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An Indian immigrant herdsboy, Jomo’s bodyguard, and rise of an insurance firm

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By JOHN KAMAU
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Arthur Wanyoike Thungu was in a class of his own. While little has been written about him — apart from references to his name in connection with the killing of veteran politician JM Kariuki in 1975 — Thungu was perhaps the most abrasive of all Jomo Kenyatta’s hangers-on.

Officially, he was one of Mzee Kenyatta’s bodyguards, but privately, he was the kingpin of the so-called “Kiambu Mafia” and ran roughshod over those who came between him and his quest for wealth and power.

One Indian family still recalls what befell them when Thungu entered their 240-acre Jumapili Coffee Farm in Thika — and this, perhaps, is the story of any Asian family caught up at the political turning point of a new nation. Hundreds of others faced a similar fate, albeit in silence.

It was 1976 and coffee had become the black gold, fetching premium prices on the world market after a frost in Brazil had destroyed more than 70 per cent of the South American nation’s most important cash crop.

Kenya and Uganda were the only few countries with coffee, but President Jimmy Carter had slapped an embargo on the erratic President Idi Amin, leaving Kenya with an unprecedented boom. All of a sudden, coffee had become the most important bean.

That year, Jumapili Farm had harvested 240 tonnes of coffee and had anticipated a good sale. For them, it was a record production. Then Thungu appeared and invaded the farm.

“He just came one day with lorries and carted away our coffee. Overnight, and for 24 hours, they removed all the coffee in the stores and went away with it,” recalls Ashok Shah, now the chief executive officer of APA Insurance.

Thungu was a member of Mangu Investment Company, which was notorious for forceful acquisition of coffee farms in Gatundu, and Asian families, who at independence had been allowed to buy land in the former White Highlands, were the prime targets of their business — as the Kenyatta government started to enforce the “Kenyanisation” policy.

Perturbed, Ashok and his brother, Shashi Shah, naively rushed to the High Court and got an order from Chief Justice Sir James Wicks, asking Thungu and Mangu Investment to vacate Jumapili Farm and return the coffee. They didn’t.

Among the people Thungu counted as his bosom friends were Ben Gethi, the head of the General Service Unit, and Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga — Kenya’s original axis of hubris. Ashok was in for a shock.

“When we took the order to the police, they simply laughed at us,” recalls Ashok, who had arrived in 1975 from the UK’s Kingston University, where he had majored in applied chemistry. “There was little we could do, and I turned to my brother and told him: ‘Let us try insurance’. It was the only area we could not become targets,” he says.

Apparently, Ashok had done some insurance courses in the UK and that became his family’s saving grace. While that is part of the untold story of the origins of APA Insurance, it is also the story of how Mzee Kenyatta’s bid to transfer all economic and social control to citizens of Kenya was used by the elites to amass wealth and also scare away Asians who had decided to stay rather than take British citizenship.

There was a reason many of the Indian-Kenyans chose to stay — but nobody would have listened to their story.

Ashok’s father Mepa Kanji Shah, aka Khimasia, had arrived in Kenya in 1918 as a 10-year-old boy aboard a ship and escaping the hard life in Gujarat, a semi-arid region of India.

Orphaned when he was only two years old, the young boy had gone through struggles as a herdsboy and when an Ismaili, who had opened a shop in Nairobi’s Ngara, gave the boy a chance to leave for a new continent, Mepa Kanji did not have second thoughts.

World War I had just ended and Nairobi was starting to boom with new arrivals, even though the war had drained the colonial treasury. Amid all these, Indians were being denied an opportunity to buy commercial plots in Nairobi — then reserved for white settlers only.

Khimasia was employed for five years by Lala Prasad Pundit, the pioneer confectioner in Nairobi’s Bazaar Street, now Biashara, and who is credited with opening the first sweets and pastries store in Nairobi.

Pundit had arrived in Nairobi in 1901 and he became so successful that he built the Lala Prasad Temple — or what was officially known as the Radha-Krishna Temple. This was the first Hindu temple in Nairobi.

At 15, he left Nairobi for Fort Ternan in 1923, just about the time that the Indians in Kenya numbered about 20,000 against 10,000 white settlers.

It was also the time that the Indians were asking for greater political rights and representation and Harry Thuku had also started organising Africans around a political party.

In order to defeat the new political reawakening, the British came up with the Devonshire White Paper, which declared that Kenya was primarily an African country, and that African interests must be paramount in case of conflict between Indians and Europeans. Here, the young man opened a bookshop at the Catholic mission and was known to ride a donkey from the Fort Ternan railway station to the mission.

It is not clear why he moved from Fort Ternan to Nyeri in 1928, but he started the Kenya Bookshop and once settled he left for India — for the first time — to look for a wife.

“My mother arrived here in 1931. She was illiterate, by then, and my father taught her,” says Ashok. The family bought a commercial plot in Nyeri town — which now houses Equity Bank — while the modern-day Mountain View Hotel was their home.

“We have nostalgic memories of that building,” Ashok says.

Khimasia started to bring in his nephews and nieces — and other young Indians who wanted to start life away from the dry patches of Gujarat. One of these was Bhimji Shah — the founder of Bidco Company and father of Vimal Shah — and that is why they count Nyeri as their industrial base. Bhimji’s elder brother, Kapul, was an employee of Khimasia at Nyeri General Grocers along with another entrant, Dayalal Samat.

Dayalal and his son Mahendra Shah would later establish Nairobi Sports House.

The family’s first dalliance with agriculture was when Khimasia founded Aberdare Dairy in Mweiga, where he had also opened Mweiga General Stores.

This was a partnership with his nephew Premchand Hemraj Shah, but it was dissolved at the height of the Mau Mau crisis in the area in 1958. Also, Khimasia’s eldest son Budhichand had turned 20 and joined the business at the dawn of independence.

The problem started in 1971, when the Ndegwa Commission allowed civil servants to also get into business. And as the government started its Kenyanisation of the economy and civil service, the first target were the Asians.

Then came the push for an Africanisation policy and they had to quit the retail business and sell all that they owned in Nyeri and Mweiga in the 1970s and move to Thika, which had a large Oshwal community. The Mweiga property was sold to Stephen Reuben Karunditu, then a chief personnel officer in the Office of the Vice-President.

Shortly after independence, Indians had been allowed to buy commercial farms in the former White Highlands and that is how the family bought Thika’s Oshwal Coffee Estate — today known as Thika Greens.

But they did not keep it for long and had to sell it in 1972 to Othaya Farmers, a land-buying company championed by Nyeri politicos as pressure on Asians who owned farms increased.

And since the Othaya owners could not manage the farm, they hired Ashok’s brother-in-law RK Shah to manage it. But RK, as he was commonly known, died in 1977.

The biggest blunder, but which turned into a fortune, was the purchase of Kenmac Limited, a company that owned Thika’s Jumapili Coffee Farm. “It was in the wrong place and we were under pressure to sell it too,” says Ashok. In order to safeguard the farm from Kiambu politicians the Khimasia family had started negotiating its sale to the Othaya group, but after their father died in 1974, the young entrepreneurs were now vulnerable and this was the time Wanyoike Thungu appeared.

By this time, Ashok’s elder brother Budhichand had left for Mombasa to run an Esso Petrol Station and their only other business that was not targeted was a small shop in Nairobi, Modern Electricals.

The decision to enter insurance was thus prompted by the planned takeover of their farm. Shashi had already managed to negotiate its sale with the Othaya Farmers for Sh2 million — but he had not received the President’s consent (this was granted after Mzee Kenyatta died in 1978).

The entry into insurance in 1977 was boosted by the advice of MD Nawara, who had retired as the executive director of Indo-Africa Insurance, later Pan Africa Insurance. He agreed to help the brothers get into the insurance industry — perhaps sympathising with their farming predicament. Apollo Insurance was born as a result.

Nawara was based in Mombasa and that explains modern-day APA Insurance’s coastal roots. The entire insurance industry was in the hands of Europeans and it became hard for the young entrepreneurs to penetrate the brokers — the lifeline of any insurance. But in 1984, after a lot of struggle, they got their first business from Minet, then the largest insurance broker.

“We then had to move our head office to Nairobi in 1999 and we started thinking about how to grow our business, either through mergers or acquisition,” recalls Ashok.

That chance came in 2003, when a call came: Pan Africa’s general insurance business was making losses. “Would you be interested?”

Apollo went for it and they merged to form APA. Later in 2009, Pan-Africa said they wanted to sell their shares and from their initial Sh16 million, the figure was Sh855 million.

The story of the Khimasia family and how they entered business is perhaps that of every Asian family in Kenya. It is also the story of how politics informs the growth of a national economy.

This year marks 100 years since the arrival of Mepa Kanji Shah in Nairobi — an immigrant who built a solid economic base in the country and helped others do. At the Immigration Department, file R1736 will one day be of historical significance. Perhaps.

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