Joe Wanjui: Family man, astute industry captain

Joseph Barrage Wanjui.

Nairobi billionaire Joseph Barrage Wanjui.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • JB began articulating his thinking on development options in the 1960s
  • His legacy as a captain of industry in post-independent Kenya remains intact.

Best known as a premier entrepreneur and top manager of business corporations in post-independent Kenya, Dr Joseph Barrage Wanjui leaves a legacy that includes a wealth of knowledge by a public thinker on how to attain socio-economic development for emerging economies such as Kenya.

Dr Wanjui- JB or simply Joe to his many friends- published his life experiences not just about big business but also as a family man and a keen observer of the social institutions of education, family and recreation.

Though he never threw his hat in the ring of elective politics, he was acutely aware of the manner political choices impacted upon business performance and the cost of living. He shared his thinking on these matters in several publications. JB was not just a trader; he was a public philosopher.

His three books: From Where I Sit: Views of an African Executive (1986), My Native Roots: A Family Story (2009) and The Native Son: Experiences of a Kenyan Entrepreneur (2013) are in the structure of experience, analysis and insight.

In a word, JB did not just relish the challenge of making money- and he made lots of it- but additionally, he shared his reflections with members of society, in publications written in ordinary, non-technical language that captivating and even humorous.

Venturing into business

JB began articulating his thinking on development options in the 1960s, when there was heated ideological debate in Africa, whether to follow the capitalist economic model or the socialist Marxist ideology. He unapologetically opted for the former and argued passionately in its favour in 15 speeches collected in his first book.

The profit motive constitutes the prime reason for venturing into business. But there is an interesting common denominator in the dedication of JB Wanjui’s books. The first dedication reads: “To my children who gave me joy in striving”. The second work is dedicated to his mother and the third to his children and grandchildren. A significant number of the photos in the second and third publications are of members of his family.

It is as if JB was saying: ”I am for family” and “I am because of family”. In fact, he says the latter explicitly in the second book: ”All that I am, my mother, Elizabeth Wanjiru, made me”.

After graduating with a BSc in Mathematics from Ohio Wesleyan and an MSc in Industrial and Management Engineering at Columbia University New York, he returned home and rose through the ranks to the very top in Esso Kenya (private sector), the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation ((public sector), East African Industries as chairman (private sector) and finally as Development Member for Africa and the Middle East within Unilever, a well-known multinational corporation. JB’s life bears the signature of discipline, hard work and an unrelenting ambition to realise his full potential.

Besides investing heavily in family matters, he found time for social service through participation in the Rotary Club of Nairobi that elected him the first African chairman.

Jockey Club of Kenya

Owner of race horses and once chairman of the Jockey Club of Kenya, JB was a keen golfer. Having reached the pinnacle of corporate management of multinationals headquartered in London and New York, he found time to participate in the development aspirations of local communities including Kahuho, his place of birth, and Mang’u, site of his alma mater.

JB was one of the prime movers in realising the concept of the translocation of his beloved Mang’u High School from its old site adjacent to the Catholic Mission, to its new location along Thika Superhighway.

Partnering with the Archdiocese of Nairobi and the Catholic Congregation of the Marianist Missionaries from Dayton, USA, he helped mobilise resources to implement the various phases of the project beginning in the 1970s.

His other contributions related to the education sector include: serving the University of Nairobi as chancellor; creation of the Joe B Wanjui Trust Fund for Needy Female Students studying Sciences and as a founding member of the Kenya National Academy of Sciences. He was a debonnaire change maker.

His legacy as a captain of industry in post-independent Kenya remains intact.

Fr. James Barrett, his Principal at Holy Ghost College Mang’u (old name for JB’s alma mater), wrote on his School Leaving Certificate in 1957: “Joseph Barrage Wanjui is an outstanding student, top of his class, and one of the best captains this college has produced.”

JB Wanjui, rest in the dew of the heavens!

Fr Njoroge served as Education Secretary (1981-82) to His Eminence Maurice Cardinal Otunga and is currently Professor of Development Studies and Ethics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (Jkuat). [email protected]