By Prudence Minayo
A veteran politician and savvy businessman, James Njenga Karume built an empire said to be worth over SH40 billion. He was born in 1929 in a family of 8 children. His parents worked for white settlers and his sheer determination saw him a totally different life. Through hard work and the ability to take advantage of opportunities, he changed the trajectory of his life. Unfortunately, his death in 2012 gave birth to a succession case that lasted for years.
Here is his story as told by WoK.
Njenga was born in Lord Delamare’s Soysambu ranch and had to attend school in Limuru as that was the closest place he could find schools for the black kids. He then moved to Riara and much later pursued a diploma in Business Management from Jeans School (now Kenya Institute of Management).
Karume’s entrepreneurial spirit began to shine while he was in school. He would buy stationery from a wholesaler then sell it to his fellow students to make a profit.
After school, he worked as a clerk for the white man but his opinionated nature saw him get fired. He decided starting his business was better than being employed.
Venturing first into the charcoal business, he made enough profits to inject cash into his timber business. He would then establish a wholesale in Grogan road, now Kirinyaga road. The business flourished enabling him to found and operate Narashi distributors. This company would go on to distribute products for Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL). After the formation of South Africa Breweries’ (SAB) Kenya subsidiary under the brand Castle Brewing Kenya Limited, he was appointed director.
KBL withdrew their contract with him and he sued them initially winning over Sh200 million in compensation. However, when KBL appealed, they won and he was forced to pay for the suit.
All in all, by the time of his death he had a business empire spanning various sectors of the economy that included real estate, hospitality and agriculture. Among his businesses were Jacaranda Group of Hotels and Cianda Holdings Limited. The Lake Elementaita Lodge in Nakuru, Indian Ocean Beach Resort and Diani Beach were also part of his wealth. He had apartments in Limuru and several other properties.
The late former legislator was also said to have stake in more than forty companies including:
- Standard Chartered Bank
- Gracia Limited
- Kenya Wine Agencies limited
- Kiambu Sawmills Limited
- New Kenya Cooperative Creameries
He also had a number of farms including coffee and tea farms.
The late businessman joined politics in 1974 as a nominated KANU MP. He would successfully defend his seat until 1991 when he vied under the Democratic Party (DP) and lost to Ford Asili’s Kamau Icharia. He had helped found DP alongside Mwai Kibaki and other politicians.
In the 70s, he was among the change the constitution movement alongside the likes of Kihika Kimani. The movement sole agenda was to ensure that upon Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s death, the then vice president Daniel arap Moi did not succeed him. This was in a bid to prevent the presidential seat from being held by a non-Kikuyu. They failed as Charles Njonjo told them it was treason to imagine the death of a sitting president.
In 1997, he recaptured the Kiambaa Constituency seat on a DP party ticket and went on to successfully defend it in 2002 on a KANU ticket. Four years later, he was appointed Minister of Defense.
In 2007, he vied for the parliamentary seat on a PNU ticket and lost to KANU’s Stanley Munga.
Karume married three wives in his lifetime.
He married his first wife, the late Maryanne Wariara Njenga in 1952 and went on to have ten children, namely:
- Dr. Wanjiku Kahiu
- The late Joseph Karume Njenga
- Teresia Njeri Karume
- Lucy Wanjiru Karume
- The late Jane Mukuhi Matu Nee Karume
- Henry Waireri Karume
- The late Kennedy Njoroge Karume
- Albert Kigera Karume
- Samuel Wanjema Karume
He then married his second wife, the late Margaret Njeri Njenga in 1960
Karume married his third wife, Grace Njoki, in 2006. They went on to have a son named Emmanuel Karume Njenga.
The veteran politician began ailing in December 2011 and proceeded to India for treatment. He came back to the country and it was while receiving treatment at Agha Khan, and planning to go to Israel for further treatment, that he died from cardiac arrest on 24th February 2012.
In 2009, Karume had released an autobiography named From charcoal to Gold which detailed his journey to the top. He also asked his children to ensure that five years after his death, they had tripled his wealth.
While Karume established a trust to manage his wealth following his death, he did not have a very clear succession plan. This has led to court disputes and rather than tripling the business interests, Karume’s wealth was dwindling. Njenga had put his wealth under a trust and appointed trustees to manage it.
The trustees sold his Gacharoba firm at Sh555 million and when brought before a court could not explain how the money was spent. They went on to take a Sh33 million loan from Jamii Bora Bank to settle legal fees and pay themselves responsibility allowance. Shortly after the loan, they could not afford to pay the trust’s beneficiaries their monthly allowance.
The trustees could also not explain the use of Sh280 million left by Karume in a Co-Operative Bank account.
The heirs were also divided with some receiving the monthly allowance and others not getting it. Those who favored the trustees got money and those who disagreed with them received nothing. The trustees had power and they were accused of misusing it and showing favourism. Some grandchildren were kicked out of school since the trust hadn’t paid fees. They hired PwC to do an audit without consulting beneficiaries and took a Sh480 million loan from GT bank to renovate Jacaranda hotel according to The Nation. They also sold Kiambu Sawmills for Sh59 million without consulting all the beneficiaries.
Teresia Karume was stopped from receiving rent over a property gifted to her by Karume and a South C property was sold without notifying the grandchildren who were living there.
They refused to allow Lucy operate Village Inn which had been closed in 2014. One of the trustees bought Karume’s property and it was revealed the Gacharoba farm was sold to another trustee’s cousin.
After a long court battle, in October 2020, it was announced that the family had appointed new trustees approved by the children to manage the late tycoon’s Multi-Million estate. Karume’s eldest surviving son Henry Waireri retained his position as trustee while others appointed were: Kuria Muchuri, Karume’s daughter Lucy, and lawyer Rachel Mbai. George Ngugi, Gatabaki and Margaret Kamithi who were appointed trustees by the late Karume were let go by the family after being accused of mismanagement.
“We are confident as a family that the trustees will turn around the business empire left behind by the founder and grow it to the level he envisaged during his lifetime,” they said concerning the newly appointed trustees.