eyes glow when he talks about golf, a sport he has played since boyhood and the meticulous detail it takes to run the prestigious “home of golf.”

Backed by a rich history, elite membership and a remarkable 18-hole golf course, the 94-year-old Muthaiga Golf Club is a cornerstone in Kenya’s golfing, tracing its roots to 1927 when it was founded by white settlers.

But it is much more than a golf club, having facilitated business deals, the birth of companies and lifelong friendships.

Muthaiga Golf Club. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Over a round of golf on the course one afternoon in 1997, four entrepreneurs led by Jimnah Mbaru mulled a plan to pool Sh51 million and form an investment firm that is now known as TransCentury.

Muthaiga Golf Club, whose membership fee is one of the most expensive in the country at Sh1 million, is made up of Kenya’s movers and shakers, captains who control key economic sectors.

One of its best-known members is retired President Mwai Kibaki.

Does this mix of Kenya’s wealthiest and most influential individuals create a clash of egos at the club?

“The best thing that you get here is that once you are in Muthaiga, everybody has their own respect and looks at others as equals. Whatever title you have, you leave it at the gate,” says Meru.

To outsiders, the club, located in one of Nairobi’s most prime addresses where an acre of land is priced northwards of Sh185 million, according to property firm Hass Consult, has always been seen as an old boys’ club run by grey-haired men. Intriguingly, Meru is strikingly young. 

“One of the best things members have done in the recent past is appointing me to be their leader. They’ve embraced change and youthful leadership,” says Meru, who’s been at the helm of the club for the last two years. “Members are (mostly) captains of industry, and once you listen to what they are saying and are able to embrace them in every decision that you make, they’ll always work with you and support you.”

Muthaiga is one of the busiest golf clubs in the country with a minimum of 150 rounds of golf played there daily.

“In a month, we do 4,500 rounds of golf cutting across from juniors, the normal membership age and even seniors over 80 years,” he says. 

Muthaiga Golf Club members pavilion, May 2014. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Meru started golfing at the Thika Sports Club as a junior member with the encouragement of his parents, John and Mercy Meru, who are also avid golfers. 

Growing through the golfing ranks prepared him for his current role.

Meru joined Muthaiga Golf Club in 2010 and owing to his skills, was soon co-opted into one of the committees.

Before becoming chairman, he served as marketing director.

Marketing was fairly new in the club, which had to change internal and external communications, with Meru coming up with different initiatives that members supported.

“It helped me and showed people what I was capable of before I became chairman,” he says.  

His role is a job that requires the common touch, which is seen in how he stops at tables to talk to members.

“Leadership is the impact that you make and how you grow the people around you. My work is to make sure that the board and everybody else is aligned and achieves the same goal.”

But how good is Meru at golf?

“With my position, I’ve not been playing a lot, but my handicap is at 17. I think the lowest I’ve ever played is around 12”.

Muthaiga Golf Club's well-lit hole 18. [XN Iraki, Standard].

Golf handicaps are numbers that represent a player’s ability based on their previous round’s scores, with the handicap for men being between zero and 28.

“We aren’t like the pros who play at the Kenya Open, but we can hit the ball and enjoy ourselves,” chuckles Meru, adding that his daughter has already started golfing at five years. He has a day job as the Head for Africa at Comviva Ltd, a tech firm that works with telcos, and has done mobile money platforms for Airtel.

He also sits on several boards, including the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry as a director of Nairobi County, where he’s in charge of economic diplomacy. Meru also sits on the board of Uber Pesa, a peer-to-peer lending company and the board of the Mang’u High School where he’s an alumnus.

We are seated at the club’s garden overlooking the pristine golf course spanning 300 acres. Running such an expansive space is no joke, admits Meru.

“Our overheads are not less than Sh6 million monthly,” he says.

The power bill alone averages Sh1 million monthly because of pumping water to water the course. The course also has many dams, with only five holes not having a water feature. 

The club runs an automated water irrigation system that keeps the grass green throughout the year. Some of the staff, Meru says, have been poached to keep the lawns of State House as green.

A section of Muthaiga Golf Course, Nairobi.September 2021. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Some of his proudest moments include winning the best golf club in the country in 2021, hosting the revamped Magical Kenya Tour, winning the Tannahill Tournament and Easter Tournament last year, ending the club’s trophy drought.

They’ve also produced the top juniors and ladies regionally. He says plans are in the pipeline to build a hotel and accommodation quarters at the club.

Golf clubs are known to have strict rules, such as making or answering a phone call within the clubhouse.

Muthaiga is no different. While waiting for the chairman, this writer is warned by a waiter to get off the phone.

“When the mobile phone came, people misused it. Somebody comes in here and has to tell everybody that he’s closed a deal of over Sh10 million very loudly,” says Meru explaining why phones are disallowed.

Since their inception hundreds of years ago, golf clubs are seen as places for “ladies” and “gentlemen,” hence the strict etiquette levels.

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