He was almost never born and was meant to be named after the Biblical Samuel. Instead he was named Kent Libiso and grew up be an adventurer who crisscrossed the world on crisis missions, a recent mountaineer, a renowned management consultant specialising in business strategy and chairman of Stawi Foods .
What are your thoughts on maize from Mexico, now that we are a hungry country?
I believe all our nutritional needs should be locally sourced. At Stawi Foods (where I am Chairman), we get all our bananas from ‘Ameruca’ and not ‘America.’ Mumias and Trans Nzoia ought to be providing our sugar needs cheaply, but see how cartels and corrupt executives killed Mumias in Western, complete with farmers’ livelihoods. Our tea and coffee industries, in Kericho, in Kiambu, in Limuru, are also not booming as they should because of middlemen millionaires who leave planters poor.
You are a physically imposing guy. Is that from ‘sampling’ your porridge products regularly?
(Big belly laugh). It is true we make brands like ‘Nurture Junior’ which is precooked and fortified porridge flour for children and infants, and ‘Nurture Family’ which is a blend of whole maize, millet, sorghum and amaranth for the whole family, but I am large because my mother fed me right, right from birth.
Tell us about your childhood?
I am one of seven siblings, and I was almost never born. A missionary doctor told my mother to abort me, or we would both die, but she refused. Instead she told God she’d dedicate me to him if we lived, which we did. I think my first name was ‘Samuel.’ But isn’t Kent so much cooler? Then when I was 12, I fell into a pond on our farm in Kitale and nearly drowned. Maybe it was a sign...
Yes. That you should be ‘Samuel’ and in a seminary. Instead you said you went to Alliance Boys?
True. And one day there was a debate there while I was a student, and the late Robert Ouko was there, and was so impressed by the eloquence we displayed that we were chosen for a trip to Geneva to see the UN office there. It is the second largest UN office on earth. This was how I ended up doing International Relations (as well as a Masters in Management later). The day Dr Ouko died at Got Alila was one of the saddest in my life.
Tell readers about the time you were ambushed in Zambia while on a southern African trip...
Oh yes. I was with Swiss colleagues – this was in the mid-1980s – and we were on a Swiss-State sponsored trip to map out the political situation in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Namibia. We were just two African guys with all these whites. Well, we had booked our hotel in Lusaka, but the ‘mzungus’ wanted to press on through Mazabuka town at night and straight on to Harare by morning. I rebelled and stayed at the hotel pub (it was about 8 pm). Before the night-pressers could reach even Mazabuka, bandits ambushed the convoy. And the African guy is the only one they killed.
Speaking of pubs, you did run Wasanii Bar at the Kenya National Theater...
Yes. And we tried to bring back its hey-day, and put up the only bust of the late Wahome Mutahi (Whispers) that is anywhere in this country. Kenya needs to start honouring her cultural and literary heroes, not just politicians (and their wives and mothers). We also hosted groups like PEN International.
That was a nice breaker. And now onto the story of Liberia...
It was the time of the Civil War in Liberia. Early in 1990. We were in Monrovia on yet another advisory and negotiating mission between the warring parties (President Samuel Doe and Prince Johnson). The dictator president Doe had hosted us for dinner in the presidential palace (from where he’d be dragged off to be killed months later) and we were on our way back to the hotel in our car with personalised ‘Doe’ plates when we happened to run into a military roadblock in the outskirts. It was manned by the rebels. ‘Get out of the car, you dogs,’ they yelled – then lined up on the side of the road and set up a firing squad. Then one of their commanders had an idea. ‘Take us back to where you stay and give us all your dollars.’ So that’s what we did.
So you were dead broke, but not broken and dead, the rest of your time in Monrovia?
Are you pulling my leg? We were presidential guests. Doe gave a lot of dough to some dude – Archibald Bernard was his name – and told him to show us around. But there wasn’t very much to see. So we always ended up at the same place; a night club called ‘Black Sugar’ with a lot of beautiful loose women.
But this was the time AIDS was really rocking Africa. Any recent adventures? I am surprised you are here speaking to me right now, when Somalia is calling...
(Laughs) My latest great adventure is that I got to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It taught me mental endurance and a strong will can overcome any mountain. Your mind, and not what your body desires – which is mostly to rest, or quit altogether.
‘Overcome any mountain.’ Was that a pun, or metaphor for life?
Both. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, overcoming it, resolved a lot of things in my mind.
Have you read Hemingway’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’?
No. I am currently reading ‘Team of Rivals’ about the American president, ‘Honest’ Abe Lincoln. That’s the kind of leader we need here, in Kenya – and Africa. ‘All he could see, great, high, wide as the world and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.’
That’s the way ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ ends.