WINNIE KABURU KINYUA, 50, was recently named running mate to presidential hopeful James Ole Kiyiapi. The announcement caused a buzz in the country, as people sought to know more about her and understand her vision for this country. She spoke to NJOKI CHEGE
When Restore and Build Kenya (RBK) presidential aspirant James Ole Kiyiapi announced little known Winnie Kaburu Kinyua as his running mate, he took everyone by surprise. For a while, he had kept Kenyans guessing on his choice of running mate, only to name a female running mate.
I wanted to know more about her and get a glimpse into her personality, perhaps even gauge if she was good presidential material for Kenyans. So come Monday evening, I was at the RBK party office on Kabarnet Road, Nairobi.
Set in a serene environment, the spacious offices look fairly new, thanks to the ongoing renovations. The interior décor is particularly eye-catching, with subtly coloured wallpaper, classic light bulbs on the walls and matching tiles. Clearly a far cry from what I’d expected for a new party recently launched.
The office is abuzz with activity. Smartly dressed young and vibrant volunteers run around, eager to serve.
I find Winnie in the middle of a strategy meeting. Afraid that it might take longer than expected, Winnie is immediately informed of my visit. Her team at the secretariat consists of both young professionals and older guards (mostly professors and doctorate holders). All are transfixed on their laptops, obviously racking their brains on how to get those votes.
A few minutes later, Winnie comes out of her office and we settle on the lush, green garden behind the RBK offices. Winnie looks worn out from the long meetings and harsh campaign trails. Even as we begin our chat, volunteers keep interrupting us, respectfully addressing Winnie as ‘mum’.
Despite the interruptions, she begins the story of her life. So, who is Winnie Kaburu Kinyua?
“I am a Christian, a businesswoman, a mother of five aged between 30 and nine years, and a grandmother of several,” says Winnie, who until last week was not a familiar face to many Kenyans.
Being a graduate of Political Science from the University of Nairobi, Winnie, who hails from Meru County, is not new to politics, although this is her first go at politics. Should she clinch the top seat as Kenya’s first female vice-president, Winnie plans to empower women, prioritise the youth and build small and medium-sized enterprises.
What many people don’t know is that Winnie is a connoisseur in business. So accomplished is she that in 2003, President Kibaki awarded her a Head of State Commendation for her work in developing and promoting the business community.
Winnie owns several companies trading in varied interests, including medical supplies, hospitality, waste management and tyre retreads. She is well known in the business community as a shrewd and highly successful businesswoman, and was one of the founders of Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) and its vice-chair from 2003 to 2007.
Winnie was also a founder member of Fair Trade Organisation, a network organisation founded in 2009 with the aim of creating equitable and sustainable channels in production and trade.
“Our aim was to link tea and coffee producers, particularly women, with markets abroad at the best prices possible. The products are a little more expensive, but the extra money is pumped back to the rural areas to enhance infrastructure,” she explains.
Her foray into the world of business began in 1993 when she started by selling mitumba (second-hand clothes) in Gikomba market. “I then ventured into other businesses,” she says.
Winnie has always been passionate about promoting women in business, which is what led her to establish the National Association of Self Employed Women of Kenya (Naswok), an organisation that brings together women in small and medium-sized enterprises.
“We came together to pool our funds as a group and borrow among ourselves or from a bank. So far, we have opened offices in Thika, Muranga, Meru, Taita and in Western Kenya,” she explains.
Further, through the private sector forum, Winnie was heavily involved in starting a women’s sunflower programme in Maua, Nyeri, Coast and Western regions. Growing sunflowers proved more lucrative for the women than maize, which is seasonal.
Her first encounter with Ole Kiyiapi was years ago as a fresh graduate teacher attached to UG High School in Eldoret. Ole Kiyiapi’s late brother was the headmaster.
However, it was when she started supplying medical supplies to the Ministry of Health that she got to know Ole Kiyiapi more personally.
“I used to complain about the health system. I could not understand why children were dying of preventable diseases and why medical supplies were unaffordable to mwananchi, yet we supplied them at a low rate,” she says.
As they got to know each other, Winnie and Ole Kiyiapi shared ideas on how to streamline the ministry. She was later appointed to serve in the ministry’s council as a representative of Kepsa.
When Ole Kiyiapi was moved to the Ministry of Education, they lost contact.
“Then sometime last year, he called me out of the blue and asked if we could have lunch,” recalls Winnie.
By this time, Ole Kiyiapi had publicly declared his interest in contesting the country’s top job, and when they met, he tried to recruit her into joining his party, the Restore and Build Kenya (RBK).
“At that time, I was not interested in supporting any particular party as none had impressed me,” she says. “But when he discussed his manifesto and I met the secretariat staff, I got interested. I wanted to be part of a party that had integrity and servant leadership, a party without baggage of past sins and corruption scandals.”
Convinced that she was on to a good thing, Winnie joined the party’s national executive council and later elected as its national treasurer. Like many Kenyans, Winnie was surprised when she was named Ole Kiyiapi’s running mate.
“There is a process for choosing the party’s president and vice-president. Three names were presented by the national executive council and forwarded to Ole Kiyiapi. I do believe I have what it takes to steer this country forward,” she says.
As the country’s vice-president, Winnie pledges to create more industries in order to create more jobs for the youth.
“We can draw great examples from countries like Malaysia and Singapore,” she says.
And what will she do should they lose the election?
“If we don’t win,” she says, “my life will go on. I will continue to be a mother, a wife and a businesswoman.”