AFRICANGLOBE – The Africa CEO of the Year’s conglomerate reported 291% growth in the five years to 2014. He says discriminatory export tariffs are to blame for keeping Africans in poverty.
Is it true that you turned down an invite from United States President Barack Obama last year?
Chris Kirubi: Yes. [The US delegation] invited me to join them in Tanzania for dinner, but I felt it was the wrong place. Now that he’s coming to Kenya, I’m excited and very happy. If anybody invites me for dinner with him now, I will run. I will go. Maybe they’ll be too busy for me, but it’s OK. At least, he’ll have dinner with somebody in Kenya.
Obama is going to Kenya for a global summit on entrepreneurs. How can a new generation of business leaders be nurtured?
I personally think one of the major things we need to do is enhance the rule of law – make sure the courts are efficient and working to resolve any dispute of a commercial nature so that people are confident that if they have a dispute they can have it resolved fairly.
Secondly, I feel we need to make sure there are fair opportunities for everybody from any part of the world and we are willing to work with people from many countries, not just a narrow focus on the East or West.
You say Africa should do value addition and not just sell raw materials.
I am totally opposed to Africa continuing to be a raw-materials producer for everything. Our farmers continue to wallow in poverty, and yet they produce the best tea, the best coffee – which are drunk by very wealthy nations in the West. They also produce vegetables, and they are not getting enough returns. They are [also] buying raw materials from the Western world, like chemicals at very high costs. Why should Africa continue to subsidise the West?
Climbing the value chain is hard. how do you get farmers to rise up the technology ladder?
Technology is easy to come by. But when you want to export coffee in a packaged form, trans- formed into finished goods, the tariffs in the Western world are totally discriminating. They have different tariffs which discourage people from transforming their own products. That happens with coffee, cocoa, tea and many other products. Obviously, the West would like to encourage us to continue to be producers of raw materials and they [will] continue to add value to our goods and sell to the rest of the world and make their money. This is a conspiracy, and it should come to an end. If the World Trade Organisation means anything to Africa, it must see that our products are transformed in their home base and exported to other parts of the world.
Your businesses run across a range of sectors – property, consumer goods, media and finance. Is that diversity intentional?
It’s very intentional, simply because we don’t have a very huge space in one sector where we can develop. We have to create small companies operating in various sectors. When you put them together in one house, then you can have a big conglomerate. It’s unlike in the Western world where one company specialises in something and becomes a very big corporation. In Africa, if you want to grow, you just have to play a role in several sectors to be able to cover most of the markets. The markets are still developing. They’re not that highly developed. We don’t have the middle class. We’re creating the middle class, and none of these classes on their own can sustain a lot of development.
In a column on healthcare recently, you wrote that the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) could perhaps provide better service.
I have totally voiced my distaste of what is happening in the NHIF because they are collecting people’s money and they are desktop officials who have never run a business. Healthcare is a big business, and they should be working with hospitals and other private-sector institutions in order to provide cheaper, efficient and quality medical care. Today, they take money and offer nothing. There is a lot of corruption in the sector and the wastage is so huge it’s unimaginable.
What parts of the healthcare business would you like to expand into?
We’re looking into building private hospitals with an emphasis on the higher-quality diagnostic area where we use the latest technology. Our people are going to places like India, Malaysia, Dubai and many other places.
There’s a Chinese company in your consortium that will build a power plant at Lamu. Will Kenyan engineers be included in the project so that they can learn from it?
We’re going to be training a lot of people. We don’t want to be lumped with Chinese labour forever. We are going to train our own people.
Kenyans are being trained in the energy sector and the petroleum sector.
You’ll be amazed at how many Kenyans are abroad studying all these subjects to be able to replace any foreign needs that we may have on a temporary basis.
I know there have been issues with people doing some land speculation in Lamu. Have you managed to secure the land that you need?
We have all the land we require, about 800ha of land that has been surveyed and that has been given to us by the government. We have no issues. These issues were there before, but everyone who needed to be relocated or made false claims, the government is dealing with all that. And it’s not just our project. The Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport corridor is a big project that requires land in many areas. It has the port and various other terminals for oil. There are many, many areas that will come into play. This is going to be one of the biggest centres of activity for Kenya.
In Ethiopia, the state is taking a leading role. How do you rate its progress?
I think Ethiopia has a huge potential, but at the same time Ethiopia is a mixed bag because they still control foreign exchange. As far as I’m concerned, when you control foreign exchange you are limiting the way the private sector operates. And therefore if you want people to bring in foreign currency or their own money, you can’t gain control when they make profits or when they want to import raw materials. It is not possible. They have to depend on the goodwill of civil servants. It is not the best way to attract business.