By Kuria Kimani
Ibrahim Ambwere made headlines when he offered to settle delayed salaries for the then striking teachers’ amounting to a total of Kshs 48 million in the early 1980s. If that was today, factoring in inflation, this amount is equivalent to over Kshs 4 billion.
So who is this man Ambwere? In this article, WoK look at the tycoon’s life from childhood to adulthood and how he amassed his wealth.
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The self made tycoon was born in 1936 in Chavakali, Maragoli, in the western region of Kenya.
Ebrahim Ambwere’s Early Life
Ambwere’s grandfather Francesco Onguo hailed from Bunyore, the immediate neighbours to Maragoli. His father, Francis Aura was a polygamous man who was recruited to fight in the British Army during the Second World when he was four years old. Unfortunately, his old man never returned home. His mother, Sagina Rwoero, who had visual and hearing impairment died four years later when Ambwere was only eight years old. Ibrahim and his siblings ended up under the care of his maternal grandmother and that’s how he acquired the name Ambwere, his maternal grandfather’s name. He would later reunite with his long-lost father.
Ibrahim Ambwere’s Education background
Without having the privilege of formal education, the tycoon would go against all the odds to build a successful business empire. In later years, he was burdened with pressure of getting an education. He hired a tutor, Lawrence Kisame, in the 70s to that effect and in a span of four years, Ambwere could read, write and communicate in English. To appreciate his personal tutor, he gifted Kisame a house citing the transformational role he played in his life, adding, “teachers are special.” His parents who passed away when he was very young were too poor to afford school fees.
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Ambwere’s work History
Ibrahim Ambwere is one of the richest people in Western Kenya owning mega real estates and a business empire which spreads to Kisumu, Kitale, Kakamega, Mbale, Nairobi and other major towns of Kenya but his life growing up was not a bed of roses.
The unfortunate family events that hit the billionaire at a very tender age must have catapulted him to choose the path he did. Ambwere led his two siblings among them his younger sister Rhoda, who was born in 1938, around Maragoli to work in people’s farms to earn a daily living.
At the age of 10, Ambwere went to work in pyrethrum farms in Molo, Nakuru County only to quit on his first day. In an interview, he recounted how his eyes itched and his nose was stuffy due to allergy from the pyrethrum. He later took up a job to herd livestock in the same year. He met Mr Vuluku, a farm supervisor at a white man farm who gave him a job to care for chicken, a task he did not like one bit. Ambwere would later meet Mr. Karam Singh, a mason, who visited the farm to repair concrete water. Singh would turn to be Ambwere’s long standing employer from whom he accredits the source of his wealth.
Beginning of big things
At the age of 12, when Ambwere asked Singh for a job, he was hesitant but eventually gave him a job as a sweeper for three shillings a month plus accommodation and meals. The billionaire was diligent at this job and was moved to Londiani quarry as a stone-cutter where he perfected his masonry skills. Later, Singh moved Ambwere to a carpentry workshop, where he also honed his carpentry skills. Singh would tag him along when he later moved to Kiambu, to embark on new projects. Cumulatively, he worked for Singh for ten years.
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With the political heat owing to the fast approaching independence in 1961, a majority of foreigners, including Singh, gave out or sold their properties at throwaway prices and moved to Uganda fearing xenophobic attacks. Ambwere’s destiny and windfall was crafted amidst this when the employer gifted him tools of trade, skills and Sh 3000 that he’d use to start his business.
Post Independence Journey to building wealth
Ambwere moved back to Chavakali soon afterwards where he rented a house, married Zipporah his first wife and started a carpentry shop with only Sh 38 and the old tool box gifted to him. In 1963, Ambwere landed his first breakthrough deal when Kaimosi Hospital gave him a contract to make beds.
However, the hospital could not pay him and they opted to give him an old ambulance which he’d later use to transport wood to his Chavakali carpentry shop. He bought a five-acre piece of land in Lutego, Vihiga and moved his business to Majengo, Nairobi, and after a couple of years he would meet Aura who turned to be his long-lost father. He would later settle in Juja where he married a lady from Ukambani with whom they had four daughters. Within a period of five years, Ambwere had built his own shop and relocated from the rented space.
Health, Family issues and the fall of his business empire
Ambwere’s personal life has been impacted by family wrangles that led him to divorce two wives whom he claimed to have colluded with his children and other people to loot from him of his hard earned wealth. He would later marry Ebby Ingado who in 1994.
The tycoon is also diabetic which led to his admission at Nairobi Hospital from 1989 to 1992. He was discharged from hospital only to find his business in ruins and was forced to start from scratch. Currently, most of the tycoon’s properties and business have been subjected to mismanagement.
On offering to bail Nyayo’s government with delayed teachers’ salaries
The once illiterate Ambwere held a very special place for teachers and for this he offered to pay them when they went on strike for delayed pay during Moi’s administration. He really empathised with their plight and this was the motive behind his generous offer. In a 2017 interview he said, “That was a lot of money in the 80s, but I had it and I was willing to bail them out.” To his surprise, however, the government launched a series of probes into the sources of his wealth thus invading his private life.
Ambwere is known to have kept close relationships with prominent politicians despite having never desired to become one. Among them is the former President Mwai Kibaki who was the then minister of Finance and former President Daniel Moi. In 2002 when he was appointed to head the Luhya Elders’ Council.
What He Owns
Ambwere owns a number of residential homes and other commercial buildings such as Ambwere Furaha, Ambwere Plaza, Ambwere Complex and Ambwere Towers. He has never declared his net worth saying that it is against his culture. He however confirmed in an interview saying “I am definitely worth a lot.” The residents of Kitale estimate his net worth to be in the tune of billions given that he is richer than most politicians.
Parting Shot: Words of business wisdom from the tycoon
In a recent conversation with an associate professor at the University of Nairobi, Ambwere encouraged entrepreneurs to practice humility, respect for others and to avoid pride for them to be successful. He also added on the need for honesty in financial dealings especially on debt matters where he emphasised on the need to disclose loans to one’s family members.