Tears and praises as curtain falls on alcohol tycoon Francis Kiriiro

The late prominent Tharaka Nithi County businessman Kiambi Kiriiro Matanka

The late prominent Tharaka Nithi County businessman Kiambi Kiriiro Matanka during the 2017 election campaign meeting at Chiakariga Primary School in Tharaka constituency.  

Photo credit: Alex Njeru | Nation Media Group

With Friday’s burial of Tharaka Nithi billionaire Francis Kiambi Matanka Kiriiro, a chapter closed on the story of one of the suavest businessmen of our times.

Under the sod went a man who created an alcohol empire that manufactures and distributes some of the most renowned brands locally. Notably, Denmark-made Faxe products are solely distributed in Kenya by Patiala Distillers Kenya, a firm Mr Matanka started in 2007 alongside his wife Mary Waigwe Muthoni.

Other products like Konyagi, Blue Ice Vodka, Gold Medal Brandy, Best Classic Gin, and Diamond Ice are made by the company located along Nairobi’s Airport North Road.

The more he earned from his businesses, the more he gave out to charity. In tributes following his death, numerous people have spoken of his generosity: how he paid fees for the needy, bailed people out of hardships, and even bankrolled parties if he could not attend.

KRA wars

And whereas a number of those he interacted with are praising him, state agencies among them the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) describe him in less flattering terms. An August 27, 2021 press statement on the KRA website claims he was engaged in tax evasion by using fake excise duty stamps on his alcoholic products. It adds that he was charged in court together with his wife.

"If convicted, the accused persons are liable to a fine not exceeding Sh5 million or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or both," the taxman’s statement read.

A glimpse of some of the court cases he has been involved in shows that he was a man determined to further his empire no matter the obstacles. An example is a 2015 case where his firm sued the Laikipia county government for blocking the sale of its products. The company won the case.

And in 2021, the company took KRA to court to challenge the closure of its manufacturing premises apparently due to tax evasion. KRA told the court that the scheme involved using duplicate or fake excise duty stamps. But his firm would have the last laugh when the High Court in Nairobi ordered KRA to keep off the premises.

"(KRA’s) search at the (company’s) premises did not reveal anything. Additionally, KRA has made very general allegations against the company without any substantial proof. It would be a travesty of justice if the company’s manufacturing premises would remain closed following an unjustified raid by KRA," ruled Justice James Makau in August 2021.

In 2011, the company was among 10 petitioners that sued to challenge some sections of the Alcoholic Drinks Control Act, 2010, also known as the Mututho Law, that introduced radical changes in the sale of liquor, among them banning the packaging of alcohol in sachets. It led to some sections of the act being blocked from implementation.

At Mr Matanka’s burial, Tharaka Nithi Governor Muthomi Njuki said Mr Matanka’s companies were victims of "corporate wars".

"I urge the government of President William Ruto to support the deceased businesses from corporate wars so that his family can continue with the great work," said Mr Njuki.


Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki was also in attendance. He said Mr Matanka’s companies had employed many youths, especially those from the Tharaka constituency, and pledged to continue supporting the family so as to achieve his dreams.

Mr Matanka’s eulogy in the burial programme had a detail that most eulogies gloss over — the manner of death. It stressed in no uncertain terms that he died of a heart attack in his sleep.

"An autopsy carried out by the Chief Government Pathologist, Dr Johansen Oduor, accompanied by five other Pathologists representing different interested parties, revealed that Francis passed on from myocardial infarction, in simpler terms (a) cardiac arrest," it read.

Shortly after his death, his wife told the police that she had refused to guarantee him a Sh2 billion loan to start a business. She said they slept in separate rooms and that she discovered his body at 6 am on January 9.
The eulogy broke down the life of a man who scaled heights in business, politics and philanthropy.
Twice, he threw his hat in the political ring but did not succeed. The first time was in 2007 when he ran for the Tharaka Member of Parliament seat in 2007 and lost to Mburi Muiru.

"He remained active in politics and was instrumental in the 2013 elections where he played the role of kingmaker shaping politics of Tharaka Nithi and Kenya at large," his eulogy read.

In the 2017 polls, he contested against Prof Kindiki in the senator race but also lost. He did not vie for any position in last year’s polls.

Born on January 29, 1973, Mr Matanka died 20 days shy of his 50th birthday. He was born in the semi-arid sleepy Nkarini village in Tharaka constituency to a poor family.

"He enjoyed herding livestock, making sculptures, carvings, modelling, and pottery, and was quite fond of accompanying his father whenever he was harvesting honey. He was a superb soccer player and once broke his leg playing the game he loved," his eulogy read.

Selling fast food

He joined the University of Nairobi in 1992 where he studied agriculture and was also a student leader. He pursued his master’s degree in agronomy between 1998 and 2001. It was during his days as an undergraduate UoN student that he cut his teeth into entrepreneurship by selling fast food and drinks at the Kabete campus.
He was also passionate about aviation, which saw him enrol for a pilot training course in 2014, which he completed in 2016. By then, he was a man with business interests in many fields.

"Business bug"

The business bug that had led him to sell at the canteen saw him become a distributor of products from Mastermind Tobacco Kenya and British American Tobacco.

"He then joined Ederman Group as a Salesperson distributing alcoholic products within the country. He was promoted to the position of Country Sales Manager. He then went to Congo between 2005 and 2007 where he engaged in various successful business ventures including the sale of alcoholic products and the import of timber to Kenya. In 2007, together with his wife, Mary Waigwe Muthoni, they started Patiala Group of Companies," the eulogy said.

His agriculture-loving side saw him value not only the watermelons but also sorghum, and he encouraged locals to join him. The watermelons earned him the name Matanka, which is what watermelons are called in Kitharaka, and in 2017 he adopted it legally as his name.

"The sorghum and watermelons have now become the main cash crops," the eulogy read. Mr Matanka was also on a song. Veteran singer Newton Karish from the neighbouring Embu County once composed a song about his selflessness. Every December, Mr Matanka would invite residents for a feast while traditional dancers entertained them for days on end.

The thousands of mourners who showed up for the burial have returned to their homes, and now the man rests beneath the soils of a land he once wished to represent in Parliament; a land teeming with matanka and sprawling with praises for him. And whereas the tax evasion case involving him will be dropped, his companies still have fights to fight in various courts.


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