Kenyan billionaires embrace philanthropy

File | KNA
Street Children Rehabilitation Trust Fund chairman Dr Manu Chandaria (right) dons a basket made by rehabilitated children from the Fountain of Life Children’s Home.

What you need to know:

  • In Africa, apart from foundations set up by serving and retired politicians, rich businesspeople have spent fortunes on helping society

Manu Chandaria, like many billionaires, is brutally honest about life. Like when he talks about having only four suits.

And when the time comes to buy a new one, he gives out one of the old ones to someone in need of it. There is nothing special about the number four, he says. “I can afford to have fifty, hundred or even a thousand suits,” he says. “But are they necessary?”

For starters, Dr Manu Chandaria’s family business empire spans more than 40 countries globally, making one of the most successful – and richest – Kenyan entrepreneurs. The one-suit-in-out-suit-out principle may look ordinary, but it’s one of the smallest ways the chairman of the Comcraft Group of companies contributes to society, as part of what could be Kenya’s biggest philanthropic giving .

Mr Chandaria says, unknown to many, he runs big philanthropic projects ranging from education to health and business policy formulation to cultural issues.

“It rewards to use your money, position, brains, property or even time to help society,” says the man who used every trick to convince his father to set up the Chandaria Foundation in 1950 to help the needy, when their family business had only 40 staff.

Helping community

Dr Chandaria is part of a large number of rich businesspeople in the world who dedicate a large part of their wealth to helping society since John D. Rockefeller formalised charitable giving in 1913 by setting up the Rockefeller Foundation.

After donating a large part of their wealth to philanthropy, US billionaires Warren Buffett, who pledged 99 per cent of his wealth in 2006, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, are campaigning to have hundreds of fellow billionaire Americans to give at least half of their wealth to charity.

In Africa, apart from foundations set up by serving and retired politicians, rich businesspeople have spent fortunes on helping society. The most prominent is Dr Mohamed “Mo” Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation with its Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

The award comes with a cash prize of Sh400 million ($5 million) initial payment and Sh16 million ($200,000) a year for life for the winner. Under the prize, the Sudanese-born British mobile communications entrepreneur honours African heads of state who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents, and who democratically hand over power.

What is the motivation behind this generosity of the world’s richest? Dr XN Iraki, the MBA programme coordinator at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business, says when people get rich, they become more realistic.

“You discover money is nothing,” he says. “What matters most is the human beings, hence the increased philanthropy. We could see it as following Maslow’s self-actualisation in the hierarchy of needs.”

Most rich people contribute to philanthropy with some seeing it as a way of leaving legacies that would reach to the next generations.

“Some rich people also may be sending out a message...’I have come to terms with my own mortality and what a better way to deal with that than to bequeath to the living?’” he says.

Businessman Chris Kirubi, who owns a number of business including Haco Industries and Capital FM, says philanthropy goes deeper than that and disputes that it is espoused more in western countries than Africa. If anything, he argues, Africans have been philanthropic ever since by helping each other within family or at clan set-ups.

“I’m a strong believer and supporter of philanthropy if it is out of the benevolent nature of a person or organisation. It is a desire to help society develop,” he said.

Analysts say philanthropy is more than some rich person giving money or other help to a needy person such as an orphan, a refugee, a poor slum resident, or the sickly.

“It plays a critical role in improving the livelihoods of people, particularly the less fortunate. It is lasting, continuous and most importantly, forethought,” said Mr Kirubi.

Dr Wiebe Boer, the chief executive officer of The Tony Elumelu Foundation, founded by former United Bank for Africa Plc CEO Tony Elumelu to promote business leadership and entrepreneurship across Africa, says philanthropy goes beyond throwing money around.

“The impact of whatever you do, be it contributing money, time or other resources, on society is what is important,” said the CEO, who joined the foundation two months ago from Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi.

“Africa’s success stories will only begin to appear when successful Africans help to empower and equip fellow Africans to realise their capacity to exploit the full potential of resources of this well-endowed continent,” said the Nigerian-born Dr Boer, who was part of the McKinsey & Company’s team that worked with the government of Kenya to develop the Vision 2030 economic roadmap.

Forgotten problems

For Dr Iraki, the government cannot solve all social problems and this calls for social entrepreneurs to sort out the “forgotten problems.”

“Some of these problems fall through the cracks and would never be addressed conventionally,” says the lecturer.

Mr Al Kags, the head of marketing and partnerships at the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), says philanthropists fundraise for development.

“When communities identify, list and seek solutions to their challenges, it contributes to community development. It the monetary support of philanthropists, individuals and organisations, that largely drive such initiatives. You can’t divorce philanthropy from community development,” he said.

Mr Kags noted that a good percentage of water pans, boreholes and dams in the semi-arid areas of Kenya have been constructed through the support of grant-making organisations.

“We have been working with over 300 communities, supporting farmers to grow food with modern farming methods such as drip irrigation and green house farming, harvest water and implement conservation projects,” he added.

For Dr Chandaria, it is a question of either giving one a fish or showing him or her how to fish. “He or she will eat a fish in a single meal while knowing how to fish will ensure he or she has a fish over many meals,” he said.

But it’s not necessarily monetary. “Sometimes visiting a hospital and enquiring from the patients how they are feeling could have a bigger impact on some of them than, say, giving a Sh1 million cheque to the hospital,” he said.

Sustainable philanthropy

There are signs that the concept is finally gaining prominence in Africa. For instance, some 200 participants attended the first Pan African Grantmakers Assembly (AGN) in Nairobi from November 3-5 this year.

“Time has come for us to come up with relevant, vibrant and sustainable African philanthropy,” KCDF CEO and the assembly’s co-chair, Janet Mawiyoo, said.

Yet, despite the growing sense of optimism, there are some reservations on the work of philanthropists. “Some grants are associated with rent seeking, ‘they’ first and society second,” notes Dr Iraki.

“For some, it can be an act of kindness and goodwill. But to others, it could be for self-enhancement,” says Mr Kirubi, who has reservations with naming the foundations after oneself.

“Some of them are established out of an act of tribute or self-enhancement. I engage in various initiatives for public good but do not believe in publicly announcing each time I do.”

While this may hold true in some cases, Dr Boer says, it is an ageold practice to name philanthropy after oneself.

“The reality is that for high profile business and political leaders who start philanthropies, the influence and brand value associated with their name is as important as the funds they donate or raise in the case of political figures,” he says, “Even today, in the Rockefeller Foundation, the name opens doors even when not coming with a cheque.”

That said and done, a change in attitude could help. “We need our own protestant work ethics so that we value work, not being helped,” says Dr Iraki.