Image

Humphrey Kariuki: Life and times of wanted billionaire

Daniel Wesangula, Alan Mungai and Kamore Maina

Image

When Humphrey Kariuki’s plane touched down at Maputo International Airport on Thursday morning from Johannesburg, South Africa, he had no idea that a storm was gathering back home. As he descended the steps of the plane, his mind perhaps drifted back to his days in the civil service, working a clerical job at the Central Bank of Kenya.

For a man who thrives on information, being unaware cannot be a good thing. Mozambique though feels like home for the billionaire now wanted by Kenyan authorities over a Sh41.5 billion tax evasion case. There, just like in his village in Nyeri, his face doesn’t stand out. A fact that has not stopped a government he once worked for from pursuing him.

Few Kenyans would be able to pick him out in a crowd. Despite his immense wealth, Humphrey Kariuki Ndegwa, the billionaire owner of African Spirits Limited which is on the spot for alleged tax evasion, maintains a low profile.

Even in his rural village in Nyeri where he was born and brought up, a few people can match his face to the name. Only his age mates in Ndima village know him. Anyone younger knows little or nothing about the wanted business mogul.

In an exclusive report through interviews and troves of documents in our possession, the Standard has pieced together the life of Kariuki as well as his latest movements even as the nation’s law enforcement authorities ponder issuing an international arrest warrant for the mogul with business interests across several countries.

‘Serial entrepreneur’

Kariuki, whose company is accused of manufacturing substandard alcohol, has described himself in various interviews as a “first generation serial entrepreneur.” From a 10-child household in Nyeri, Kariuki grew up to build one of the biggest business empires in Kenya. Authorities now say part of the foundation that his business was built on cannot stand against scrutiny.

Away from the arrest warrants and his jet-setting lifestyle, nothing in his rural home betrays the opulence that some of his friends know him for. His parents’ house is a typical rural dwelling with nothing outstanding. Its faded maroon roof and whitewashed walls give it the look of abandonment, roof slowly bowing to the vagaries of time beneath a canopy of trees.

The boarded up windows, like tired eyes that have seen too much, overlook a footpath leading to the compound. But behind these walls was born an insatiable thirst for amassing wealth. Sometimes, according to investigations by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), in ways that are slightly less than transparent.

As far back as the 90s, Kariuki was doing brisk business within the city. At one point, he was a major service provider for the American Embassy, supplying beverages during official embassy cocktails and dinners.

For instance, documents in our possession show that at one point, through a company associated with him, he would supply dozens of cases of Blanc Noir, Rhine Riesling, Blanc de Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Cabaret Sauvigngon, Shiraz as well as an array of beers for an official embassy function valued at some Sh1.5 million ($15,000). He would also offer catering services to the embassy through his Green Corner and Twigs Restaurants on various occasions.

But soon, Kariuki’s business ambitions outgrew the walls of the local embassy. In 1993, he spread his wings and ventured out of the country. First to Uganda where he was a wine supplier to Kampala’s American Recreation Association, supplying fine wines from France, Germany and Italy.

As he did this, those close to him say he established close contacts with not only distributors, but vineyard owners from across some of the finest wine-producing regions of the world. As this happened, his hotel business was booming. In fact, he had recorded such a success that at one point, the Second Secretary at the American Embassy wrote him a congratulatory message:

New frontiers

Image

Humphrey Kariuki, Chairman,HKN charitable trust (left) presents ,HKNa Sh12,500, 000 million cheque to Rhino Ark executive director Christian Lambrechts (right) the money was to be used to finish,HKN the fencing of Mount Kenya forest to avert human wildlife conflict as well as protect the endangered Mountain Bongo,HKN [Mose Sammy, Standard]

“Thank you for the excellent service provided by your staff in catering the January 3 buffet… I have received numerous compliments about the delicious food and gracious service,” wrote the then Second Secretary Frankie Calhoun.

It wasn’t just the Americans who were going goo-goo at his service. “The Royal Netherlands Embassy would like to announce that members of this Embassy have on many occasions had excellent lunches and dinners at Twigs. The Embassy highly recommends the restaurant…” a March 1992 memo from the Dutch embassy reads.

In March 2000, Kariuki’s catering company was doing so well that it entered a 99-year lease with NCCK with an annual rent of Sh593,800.

In 2005, Kariuki, perhaps in anticipation of swimming with the big boys, sold his restaurant business, Green Corner Café business to Platinum Catering Services for some Sh7.5 million.

A sale agreement dated April 20, 2005 in our possession indicates that the payment was to be made in two batches. A banker’s check of Sh4 million upon execution of the agreement and a further Sh3.5million after six weeks.

But something inside him wasn’t settled yet. For the 62-year-old from Ndima, the world of wine was hardly enough. There was a galaxy out there to be conquered. And he, at least he thought, was the man to lead the charge on new frontiers. Frontiers that now, according to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), could have included the smudging of fiscal figures and the possible evasion of income due to the State.

what is Ceaser’s. And Caesar has now come to collect. If required, forcefully too. His empire is under siege from the police and tax officials. Son of the soil Back home though, there are those who choose to see Kariuki through unchanged eyes. Making a choice to look past the vision painted by the State -- that of a tax-evading billionaire with more than a few questions to answer.

Eyes that still see him as a son of the soil who made it in Nairobi. A sort of Robin Hood minus the horses. Minus the band of revellers. Minus the good press that followed this mythical fairy tale character. One of Kariuki’s brothers proudly stands in this corner.

“This is the third time that the press is reporting about him. He knows how to handle himself,” his elder brother Karingithi Ndegwa said when we visited his home near Ndima Tea Factory.

Karingithi, who then worked at Nairobi University, claims the credit for giving Kariuki his start in life by securing him employment at Central Bank. “Through my job at University of Nairobi, I met a friend who was working at Central Bank and I knew that they were recruiting clerks and I asked him if my brother could get the job.

He was lucky enough to get it,” he said. Kariuki was the second youngest in his family. Now retired from the university, Karingithi is a tea and dairy farmer and lives a modest life in Ndima. He says that his brother’s busy nature has made interactions with family limited.

“He last came here last year when we were burying our mother. He is a very busy man with businesses in about five countries, but every Christmas all of us go to his place in Nairobi.” Adjacent to Karingithi’s home stands their late mother’s house that is slowly falling apart. About a kilometre from the home along the Ndima–Itundu Road is Gathaithi Primary School where Kariuki spent his formative years.

While most of those he grew up with in the 1960s and early 1970s have a vague recollection of him, only corroborating that he attended Gathaithi Primary School, others remembered a lanky teenager who was a local champion at distance running. Wachira wa Subaru, who claims to have maintained ties with the entrepreneur, said they met during one of the inter-school competition.

“He was a very good runner and we met in Karatina in one of those competitions. Even when he went to high school and I moved to Nairobi, he used to visit me at Grogon,” Wachira said. When his alcohol business was first raided months ago, former Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinett said that the former athlete was on the run.

Son of the soil

Image

(From left) Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Chairman, Humphrey Kariuki,CS Tourism Najib
Balala and Kenya Cultural Centre Chairman, Nicholas Moipei engage at the premiere of the Tinga
Tinga Tales Musical at the Kenya National Theatre.

Back home though, there are those who choose to see Kariuki through unchanged eyes. Making a choice to look past the vision painted by the State -- that of a tax- evading billionaire with more than a few questions to answer. Eyes that still see him as a son of the soil who made it in Nairobi. A sort of Robin Hood minus the horses. Minus the band of revellers. Minus the good press that followed this mythical fairy tale character. One of Kariuki’s brothers proudly stands in this corner.

“This is the third time that the press is reporting about him. He knows how to handle himself,” his elder brother Karingithi Ndegwa said when we visited his home near Ndima Tea Factory. Karingithi, who then worked at Nairobi University, claims the credit for giving Kariuki his start in life by securing him employment at Central Bank.

“Through my job at University of Nairobi, I met a friend who was working at Central Bank and I knew that they were recruiting clerks and I asked him if my brother could get the job. He was lucky enough to get it,” he said. Kariuki was the second youngest in his family. Now retired from the university, Karingithi is a tea and dairy farmer and lives a modest life in Ndima. He says that his brother’s busy nature has made interactions with family limited.

“He last came here last year when we were burying our mother. He is a very busy man with businesses in about five countries, but every Christmas all of us go to his place in Nairobi.” Adjacent to Karingithi’s home stands their late mother’s house that is slowly falling apart. About a kilometre from the home along the Ndima–Itundu Road is Gathaithi Primary School where Kariuki spent his formative years.

While most of those he grew up with in the 1960s and early 1970s have a vague recollection of him, only corroborating that he attended Gathaithi Primary School, others remembered a lanky teenager who was a local champion at distance running. Wachira wa Subaru, who claims to have maintained ties with the entrepreneur, said they met during one of the inter-school competition.

“He was a very good runner and we met in Karatina in one of those competitions. Even when he went to high school and I moved to Nairobi, he used to visit me at Grogon,” Wachira said. When his alcohol business was first raided months ago, former Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinett said that the former athlete was on the run.

Leading importer

Image

(From left) Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Chairman, Humphrey Kariuki, CS Tourism Najib Balala and Kenya Cultural Centre Chairman, Nicholas Moipei engage at the premiere of the Tinga Tinga Tales Musical at the Kenya National Theatre.

Ironically, for the tax evasion allegations against African Spirits, Dalbit Petroleum, another of his companies, was in November 2018 awarded the leading oil importer tax payer trophy during the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) 2018 Distinguished Taxpayers awards ceremony.

Under Janus Continental Group, his portfolio includes The Hub - a shopping mall located in Karen, Nairobi. Dalbit Petroleum, an oil distribution company working in East and Southern Africa, and Great Lakes Africa Energy, a UK-based company that is a developer and operator of power projects in Southern Africa.

Kariuki is also the owner of the five-star Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, and the neighbouring Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy and Animal Orphanage. He also owns Wines of the World Beverages which imports select wines and spirits and Goodwood Farm at Nyaribo in Nyeri. It is a horticultural farm that grows produce for export to Europe. Although a recluse, controversy has been his constant companion.

In 2016, news emerged that he was a shareholder of Belgravia Services, a company registered in Seychelles – a tax haven – from the Panama Papers leak that exposed business that funnelled their profits through overseas accounts to avoid paying taxes. Belgravia specialises in the construction of oil terminals, power plants and related infrastructure. It has so far undertaken key projects in Zambia, DR Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.

It is not known where his next destination will be. As he boards his plane from Maputo, he will have one of two choices: fly right into the raging storm in Nairobi, or perhaps instruct his pilot to land somewhere else -- where he has growing business interests. Either way, he’d better have his coat on. The gathering storm cannot be wished away. Detectives fly in to serve wanted tycoon Billionaire businessman Humphrey Kariuki sunk deeper in trouble as the state moved in to attach part of his empire.

Armed with a court order seeking to freeze and investigate his bank accounts and those of people close to him, detectives landed in his five-star hotel, Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, in Nanyuki seeking to attach some of his movable assets, including luxury planes.

The state has also obtained court orders to search for all his known properties across the country, and attach them ahead of the hearing of a case in which he is accused of a Sh14.5 billion tax evasion.

It is at the Fairmont Hotel that the businessman has an airstrip for private use. On Friday, a chief magistrate’s court granted DCI officers the authority to seize two aircraft owned by the tycoon. The aircraft that the state is eyeing include a bombardier T7-DNK and a PC12ZS-TDL.

“A search warrant is hereby issued authorising police to search places, buildings, ships, aircraft, vehicles, bank accounts, companies and boxes belonging and to which the respondents have shareholding,” the order says.

The DPP had sought orders of the court for the police to seize, retain and attach properties associated with the billionaire whose business interests are spread across Africa and around the world.

But the investigators failed to locate the two aircraft they were searching for at the Nanyuki hotel. Instead, they found a smaller plane and a Toyota Land Cruiser. “The movable assets so seized and brought before the court be detained until the conclusion of the case or the investigations, reasonable care being taken for its preservation,” said the chief magistrate only identified as Muthoni.

The private planes and the resort are part of a vast business empire the tycoon has built over the years. Amidst the controversy that currently surrounds Kariuki’s business empire, Sunday Standard takes you behind the scenes and back to when the reclusive billionaire first started to make ripples in the business world.

And more importantly, how he eventually put his flagship businesses up for sale in pursuit of the fast paced world of oil and natural gas exploitation and real estate. On April 25, 2005 Kariuki put an end to one of the most exciting chapters of his life.

Flagship businesses

Image

GREEN CORNER Humphrey Kariuki

Acting under his instruction, a bevy of lawyers sat in a nondescript office on Nairobi’s Kaunda Street and finalised what could be termed as the end of an era. After enjoying decades of success, the businessman was cutting off ties with something that had been part of him for ages. Something that had provided a foundation on which many other ventures stood.

Perhaps, while trying to beat back last minute jitters over what was about to happen that Monday, he may have tried to blame the faulty typewriter in the stationery room or the broken Panasonic phone model number KX-T2310 tucked away somewhere in the dry goods store.

Or the grounded burger making machine taking up too much space in the production kitchen. Or the bust up Pioneer giant TV mounted on the wall of a pub a few metres away. But try as he may, none of these reasons were enough to make him sell his crown jewel.

Something else was motivating him to let go of the popular Green Corner Café and Restaurant, its offspring Twigs Restaurant and their raucous brother Cactus Pub. In September 1984, when many Kenyans were busy whispering about the possibility of the emergence of a strange disease that was taking no prisoners, Kariuki, bored stiff from his clerical job at the Central Bank of Kenya, was opening the doors of Green Corner Café and Restaurant with only one promise to his clientele: Delicious, high quality food in a clean environment.

“I was looking for an investment. Initially we planned to start an exclusive dry cleaning agency. The Green Corner was up for sale. It happened to be the right size for a dry cleaning business...when I studied the books, I noticed coffee shops did moderately well and abandoned the dry cleaning idea,” Kariuki said in a May 16, 1991 interview.

Two years later, the hotel expanded to take up more space upstairs. Three years later, enjoying the success of the booming food business in the city, the hotel expanded to include the Twigs Restaurant.

The new venture moved away from food and became one of the few restaurants in Nairobi back then that specialised in different varieties of ice cream. “The irrepressible Mr Kariuki has now got his thumb in another pie...,” begins one review of the new restaurant in a local daily published on May 16, 1991. “Fun and games is the order of the day - 23 different ice creams are on offer...”

With these three outlets up and running, Kariuki still harboured greater ambition. Those who knew him at the time told Sunday Standard that he still wanted more. Always meeting with people perceived to be higher up the success pyramid. His time at Central Bank gave him a taste of what life could be, leaving him forever in the chase of the next big thing. Something better.

Something that would make the boy from Ndima Village, Nyeri, be remembered not just by his second name but by what he would achieve in life. The appetite for success created by the achievements of his food business gave birth to something even he could not tame. The need for more.

It is rumoured that if a document was ever issued to Kariuki, be it a fuel receipt or a dinner invoice, he still has it. Both the original and copies too. So when in 1993 he pitched for business at the American Embassy, staffers were not surprised that he got it. Green Corner was then offered a contract to operate the American Embassy Cafteria for the next four years.

When this contract came to an end, his catering business was again awarded a contract to operate the Kenya Airways and KLM Lounges for the economy, premier and first class passengers. This was in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, he got another contract to operate the Kenya Duty Free Coffee Shop and Bar for five years.

In the middle of all this, Cactus Pub was opened in 1994. “The creation of Cactus Bar in May 1994 was as a result of the changing needs of our customers. With first class entertainment and different themes for every day of the week, the Cactus soon gained popularity,” an internal business profile about the hotel done and circulated to prospective buyers says of the bar.

When the new millennium came knocking and nerds were fixated on the Y2K bug, Kariuki had done all he could in the hotel business. Growth seemed to lie elsewhere. With the technology boom, and the exponential expansion of the derivatives market, Kariuki reinvented himself. He had done a lot of cooking. He had done his bit of fueling people.

In 2002, he dove head first into energy and in April of that year, he registered Dalbit Petroleum Limited, an energy company with a footprint in close to half a dozen mineral-rich countries. Although he grew up in the relative peace and quiet of the central Kenyan highlands, Dalbit has not shied away from operating in war zones.

Flagship businesses

But try as he may, none of these reasons were enough to make him sell his crown jewel. Something else was motivating him to let go of the popular Green Corner Café and Restaurant, its offspring Twigs Restaurant and their raucous brother Cactus Pub.

Amidst the chaos that are currently surrounding Kariuki’s business empire, Sunday Standard takes you behind the scenes and back to when the reclusive billionaire first started to make ripples in the business world.

And more importantly, how he eventually put his flagship businesses up for sale in pursuit of the fast paced world of oil and natural gas exploitation and real estate. In September 1984, when many Kenyans were busy whispering about the possibility of the emergence of a strange disease that was taking no prisoners, Kariuki, bored stiff from his clerical job at the Central Bank of Kenya was opening the doors of Green Corner Café and Restaurant with only one promise to his clientele: delicious, high quality food in a clean environment.

“I was looking for an investment. Initially we planned to start an exclusive dry cleaning agency. The Green Corner was up for sale. It happened to be the right size for a dry cleaning business...when I studied the books, I noticed coffee shops did moderately well and abandoned the dry cleaning idea,” Kariuki said in a May 16, 1991 interview.

Two years later, the hotel previously occupying only one corner at the ground floor of Tumaini House expanded to take up more space upstairs. Three years later, enjoying the success of the booming food business in the city, the hotel expanded to include the Twigs Restaurant.

The new venture, moved away from food and became one of the few restaurants in Nairobi back then that specialised in different varieties of ice cream. “The irrepressible Mr Kariuki has now got his thumb in another pie...,” begins one review of the new restaurant in a local daily published on May 16, 1991. “Fun and games is the order of the day - 23 different ice creams are on offer...”

With these three outlets up and running, Kariuki still harboured greater ambition. Those who knew him at the time told Sunday Standard that he still wanted more. Always meeting with people perceived to be higher up the success pyramid.

His time at Central Bank gave him a taste of what life could be, leaving him forever in the chase of the next big thing. Something better. Something that would make the boy from Ndima Village, Nyeri, be remembered not just by his second name but by what he would achieve in life. At this period in his life, the now 62-year-old looked up to one Joseph Kahora Waiguru. A former post independence DC and a longtime employee of the Central Bank.

Kariuki was the second youngest in his family. The friend in conversation was Kahora who died on February 21, 2019. Kariuki’s businesses had been raided by DCI officers barely two weeks before the death of the man who introduced him to a life that he could never have dreamed of. The appetite for success created by the achievements of his food business gave birth to something even he could not tame. The need for more.

It is rumoured that if a document was ever issued to Kariuki, be it a fuel receipt or a dinner invoice, he still has it. Both the original and copies too. So when in 1993 he pitched for business at the American Embassy, staffers were not surprised that he got it. Green Corner was then offered a contract to operate the American Embassy Cafteria for the next four years.

When this contract came to an end, his catering business was again awarded a contract to operate the Kenya Airways and KLM Lounges for the economy, premier and first class passengers. This was in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, he got another contract to operate the Kenya Duty Free Coffee Shop and Bar for five years.

In the middle of all this, Cactus Pub was opened in 1994. “The creation of Cactus Bar in May 1994 was as a result of the changing needs of our customers. With first class entertainment and different themes for every day of the week, the Cactus soon gained popularity,” an internal business profile about the hotel done and circulated to prospective buyers says of the bar.

When the new millennium came knocking and nerds were fixated on the Y2K bug, Kariuki had done all he could in the hotel business. Growth seemed to lie elsewhere. With the technology boom, and the exponential expansion of the derivatives market, Kariuki reinvented himself. He had done a lot of cooking. He had done his bit of fuelling people.

In 2002, he dove head first into energy and in April of that year, he registered Dalbit Petroleum Limited, an energy company with a footprint in close to half a dozen mineral-rich countries. Although he grew up in the relative peace and quiet of the central Kenyan highlands, Dalbit has not shied away from operating in war zones.

In March 2006, delegations from Kenya and Sudan completed trade talks that had been dragging on for five years in a bid to cement trade ties between Nairobi and Juba. At this time, the world is well aware that Sudan would eventually break into two in spite of the bloody war that was going on in the oil rich Darfur region.

Mining Interests

For the first time in generations, it seemed that peace would finally visit southern Sudan. Sensing this possibility, Dalbit moves in. Quickly. On July 10, 2006 Dalbit International Limited is registered by the government (in waiting) of Southern Sudan. From Juba, Dalbit International moved further south and pursued other mega mining interests in Mozambique and Zambia. Today, the 62-year-old Kariuki from Ndima village owns many other companies. His day does not end with balancing the books from the restaurant business or haggling over prices with fresh produce suppliers from the historic Marikiti market. Instead, his brow is furrowed from more responsibilities complicated by crisscrossing time zones and humouring government officials from different nationalities. Now, another line might just be added to his brow. He is wanted by the Kenyan government. A very large tax bill, Sh14.5 billion, accrued by the vast Kariuki Empire, the government says, is due for collection; a bill that can shake the foundation he set years ago to the core and possibly bring several ivory towers on it tumbling down.