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NDEMO: Ambwere: The man behind Western Kenya’s famous business brand

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By BITANGE NDEMO
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Even without formal education, Ebrahim Ambwere, is an entrepreneur at heart. He is simply a legend in Western Kenya if not the whole of Kenya.

For those who do not know him, he ranks right up there with the likes of our pioneering self-made millionaires such as Mbugua Githere, Njenga Karume, and Nginyo Kariuki.

With hard work and shear humility, he has built an unequalled real estate empire West of the Rift.

A fortnight ago, he gave me a sneak preview through his eventful life journey.

My wife and I had travelled to Trans Nzoia for my niece’s pre-wedding ceremony.

The journey from Eldoret to Kitale reveals a constellation of Kenya’s opportunities and threats to our existence.

The region evokes a sense of urgency and the future of Kenya. And so I spent time absorbing the scintillating beauty of maturing maize plantations and wondering why we have an issue with food security.

At some point along the way, I verbalized my thoughts to my taxi driver.

He explained to me how many farmers have suffered even in times of bumper harvest. ”There is a man in Kitale by the name Ambwere who abandoned growing maize on his 1,000-acre farm because of the politics of this crop,” the driver told me.

I asked if it was the famous Ambwere and he answered in the affirmative.

I quickly asked him if I could see this famous entrepreneur. He responded that we could find him supervising his latest project in town.

In Kitale, the driver drove straight to Ambwere’s seven-storied new structure at the centre of town, pointed at an empty, crumbling chair and told me, ”He sits there.”

We beckoned a young man and asked him where Mzee was. “He is coming at some point,” he said.

I ask if it was possible to see him. ”Of course, yes,” said the young man. Before we left, he gave us his number so we could check when the old man turned up.

Later, it turned out that the young man was Francisco Ambwere, Mzee’s son and a Finance major from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

I called Francisco later and talked to Ambwere. After some questioning as to who I was, he told me to see him in 20 minutes.

In ceremonies like the one I was attending, there is a lot of idle time in-between as families gauge one another. Being an important member of my family’s team, I had to stick around just in case.

I called Francisco begging for more time and eventually Mzee said that I could go whenever I was free.

Although time wasn’t on my side, we eventually wiggled out of the ceremony and rushed to meet Ambwere before going back to Eldoret to catch our late evening flight to Nairobi.

True to our driver’s earlier assertion, the ebullient 83-year-old man occupied the ramshackle chair we had seen earlier.

He was born in Chavakali, Maragoli, in Western Kenya to Francis Aura and Sagina Rwoero, a woman with visual and hearing impairment.

He traces his ancestry to Bunyore, the neighbouring cousins to Maragolis where his grandfather Francesco Onguo had come from.

At the age of four, his father was recruited into the British Army Recruitment of the Common Wealth Citizens to fight in the Second World War and never came home.

When he was only eight years, his mother died, leaving him with his younger sister Rhoda, who was born in 1938, two years before their father left them.

His maternal grandmother took care of them, which explains how he acquired the name Ambwere – his maternal grandfather’s name.

When he turned ten, he took up jobs as a herdsboy.

Although his memory is beginning to evade him, he tried to trace his life’s journey.

We started our conversation in English but he slowly requested that we use Kiswahili or Luhyia.

Where it required greater clarification, my wife, who has some roots in Western Kenya and is a fluent Luhyia speaker, helped us to communicate.

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First, it was a Mr Vuluku who took him to Keringet in Molo to look after chicken that he reared on Mr. Smith’s land.

Vuluku was a Nyapara (a farm supervisor) in a white man’s land. He didn’t like the job and one day a Mr. Karam Singh, a mason, came to repair a water tank on the farm. It was Ambwere’s first time to see cement and he liked what he saw.

He asked Karam Singh for a job.  He was twelve years at the time and Singh hesitated but eventually gave a job for three shillings a month.

But Singh gave him accommodation and meals, mostly Indian chapatis.  He moved to Londiani quarry as a stone-cutter and perfected his masonry skills.

Later, Singh moved him to a carpentry workshop where he also honed his carpentry skills.

Singh moved to Kiambu where he had new projects and moved with Ambwere.

As independence approached in 1961, some Asians, including his employer Singh, decided to move to Uganda, leaving Ambwere with all the tools of trade, skills and some Sh3,000.

He used the money to buy a five-acre piece of land in Lutego, Vihiga. He moved his business as a contractor to Majengo, Nairobi, where he befriended Walter Njenga at the Quakers.

The Church leased a section of their compound to Ambwere for five shillings a month where he set up his Nairobi base to provide services to the City Council of Nairobi.

Later on a new head of the Church, a Mr. Majani, helped with more space to grow his construction business.

While doing his work, someone whose name he can’t recall liked his work and sent him to Juja to make his Kitchen.

While doing the work, he pumped into some Maragoli speaking people.  As they chatted, one of them said they would be visiting one of their tribesmen, a Mr. Aura, and Ambwere arranged to meet him.

On meeting Aura and after long interrogations, it later turned out that this was his long-lost father.

He settled in Juja after the war and married a Kamba lady. They were blessed with four grown up daughters.

With the assistance of his other friends from Maragoli, they succeeded in returning his father to his Maragoli home, some 23 years later.

He did not live long thereafter but Ambwere was happy that he got to be buried where his ancestors were.

With a failing memory, Ambwere does not know the fate of his half-sisters whom he left in Juja.

Back then when his father was struggling with sickness, Ambwere had moved his business to Chavakali and landed his first break.

It was a tender to make hospital beds at Kaimosi Hospital. He would use his workers to deliver the beds on their heads. On seeing this, the Mzungu head of the Hospital sold him an old Ambulance, which he subsequently used to make deliveries. 

He made enough money to expand his business to Kakamega and Kisumu in the early 1970s.

At that time, the Asian Community living in Kakamega were leaving, fearing that the xenophobic reprisals that had led to the expulsion of their lot in Uganda would be visited upon them.

Many sold their properties at throw away prices, providing a windfall for Ambwere.

As we ended our conversation, he told me that success in entrepreneurship is largely through humility, respect for others and avoiding being a show off.

More importantly, he told me, “if you get any loan from the bank, make sure your family knows.”

I wanted to leave since I had some distance to cover to Eldoret but he insisted that I accompany him to his home with his wife, who was waiting in a Toyota Land Cruiser VX.

However, my driver warned that we should forget Eldoret if we made any detour.

I bid farewell to Mzee and promised to get back and possibly develop a case study of his long entrepreneurial life.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito



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Public officers above 58 years and with pre-existing conditions told to work from home: The Standard

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Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua. [File, Standard]
In a document from Head of Public Service, Joseph Kinyua new measure have been outlined to curb the bulging spread of covid-19. Public officers with underlying health conditions and those who are over 58 years -a group that experts have classified as most vulnerable to the virus will be required to execute their duties from home.

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However, the new rule excluded personnel in the security sector and other critical and essential services.
“All State and public officers with pre-existing medical conditions and/or aged 58 years and above serving in CSG5 (job group ‘S’) and below or their equivalents should forthwith work from home,” read the document,” read the document.
To ensure that those working from home deliver, the Public Service directs that there be clear assignments and targets tasked for the period designated and a clear reporting line to monitor and review work done.
SEE ALSO: Thinking inside the cardboard box for post-lockdown work stations
Others measures outlined in the document include the provision of personal protective equipment to staff, provision of sanitizers and access to washing facilities fitted with soap and water, temperature checks for all staff and clients entering public offices regular fumigation of office premises and vehicles and minimizing of visitors except by prior appointments.
Officers who contract the virus and come back to work after quarantine or isolation period will be required to follow specific directives such as obtaining clearance from the isolation facility certified by the designated persons indicating that the public officer is free and safe from Covid-19. The officer will also be required to stay away from duty station for a period of seven days after the date of medical certification.
“The period a public officer spends in quarantine or isolation due to Covid-19, shall be treated as sick leave and shall be subject to the Provisions of the Human Resource Policy and procedures Manual for the Public Service(May,2016),” read the document.
The service has also made discrimination and stigmatization an offence and has guaranteed those affected with the virus to receive adequate access to mental health and psychosocial supported offered by the government.
The new directives targeting the Public Services come at a time when Kenyans have increasingly shown lack of strict observance of the issued guidelines even as the number of positive Covid-19 cases skyrocket to 13,771 and leaving 238 dead as of today.
SEE ALSO: Working from home could be blessing in disguise for persons with disabilities
Principal Secretaries/ Accounting Officers will be personally responsible for effective enforcement and compliance of the current guidelines and any future directives issued to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

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Uhuru convenes summit to review rising Covid-19 cases: The Standard

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President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) will on Friday, July 24, meet governors following the ballooning Covid-19 infections in recent days.
The session will among other things review the efficacy of the containment measures in place and review the impact of the phased easing of the restrictions, State House said in a statement.
This story is being updated.
SEE ALSO: Sakaja resigns from Covid-19 Senate committee, in court tomorrow

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Drastic life changes affecting mental health

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Kenya has been ranked 6th among African countries with the highest cases of depression, this has triggered anxiety by the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.9 million people suffering from a form of mental conditions such as depression, substance abuse.

KBC Radio_KICD Timetable

Globally, one in four people is affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, this is according to the WHO.

Currently, around 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

The pandemic has also been known to cause significant distress, mostly affecting the state of one’s mental well-being.

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With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic attributed to the novel Coronavirus disease, millions have been affected globally with over 14 million infections and half a million deaths as to date. This has brought about uncertainty coupled with difficult situations, including job loss and the risk of contracting the deadly virus.

In Kenya the first Coronavirus case was reported in Nairobi by the Ministry of Health on the 12th March 2020.  It was not until the government put in place precautionary measures including a curfew and lockdown (the latter having being lifted) due to an increase in the number of infections that people began feeling its effect both economically and socially.

A study by Dr. Habil Otanga,  a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Psychology says  that such measures can in turn lead to surge in mental related illnesses including depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance abuse. It also brings with it a sense of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration. In the post-quarantine/isolation period, loss of employment due to the depressed economy and the stigma around the disease are also likely to lead to mental health problems.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) states that at least 300,000 Kenyans have lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic between the period of January and March this year.

KNBC noted that the number of employed Kenyans plunged to 17.8 million as of March from 18.1 million people as compared to last year in December. The Report states that the unemployment rate in Kenya stands at 13.7 per cent as of March this year while it stood 12.4 per cent in December 2019.

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Mama T (not her real name) is among millions of Kenyans who have been affected by containment measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus, either by losing their source of income or having to work under tough guidelines put in place by the MOH.

As young mother and an event organizer, she has found it hard to explain to her children why they cannot go to school or socialize freely with their peers as before.

“Sometimes it gets difficult as they do not understand what is happening due to their age, this at times becomes hard on me as they often think I am punishing them,”

Her contract was put on hold as no event or public gatherings can take place due to the pandemic. This has brought other challenges along with it, as she has to find means of fending for her family expenditures that including rent and food.

“I often wake up in the middle of the night with worries about my next move as the pandemic does not exhibit any signs of easing up,” she says. She adds that she has been forced to sort for manual jobs to keep her family afloat.

Ms. Mary Wahome, a Counseling Psychologist and Programs Director at ‘The Reason to Hope,’ in Karen, Nairobi says that such kind of drastic life changes have an adverse effect on one’s mental status including their family members and if not addressed early can lead to depression among other issues.

“We have had cases of people indulging in substance abuse to deal with the uncertainty and stress brought about by the pandemic, this in turn leads to dependence and also domestic abuse,”

Sam Njoroge , a waiter at a local hotel in Kiambu, has found himself indulging in substance abuse due to challenges he is facing after the hotel he was working in was closed down as it has not yet met the standards required by the MOH to open.

“My day starts at 6am where I go to a local pub, here I can get a drink for as little as Sh30, It makes me suppress the frustration I feel.” he says.

Sam is among the many who have found themselves in the same predicament and resulted to substance abuse finding ways to beat strict measures put in place by the government on the sale of alcohol so as to cope.

Mary says, situations like Sam’s are dangerous and if not addressed early can lead to serious complications, including addiction and dependency, violent behavior and also early death due to health complications.

She has, however, lauded the government for encouraging mental wellness and also launching the Psychological First Aid (PFA) guide in the wake of the virus putting emphasis on the three action principal of look, listen and link. “When we follow this it will be easy to identify an individual in distress and also offer assistance”.

Mary has urged anyone feeling the weight of the virus taking a toll on them not to hesitate but look for someone to talk to.

“You should not only seek help from a specialist but also talk to a friend, let them know what you are undergoing and how you feel, this will help ease their emotional stress and also find ways of dealing with the situation they are facing,” She added

Mary continued to stress on the need to perform frequent body exercises as a form of stress relief, reading and also taking advantage of this unfortunate COVID-19 period to engage in hobbies and talent development.

“Let people take this as an opportunity to kip fit, get in touch with one’s inner self and  also engage in   reading that would  help expand their knowledge.

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