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The empire that took James Njenga Karume a lifetime to build

            Cianda House in Nairobi owned by Njenga Karume.  The late Karume and his wife during their wedding. [PHOTOS: WILLIS AWENDU AND JOHN MUCHUCHA/STANDARD]


At the time of his death, James Njenga Karume, was among the wealthiest individuals in Kenya.

His vast business empire cut across almost every major economic artery of the country, with multi million investments in agriculture, transport, hospitality and the Nairobi Securities Exchange.

His was, however, not an easy life and from personal testimony from his autobiography, Karume would easily pass as the poster child for the millions of struggling youth looking to make something of their life from nothing.

The self-made business mogul was born in 1929 on Lord Delamere’s ranch in Naivasha.

He was the eldest of eight children to Joseph Karume (later changed name to Karogo) and Teresia Njeri Karogo, who were indentured servants working for colonial white settlers for a pittance.

From such an impoverished background, the young Karume made it his life’s work, even with little education to amass as much wealth as possible so that his children do not have to go through the life he did.

And in one lifetime, he had amassed enough wealth to ensure his dependents and their dependents live a comfortable life.

His poor education background was never a secret. Often as a minister in successive governments he would find it hard to eloquently read speeches, but what he lacked in a formal education, he more than compensated for in a thirst to succeed.

In his will, he recognises the importance of education and makes sure those in his bloodline who wish to further their studies will not miss that opportunity. In his book, he says he could not proceed with education because “in those days, there were no schools for black children in Elementaita”.

He, however, moved locations to get a chance at education. He was later to earn a diploma in business management. He is said to have had a strictness with which he did business and often spoke out against laziness.


With success in several starter businesses including a beer distributorship contract with the then Kenya Breweries Limited and several other ventures, Karume was soon becoming a leading light among Kenya’s new class of African affluence. The next and most logical step of progression in life was to get into politics.

In 1974, riding on business success and recognition among the Gema (Gikuyu, Embu, Meru Association), he embarked on yet another path in his life. The then Jomo Kenyatta government nominated the 45-year old to Parliament.

This was the first of several stints in government. Following the 1974 nomination, Karume vied for the Kiambaa seat on three successive occasions and won all, rising to the position of assistant minister. In a country in which politics and money often go hand in hand, what had Karume been up to before he delved into politics?

His Will reveals that he was in the process of building his empire that includes shareholding in 46 companies in Kenya – some very well known companies, others obscure.

However the exact amount of shares he owned in each of the companies are not indicated. Some of the companies he invested in include Jacaranda Hotel Limited, Cianda Estates Limited, New Kenya Cooperative Creameries, Kenya Wine Agencies Limited, Nation Media Group Limited, Standard Chartered Bank Kenya Limited and Kentmere (1986) Limited.

He also owned shares in little known companies like the Kenya Miraa Growers Limited, Maziwa Transporters Limited, Kiambu Sawmills Limited, Joreth Limited, Kenya Poultry Produce Cooperative Society and Kyango Company Limited among others. Although he was rumoured to be among the wealthiest landowners in the country, the exact amount of land he owned and their value is not exactly known since the acreage is not listed in the list of assets.

The Will only mentions the acreage of two of his vast land holdings: the 508-acre Cianda Farm and the 27.3-acre Lynton Farm. The list of assets indicate that he owned six pieces of land in Kiambaa, a parcel of land in Gilgil, three parcels in Laikipia, Limuru, two parcels in Molo, a plot in Nakuru and two parcels in Ruiru.

The list does not indicate where three other piece of land are located.

In the Will, Karume bequeaths his wife all his shares in companies listed at the stock exchange in Kenya and abroad. However the official list of assets does not indicate what property he owned abroad.

The Will also mentions two companies – Gracia Limited and Contractors and Harvesters Limited – both of which are missing in the official list of assets.

It is from this premise and from a past of wealth creation that Karume went on to the next stage in the theatre of his life – politics – which was a different ball game altogether.

His uncanny ability to align himself with the status quo saw him become part of the infamous bid to change the Constitution after Kenyatta’s death to prevent a non-Kikuyu from becoming president.

Karume, together with a cohort of allies, were against Daniel Moi becoming president. But Moi, as vice president and according to the Constitution was legally required to take over State House after the demise of the President.

Power games, pitting Karume on one hand and the then ambitious Attorney General Charles Njonjo on the other, resulted in Karume being charged for treason for “imagining the death of the president”, which at the time a crime under the Penal Code.

A keen student of the present, Karume once again shifted the ground by moving the motion to repeal the infamous section 2A of the Constitution that once again reintroduced multiparty politics.

It is at this time that Karume the capitalist was forced to make a decision that saw him splinter away from the leading opposition party Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford) and together with age mates and long time friends Mwai Kibaki and John Keen formed the Democratic Party.

This was an ill-timed move as the wave in central Kenya was firmly behind Kenneth Matiba’s other splinter party Ford-Asili. After the ’92 elections, he found himself outside the realm of political influence.

Five years later, after a hiatus from politics, he regained his seat on a DP ticket. In the next election, getting the mood of his constituents right, he ditched DP for a Kanu ticket forging a new alliance with the new kid on the block Uhuru Kenyatta, while ditching his long time confidant Mwai Kibaki who was elected president on a Narc ticket.

Until his death Karume served in both Kibaki administrations under various capacities and at one point holding the powerful docket of Defence minister.

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