Kakuzi troubles smoke out reclusive Kenyan billionaire shareholder

Dr John Kibunga Kimani Non-Executive Director Kakuzi Plc.

Until recently, only a select few could put a face to the name of billionaire investor John Kibunga Kimani.

But when human rights abuse allegations rocked Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed Kakuzi, where he is the second-largest shareholder with a 32.2 per cent stake, curiosity about the man behind the name rose.

Dr Kimani is also one of the single-largest investors in most blue-chip stocks at the NSE, with his shareholding in these companies alone valued at more than Sh1 billion.

Besides Kakuzi, he has shares in East African Breweries, Safaricom, Nation Media Group and Centum. 

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

And for a long while, his photo icon on the company’s website remained a stock image silhouette, which fuelled public speculation about what the shrewd investor looked like.

The other seven individuals who make up the board of directors of Kakuzi all had photos of their smiling faces on the website. These included executive, non-executive and independent directors.

As a listed entity, shareholders prefer to be able to put a face to those involved in overseeing the affairs of the company.  

It is perhaps against this backdrop that Kimani recently yielded to having his photo uploaded on the firm’s website.

It is one of a clean-cut, bespectacled man donning a beige suit and a wide smile.

So who exactly is Kimani? And how did he become such a big investor at Kakuzi and other blue-chip NSE firms?

Adding to his mystery is the many years it has taken Kakuzi’s largest individual shareholder to be given a director’s seat. Did he not want it?

Available information says Kimani was born into a squatter family at the expansive Kakuzi farms. This strong societal ties are believed to be his driving force in acquiring shares in Kakuzi, which is estimated to sit on more than 39,000 acres in the south of Murang’a.

Kimani is believed to have backed squatters, helping them own shares at Kakuzi, even it meant reducing his own stake in the firm.

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

The firm’s share price closed trading last week at Sh370. 

Academic qualifications

Kimani’s passion for agriculture is clear from by his impressive academic background and career in public and private practice.

He holds an undergraduate degree in agriculture from Makerere University in Uganda, and a master’s of science degree in agricultural economics from Reading University in the UK.

He also holds a PhD in development studies, economics and socio-anthropology from the University of Sussex, which is also in the UK.

“He has extensive experience in the agricultural sector (public and private), including planning, development and administration of smallholder agricultural extension programmes at county level, developing and managing smallholder irrigation projects, and preparing long-range plans for land and water resources across Kenya,” says his bio-data on the Kakuzi website.

Kimani is a member of the Agricultural Society of Kenya, the Avocado Exporters Association of Kenya and is also a fellow of the Economic Development Institute of the World Bank, according to his profile.

The Financial Standard had a brief phone chat with him, in which he declined to talk about Kakuzi. He, however, promised to have a look at our interview proposal, but was yet to get back to us by the time of going to press.

Records show Kimani has been upping his stake in Kakuzi over the years. In 2019, he bought an additional 263,526 shares, which were then valued at Sh101 million and increased his stake in the firm to its current level.

This is after he sold three million shares held in Total Oil. 

The alleged decades of human rights abuses at Kakuzi have blown up in recent years, with Kimani’s appointment to the board linked to his ties with the local community.

Camellia Plc, a London Stock Exchange-listed agricultural firm that owns plantations around the world, recently announced that it would pay Sh696 million to victims as compensation for alleged human rights violations perpetrated by its employees, including rape and violence, in its Kenyan operations.

Camellia is Kakuzi’s parent company and holds a 50.7 per cent stake.

This is through Bordure Ltd, which is incorporated in England, and Lintak Investments Ltd, incorporated in Kenya, which own 26.06 per cent and 24.64 per cent shareholding, respectively.

Kimani is said to be behind the Kakuzi Neighbourhoods Development Foundation, which has since 2018 risen to be in the top 10 shareholders of the listed agricultural firm.

The charity organisation had 0.79 per cent equity, with 155,500 ordinary shares at the end of 2019.

Amid the backlash swirling around the firm’s alleged human rights abuses, Kakuzi, in a paid advert in local dailies last week, said it still did not know anyone who had been abused in its farms.

Rights activists want it to offer a public apology and have asked Murang’a County not to renew its leases until historical land injustices are resolved, among other demands.

The firm further said it was removed from the cases filed in the UK, but offered to work with local authorities to investigate the claims of rights violations.

Love-hate relationship

The Makuyu-headquartered Kakuzi trades on both the Nairobi and London exchanges, with activities spanning cultivation, processing and marketing of avocados, blueberries, macadamia, tea, livestock and commercial forestry.

The tea estates are in Nandi Hills. It is the goings-on around its headquarters that have rattled the horticulture giant.

Kakuzi was formed in 1927, and for decades, locals have had a love-hate relationship with the company, with land injustices being at the centre of the perennial friction.

Most of its land is leasehold and includes dams, wetlands, factories, buildings, natural forest, roads and protected areas.

Victims who alleged abuses say they were violated when carrying out activities such as collecting firewood or passing through ‘short-cuts’ in the expansive farm.

The management of Kakuzi is said to have at times blocked access roads to certain villages.

The expansive farms in Murang’a contain Kakuzi’s blue gum trees and hass avocados.

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