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BIKO INTERVIEW: Makers of Furniture Fit for Royalty

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Makers of Furniture Fit for Royalty

The panesars Vir Panesar (Left), the chief operating officer of Panesars Kenya and his father Moni Panesar. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Around a century ago, a Sikh called Kundan Singh Panesar, born in a long line of craftsmen, was making bull-carts using steel and wood in India. In 1942, he got into a ship and sailed to Kenya to pursue his passion for carpentry. In 1948, he started Panesar Furniture. One of his eight children, Moni Panesar, joined him as an apprentice at the age of six. The plan? To build an exquisite bespoke furniture brand that services East Africa elites’ homes, offices and boardrooms. In 2011, Moni’s only child, Vir Panesar, joined the company, to make it the third generation local business.

JACKSON BIKO found Moni and Vir in their plush office overlooking a busy workshop separated by a glass window blocking the incessant din of sawing, shaving and the bonhomie of the carpenters.

Moni, you’ve done good here, haven’t you?

I think so. It’s been a journey that started in Eastleigh where we lived and had a workshop. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of bad times and a lot of good times. It’s also about leadership and values. We have always looked at the business from the bottom up, if your weakest link isn’t part of your team then you are in fairly safe grounds.

Vir, your grandfather started this business, your father built on it and has taken it to the brand it is now, how will you take it to the next level and is there fear that you might just be the one to cock this up?

(Laughs) Of course! Everybody is looking at me like ‘what is he going to do?’ People assume there is less pressure, that it’s automatic and assured. But this is all I have known growing up, I have lived around furniture all my life. My grandfather is the founder, my father scaled up the manufacturing without losing the artistic elements of it, and having done this for decades, he obviously knows everything about wood.

I come in at a different era; a digital era. Obviously, I won’t lie that I’m a craftsman like the men before me but my job is to answer the question; How do we remove it from being a manufacturing powerhouse into a strong brand? How do we compete in the international pool? How do I continue the Panesar’s legacy? How do I build these people who have been with my father since?

Moni, to do this for so long you must have a deep connection with trees and wood and nature. Are you the type that runs his palms on the grain of furniture and with eyes closed mumble, “this was a happy wood”?

(Chuckle) Wood is amazing and I see it as a diamond in the rough. My job is to bring out that diamond. But what needs to be understood is that because time has changed, the wood has also changed. The environment plays a big deal in business corporates nowadays. You’re cutting a tree, what does that do to the environment? But also how does that affect the furniture?

Nowadays the quality of wood that we are getting isn’t the same as what we were getting 15 years ago. And so we have to figure out how to care for the our environment and our trees. We are part sponsors of the Nairobi Greenline, we have planted over 1,000 trees so far.

What did you learn from your father, Moni?

For 25 years my father made me work in the spray booth, because a furniture is about finishing. I was always high because of all the chemicals in there and perhaps that’s why I look young because I was always happy from the chemicals. (Laughs). I learnt perfection from it.

He would not accept work that was sub-standard. Each piece had to be inspected by him and he was thorough. You were not finished with a piece until he was finished.

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Which stage do you enjoy the most in the process of making furniture, are you artistically inclined?

I love designing furniture. For very many years, I designed the everything but now we have five in-house designers. But I love making furniture and our goal is to make furniture that creates a memory. But this requires the right wood, the right eye, the right attitude and the right values.

If you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?

A console table. It uplifts a whole room, it gives a distinction to a place.

Are there pieces of furniture that you made and got so attached to and sometimes sit and wonder how they are holding up and if the owners are treating them with the respect you made them with?

That’s an interesting one. (Pause) I have made thousands of furniture that I loved. We have some of our furniture in State House, going back to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s time, we have some distinct ones in major hotels like Serena Kampala. The Queen of England has one of our head stands that landed to her as a gift by sheer luck.

Vir, what have you learnt watching your father do this?

Perfection. And that you absolutely have to enjoy what you do. My dad wants everything at 100 per cent. He doesn’t accept 96 per cent.

Moni, because you demand perfection, what do you find to be imperfect in your life?

(Pause) I’m more peaceful here at work than I would be at home or on a beach or on holiday. I’m at peace here, just looking at my furniture being perfected. Maybe that’s my imperfection, that my life is here.

If you were to come back in the after-life, what profession would you take up?

Carpenter. It gives me more satisfaction than anything else. Some of the best carpenters today are in Japan. They have a thing called Japanology. They don’t use glue or nails to hold furniture together. They make such beautiful joints that are as strong. Their art is out of this reach. Their tools are amazing.

Their technique is profound. For instance, here, we push tools away from us for safety reasons, like we plane away from us, but in Japan they do everything in reverse, they pull it towards themselves — cutting and sawing. They say pulling is easier than pushing. If you pull something towards you, you become closer to it than when you push it away. Take a hug for instance, you pull towards you, to belong, to connect.

That’s the most profound thing I have heard today. How old is your beard, Moni and do people treat you different because of it? And is it religious?

(Laughs) My beard is exactly as old as Vir who is 30- years -old. I get a lot of respect and I’m treated differently where I go, but I have also been treated like a terrorist in airports because of it. (Laughs) But generally people think I’m wiser because of it, they talk to me differently and treat me delicately.

My dad had his special chair at home. Nobody dared sit on it. Do you have your own special chair at home?

What’s your extravagance? What do you spoil yourself with?

(Long pause) Nothing really. This is my happy place, being here, making furniture. This is my work but it’s also my beach, my holiday.

What is the secret of happiness according to you?

Doing what you are passionate about. Like I mentioned I’m happiest here, not going for a movie or listening to music or playing golf.

Did you enjoy marriage being here all the time and what’s the secret of a happy marriage?

Giving people space to do what they want and be who they are. I was given my total space.

My wife has never asked me, why are you late? Or where are you? Never. Because my wife always knew where I was. I was here. I have always been here.

Vir, are you going to grow a long beard like you dad?



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BCCI: The bank ‘that would bribe God’

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Bank of Credit and Commerce International. August 1991. [File, Standard]

“This bank would bribe God.” These words of a former employee of the disgraced Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) sum up one of the most rotten global financial institutions.

BCCI pitched itself as a top bank for the Third World, but its spectacular collapse would reveal a web of transnational corruption and a playground for dictators, drug lords and terrorists.

It was one of the largest banks cutting across 69 countries and its aftermath would cause despair to innocent depositors, including Kenyans.

BCCI, which had $20 billion (Sh2.1 trillion in today’s exchange rate) assets globally, was revealed to have lost more than its entire capital.

The bank was founded in 1972 by the crafty Pakistani banker Agha Hasan Abedi.

He was loved in his homeland for his charitable acts but would go on to break every rule known to God and man.

In 1991, the Bank of England (BoE) froze its assets, citing large-scale fraud running for several years. This would see the bank cease operations in multiple countries. The Luxembourg-based BCCI was 77 per cent owned by the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi.  

BoE investigations had unearthed laundering of drugs money, terrorism financing and the bank boasted of having high-profile customers such as Panama’s former strongman Manual Noriega as customers.

The Standard, quoting “highly placed” sources reported that Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed Sultan would act as guarantor to protect the savings of Kenyan depositors.

The bank had five branches countrywide and panic had gripped depositors on the state of their money.

Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) would then move to appoint a manager to oversee the operations of the BCCI operations in Kenya.

It sent statements assuring depositors that their money was safe.

The Standard reported that the Sheikh would be approaching the Kenyan and other regional subsidiaries of the bank to urge them to maintain operations and assure them of his personal support.

It was said that contact between CBK and Abu Dhabi was “likely.”

This came as the British Ambassador to the UAE Graham Burton implored the gulf state to help compensate Britons, and the Indian government also took similar steps.

The collapse of BCCI was, however, not expect to badly hit the Kenyan banking system. This was during the sleazy 1990s when Kenya’s banking system was badly tested. It was the era of high graft and “political banks,” where the institutions fraudulently lent to firms belonging or connected to politicians, who were sometimes also shareholders.

And even though the impact was expected to be minimal, it was projected that a significant number of depositors would transfer funds from Asian and Arab banks to other local institutions.

“Confidence in Arab banking has taken a serious knock,” the “highly placed” source told The Standard.

BCCI didn’t go down without a fight. It accused the British government of a conspiracy to bring down the Pakistani-run bank.  The Sheikh was said to be furious and would later engage in a protracted legal battle with the British.

“It looks to us like a Western plot to eliminate a successful Muslim-run Third World Bank. We know that it often acted unethically. But that is no excuse for putting it out of business, especially as the Sultan of Abu Dhabi had agreed to a restructuring plan,” said a spokesperson for British Asians.

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A CBK statement signed by then-Deputy Governor Wanjohi Murithi said it was keenly monitoring affairs of the mother bank and would go to lengths to protect Kenyan depositors.

“In this respect, the CBK has sought and obtained the assurance of the branch’s management that the interests of depositors are not put at risk by the difficulties facing the parent company and that the bank will meet any withdrawal instructions by depositors in the normal course of business,” said Mr Murithi.

CBK added that it had maintained surveillance of the local branch and was satisfied with its solvency and liquidity.

This was meant to stop Kenyans from making panic withdrawals.

For instance, armed policemen would be deployed at the bank’s Nairobi branch on Koinange Street after the bank had announced it would shut its Kenyan operations.

In Britain, thousands of businesses owned by British Asians were on the verge of financial ruin following the closure of BCCI.

Their firms held almost half of the 120,000 bank accounts registered with BCCI in Britain. 

The African Development Bank was also not spared from this mess, with the bulk of its funds deposited and BCCI and stood to lose every coin.

Criminal culture

In Britain, local authorities from Scotland to the Channel Islands are said to have lost over £100 million (Sh15.2 billion in today’s exchange rate).

The biggest puzzle remained how BCCI was allowed by BoE and other monetary regulation authorities globally to reach such levels of fraudulence.

This was despite the bank being under tight watch owing to the conviction of some of its executives on narcotics laundering charges in the US.

Coast politician, the late Shariff Nassir, would claim that five primary schools in Mombasa lost nearly Sh1 million and appealed to then Education Minister George Saitoti to help recover the savings. Then BoE Governor Robin Leigh-Pemberton condemned it as so deeply immersed in fraud that rescue or recovery – at least in Britain – was out of the question.

“The culture of the bank is criminal,” he said. The bank was revealed to have targeted the Third World and had created several “institutional devices” to promote its operations in developing countries.

These included the Third World Foundation for Social and Economic Studies, a British-registered charity.

“It allowed it to cultivate high-level contacts among international statesmen,” reported The Observer, a British newspaper.

BCCI also arranged an annual Third World lecture and a Third World prize endowment fund of about $10 million (Sh1 billion in today’s exchange rate).

Winners of the annual prize had included Nelson Mandela (1985), sir Bob Geldof (1986) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1989).

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East Africa celebrates top women in banking and finance

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The Angaza Awards for Women to watch in Banking and Finance in East Africa took place Online via Zoom on 8th June 2021.

The event was set to celebrate the top 10 women shaping banking and finance across East Africa. The 2021 Angaza Awards, which will be a Pan-African Awards program, was also announced at the event.

Key speakers at this webinar were Dr Nancy Onyango, Director of Internal Audit and Inspection at the IMF; and Gail Evans, New York Times Best Selling Author of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman and former White House Aide and CNN Executive Vice President.

Dr Nancy Onyango advised women to deep expertise in their fields, spend time in forums and link with key players in that sector.
“Gain exposure with other cultures by seeking for employment overseas and use customized CV for each job application,” said Dr Onyango.

According to Gail Evans, women should show up and be fully present in meetings and not be preoccupied with other issues.
“Be simple and avoid jargon. Multi-tasking only means that you are mediocre Smart people ask good questions in a business meeting. Most women face drawbacks due to perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure, said Evans.

She advised women to play like a man and win like a woman, be strategic, and intentionally make their moves to get to the top.

“For us to pull up businesses that have been affected by effects of COVID-19 pandemic, we need to re-invent business models, change the product offering and make more use of digital platforms,” said Mary Wamae Equity Group Executive Director.

Mary Wamae emerged top at the inaugural Angaza awards( East Africa) ahead of other finalists.

While women continue to excel in banking and finance, the number of that occupies top executive positions is still less.

“There is a gap for women occupying C suite level and it continues to widen in the finance sector. At entry level, there is still an experience gap for women,” said Nkirote Mworia, Group Secretary for UAP-Old Mutual Group.

She said that at the Middle Management level, women do not express their ambition. For this reason, UAP-Old Mutual has developed an executive sponsorship program to help women get to the next level.

Mworia added that most women hold the notion that top positions in management have politics and pressure.
“One needs leadership skills and not technical expertise to get to the top,” said Mworia.

According to Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer and Principal Officer of APA Life Assurance Company, women need to focus on the strengths and natural abilities that they already have.

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“Take risks and raise your hand to get to the high table. Find mentors along the way and develop your own brand and not compare yourself with others Focus on your strengths because it will make you move faster in the career ladder,” said Karimi.

Lina Mukashyaka Higiro, a Rwandan businesswoman and chief executive officer of the NCBA Bank Rwanda since July 2018, has three lessons for women who want to excel in banking and finance.
“Always spend at least 20 minutes each day reading, seeking genuine feedback from other staff members and widen your network,” Higiro told the webinar.

Women picked for Angaza awards

Mary Wamae, Executive Director, led this year’s Top 10 Women in Angaza Awards, Equity Group (Kenya)(2)Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer, APA Life Insurance Company (Kenya)(3)Lina Higiro, Chief Executive Officer, NCBA Bank (Rwanda)(4)Elizabeth Wasunna Ochwa, Business Banking Director, Absa Bank (Kenya)(5)Joanita Jaggwe, Country Head of Risk and Compliance, KCB Group (South Sudan)(6) Millicent Omukaga, Technical Assistance Expert on Inclusive Finance, African Development Bank (Kenya)(7)Emmanuella Nzahabonimana, Head of Information Technology, KCB Group (Rwanda)(8)Judith Sidi Odhiambo, Group Head of Corporate Affairs, KCB Group (Kenya)(9)Rosemary Ngure, ESG & Impact Manager, Catalyst Principal Partners (Kenya) and(10)Pooja Bhatt, Co-Founder, QuantaRisk and QuantaInsure (Kenya).

The Kenyan Wallstreet, a financial media firm, partnered with Kaleidoscope Consultants to raise awareness of seasoned women shaping and influencing the sector through their organizations.

The Angaza Award criteria included assessing the applicants’ area of responsibility and contribution to firm performance. Professionals in Banking, Capital Markets, Insurance, Investment Banking, Fintech, Fund Management, Microfinance, and SACCOs were invited to submit their applications or nominations via the Kenyan Wallstreet Award Web page.

ALSO READ: Angaza Awards Top Finalist; Mary Wangari Wamae

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IFC in New Partnership to Develop Affordable Housing in Mombasa County

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NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 14 – International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, has signed a new deal in support of affordable housing in Kenya.

The corporation has partnered with Belco Realty LLP, to develop a mixed use affordable living complex that will consist of 1,379 residential units and over 4,500 square meters of retail and commercial spaces in Kongowea, Mombasa County.

Together with the Kenyan firm, IFC says the partnership will help meet surging demand for housing in Kenya.

Under the agreement, IFC will help identify suitable international strategic partners to invest equity of up to $12 million, or Sh1.3 billion in Belco and to provide the company with the necessary technical support to develop the project.

The development, known as Kongowea Village, will be developed to foster inclusive and affordable community living within the city.

Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa says the project, which will be located on eight acres within the heart of Mombasa city, will aim to be a catalyst for wider city regeneration.

The project will be developed to meet IFC EDGE certification requirements and will incorporate the latest technologies in passive cooling, energy efficiency and water conservation to support sustainable urbanization.

 Kongowea Village is expected to create 1,160 jobs and business opportunities during the three-year construction period and many more after completion of the project within the themed retail arcade.

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 “Access to quality housing is a growing problem in Kenya and across Africa,” said Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa.

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“Developers often target the high end of the market, but this project is aimed squarely at the lower-income bracket. Helping Belco identify the right partners for this project is expected to attract more developers to Kenya and other parts of Africa to help meet rising demand for housing.”

 IFC‘s engagement with Belco will help Kenya support its rapidly growing and urbanizing population by increasing access to affordable housing. The problem is similar across most of Africa, where population growth and demand for quality housing are combining to outstrip supply.  We are pleased to partner with a company such as Belco that is committed to contributing to solving this challenge,” said Emmanuel Nyirinkindi, IFC‘s Director for Transaction Advisory Services.

 IFC’s partnership with Belco is part of its broader strategy to support better access to affordable housing in Kenya.

In 2020, IFC invested $2 million in equity in the Kenya Mortgage Refinance Company (KMRC) to help increase access to affordable mortgages and support home ownership in the country.

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