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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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