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Irungu Nyakera: Old Starehian causing big storm in KTDA's tea cup

In Summary

• Nyakera has been the voice and force behind what was initially thought to be a storm in the teacup, as one of the key sector managers would later admit to him.

• In an interview at his Kilimani office in Nairobi on Wednesday, Nyakera told the Star he got concerned about the sector once he left government.

Former Planning PS Irungu Nyakera
Former Planning PS Irungu Nyakera
Image: COURTESY

To whom much is given, much will be expected — Luke 12:48.

This is a lesson former Principal Secretary Wilson Nyakera Irungu took from Dr Geoffrey William Griffin, the founding director of Starehe Boys' Centre and School.

This would later inform his intervention in the corrupt tea sector.

Griffin’s portrait is among three others in Nyakera’s office. He also has his photo in his wallet.

Nyakera has been the voice and force behind what was initially thought to be a storm in the teacup, as one of the key sector managers would later admit to him.

In an interview at his Kilimani office in Nairobi on Wednesday, Nyakera told the Star he got concerned about the sector once he left government.

He served in the Ministry of Transport and later Planning until 2018 after his contract, among others, wasn’t renewed for reasons “we decided to keep to ourselves”.

“Now that I had time, I started asking questions about the exploitation that was happening. My grandmother is a tea farmer. I decided to focus on the micro, at the grassroots,” he said.

Asked what interest he has, he said he is  only amplifying the voices of the farmers.

“I am not the one saying one farmer one vote, calling for better pay and proper governance at the grassroots. These are farmers' voices,” the chairperson of the Kenya Tea Sector Lobby said.

What slowly started as Facebook posts triggered a national conversation, leading to President Uhuru Kenyatta's reform directives at the KTDA.

"Some even said the President was reading them from my Facebook timeline," he says.

He was appointed to the National Tea Steering Committee whose term ended on October 25. Its work was, however, put on hold after KTDA went to court to stop the committee from working.

There is progress, however. The Parliamentary Committee on Delegated Legislation has passed the Tea Regulations.

WHO IS IRUNGU NYAKERA?

Nyakera, 38, was born in Murang’a and later moved to Eastleigh, Kinyago slum, in Nairobi.  He was about three or four years old. 

“I joined Starehe in 1989 in Class 1 after my mother managed to get some connections and took her to the Centre. They did interviews and came home and found that we were indeed very poor. You can imagine being very poor in the slums”.

“We would actually help her sell groceries and roast maize outside Moi Airbase,” he says.

She was a single mother.

Unfortunately, he lost her when he was in Standard 3.

With his two sisters, they had to go back to Murang’a. They would interchangeably stay with the grandparents in Mathioya and their auntie in Kandara. He later lost his grandfather when he was in Standard 8.

"We were left with my grandmother, and she is the one I am with to date,” he says.

Former PS Irungu Nyakera with his grandmother, Joyce Wairugu, in Murang'a
Former PS Irungu Nyakera with his grandmother, Joyce Wairugu, in Murang'a
Image: COURTESY

Despite the challenges, Nyakera passed his KCPE exam and was admitted to Starehe, where he ended up being the school captain.

He was ranked position 32 nationally in his KCSE and was admitted to study medicine at the University of Nairobi. He added an extra year at Starehe to do technical and computer courses.

That’s show he ended up teaching Physics and Computer Studies at Nyahururu Elite Schools as he waited for university admission. His pay was Sh7,000, but ended up with Sh5,100, minus NHIF and NSSF (for which he had no number) and Sh500 charges for the cheque.

To earn more,  he worked as a tout for the Kayole and Umoja routes in Nairobi on weekends and returned to Nyahururu on Sundays.

STUDYING ABROAD 

When he finally joined Chiromo campus in 2002, Griffin called him informing him of an opportunity for him to teach leadership for an year in the US in what was part of the Round Square.

But when he got there, they said he couldn’t teach and instead offered him a scholarship for a sort of a post-graduate course for an year because he was too young.

Against his preference — he had a passion to still study medicine and neurosurgery — he was advised to apply for universities abroad. Out of the 18 he applied for, he was admitted to 14 and was offered scholarship in six, all Ivy League — Stanford, Brown, Whitman College, Williams, Yale and Harvard.

He opted for Stanford due to good weather.

Here, he started the Stanford African Journal, Sauti, and the Stanford Africa Business Forum, now second largest in America. It is now under Stanford School of Business.

He graduated with Bachelor of Engineering (Financial Analysis and Decision Engineering) and was awarded the Dean's Award for Exceptional Academic Achievement.

CORPORATE WORLD

Upon graduation in 2007, he was introduced to investment banking at Citigroup, which was at the time among the highest paying jobs in America. It was also the white male-dominated field, about 90 per cent.

“In my first year as an investment banker, we were paid $200,000 (Sh20 million) at 24,” he said.

He later briefly worked at Wall Street in London.

“Following the 2008 economic crisis, and when Lehman Brothers went down, we knew all of us could get fired. And we were laid off and given six months notice.” But at the time, he had applied for an MBA at Harvard.

He, however, decided to come back home in December 2008, meet a few people and see if he’d get hired.

“I met James Mwangi of Equity, Wairegi of Britam, then MD of Shelter Afrique, then MD of I&M, Isaac Awuondo of CBA and each of them gave me a job”.

Equity board offered him head of Investment Banking, which he declined, saying it was too senior for him and he would fail.

He was also offered another offer for what he wanted by NIC Bank — deputy head of Investment Banking — an offer he accepted.

He was later promoted to the position by Group CEO James Macharia (now Transport CS) after his boss, Kairu Ngure passed on in an accident.

This would be his turning point in his career in Kenya.

He did the first equity-linked bond, which was 55 per cent over-subscribed.

“Nobody believed it would happen.”

He also did Britam’s IPO.

At 28, he was leading NIC Capital to raise Sh10 billion for Housing Finance.

The Daily Nation called him the “New kid (literally) on the bloc taking on the old deal boys".

He quit NIC after four years to work as the regional head of East and Southern Africa at Frontier Markets Fund Managers, Guarantco, under DFID between March 2013 and July 2014.

He later moved to Equity Bank, where he helped start the Equity Investment Bank as managing director until his appointment as Transport PS.

GOVERNMENT

For the short time he was in government, he has advice for young people joining public service.

“Be ambitious but it can be a career killer, especially in a change of government. But it offers you an opportunity to understand government,” he says.

In 2019, he was almost sucked into the multibillion dams scandal.

The Star reported  that Nyakera wrote a letter to Treasury PS Kamau Thugge asking for the release of the advance payment of Sh4.6 billion to CMC di Ravenna, the contractor of Arror dam.

But he said he was clean and would tell the DCI as much if summoned. He was not among those prosecuted.

He informs that he was the force behind the Nairobi-New York direct flight before moving to Planning, as well as the Sh10 billion that revived Lapsset.

Part of Griffins last advice was, “Whatever is your duty, do it as fully and perfectly as you possibly can. And when you have finished your duty, go on to spare some time and talent in service for less fortunate people, not for any reward at all, but because it is the right thing to do.”

That is what has incentivised him to fight for the poor tea farmers.

So, what will a win in the tea sector look like? This writer asks.

One, he says, the Tea Bill should become law, the KTDA management must leave — the chairman, the CEO and the company secretary — and a forensic audit since 2000 to May last year.

And having been a leader in school and in the private sector, his eyes are now on the county leadership. He seeks to succeed Governor Mwangi Wa Iria in Murang’a.

Nyakera enjoys football (Chelsea FC fan), reading, travelling, outdoors activities and playing scrabble, golf and tennis.