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Kamba billionaire: From selling curios to Sh2 billion net worth

Curio business makes James Kisia a billionare
 James Kisia, 85 years old is worth Sh2 Billion  Photo: Standard Group

Wealthy Kenyans rarely entertain discussions that focus on their net worth. But not James Kisia.

He says he’s worth Sh2 billion. His route to financial success was through trading in curios. Kisia looks like one who has been eating pretty well for a very long time. He is 85 years old but looks much younger.

He’s almost always in black trousers, a red tie and white shirt. He explains that the African trinity is made up of white, black and red colors. White symbolizes milk from a mother’s breast, red is for blood that was shed at birth, while black stands for a black woman.

He reveals that he has over 100 black trousers. And his white shirts are all imported.

Kisia took The Nairobian through his life at his Mwala home and recalls being the first Kamba to acquire a house in Mombasa during the colonial period.  His foray into business was accidental though.

“I got a scholarship to go to America. People from my clan donated money to enable me travel, but the money was stolen by one of my brothers who went on to waste it all.”

Kisia travelled to Tanzania to visit Ndeto Yumbya, an uncle, who loaned him Sh1,000  and “I used the money to purchase curios. I sold them and made Sh2,600, which was enough to pay back my uncle. I started the business in August and five months later, I had made Sh6,000 profit.”  That was in 1961.

Kisia, who was then a teacher, discarded chalks for curios. He began mingling with the likes of David Ngati who was well-known for making Sh1,000 profit monthly and Nairobi’s St Austin’s Academy owner Kyale Mwendwa, who was then making Sh625 profit monthly, Kisia told The Nairobian.

The father of 10 children ventured into real estate. “I bought a four-bedroom house for Sh30,000 in the Central Business District in Mombasa with a loan from a bank.”  He also got into the transport business.

Lady luck was however not on his side, forcing him to sell his matatus to an Indian for Sh90,000 but was only given Sh30,000 —which he invested in a tyre business in Dar-es-Salaam. He then made a profit of Sh300,000. I used to sell tyres all the way to Somalia,” Kisia said, adding that he went on to own parcels of land and rental houses in Kilifi, Shimba Hills, Kwale, Machakos, Mombasa and Nairobi.

“I was the first Kamba to purchase a house in Mombasa along Jomo Kenyatta Avenue where I bought three houses. At the moment, I have five houses along Jomo Kenyatta Avenue, one house has 55 shops and 140 flats. I am currently worth over Sh2 billion,” discloses Kisia, with the rider that people don’t trust their own capacity to be rich through hard work, while others associate his kind of wealth with majini (evil spirits or jinn).

“I have been accused of having majini and because I come from a clan of intellectuals, I said yes, I do have majini,’ says Kisia.

“I went ahead to tell those accusing me of having majini that I have brought five Lorries full of majini to my rural home. This was just to scare them. Nobody would pick my property without permission.”

To prevent a fallout over money in the family, Kisia has put up a family trust after seeing how many children from wealthy families squandered the wealth for lack of proper guidance and plan.

Kisia believes that a trust is more effective than a will. “None of my children will reap where they did not sow, there will be no wastage of money and other assets,” says Kisia who married two wives. One had seven children, the other three.

“All my children went to the US and became doctors. Unfortunately, one of them passed on after graduating,” says Kisia who took his first born there in 1980.

Kisia wakes up daily at 5:30 am for an eight-kilometre walk. As for meals, “I only like traditional foods like bananas because it keeps the heart healthy. I do not take chapati, tea or even rice.” But he loves his Weetabix which he takes daily.

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