It was during a party in the apartment of a Kenyan student in New York City in 1961, just after Wanjui had finished his undergraduate studies, that he met his future wife. He had earlier briefly met Elizabeth Mukami Githii when she was a student at Loreto, Limuru, and he was at Mang’u.
Wanjui and Elizabeth got their first children, twin girls — Wanjiru and Nyathira — on December 10, 1963, two days short of Kenya’s Independence Day.
The young couple had travelled to America as British citizens — subjects of the colonialists – but returned home on Kenyan passports. And it was a time of socio-economic, cultural and political transition. “Back in Kenya, Elizabeth and I were what could be regarded as the sixties version of the ‘Yuppie’ couple: young, upwardly mobile, well-educated, ambitious,” he writes.
While Elizabeth got a teaching job at Ngara Secondary School and later at State House Road Girls, Wanjui continued to work for multinational Esso (later known as Exxon Mobil). “Indeed, we found ourselves propelled straight into Kenya’s upper middle-class lifestyle – sophisticated, doing well, getting ahead. We were earning good money and had an increasing circle of important friends: ministers, top civil servants, company executives and more,” he says.
Wanjui would later leave Esso to head state-owned Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) as “a national duty”. “It was at ICDC that we launched the first post-independence wave of African-owned enterprises, and a network of indigenous retailers and wholesalers, who changed the face of African commerce in Kenya,” he notes.
But in 1968 he joined East African Industries (EAI) as Technical Director. The multinational, now known as Unilever, had popular flagship brands like Kimbo, Cowboy, Omo, Lux, Blue Band, Treetop and Mama Safi. He rose to become the managing director and eventually executive chairman of EAI, serving the company for 19 years before retiring in April 1996.
But it was no easy task as he details his battles with government, mostly over price controls, as he sought a conducive business environment.
Wanjui, who ranks as one of the biggest local investors, has been a board member of many organisations, using this to share his expertise and mentor future corporate leaders.
He now chairs the UAP board, a company he partly owns. He believes his role in forming the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the Kenya Institute of Management has helped shape the economy. His involvement in capital venture investment also provides useful lessons.
As his career grew from the 1960s, so did his family. The couple had two more daughters — Jo-Ann Wairimu, born in 1966, and Joyce-Ann Muthoni, born a year later. But the marriage that the young couple thought was “made in heaven” did not last and they divorced in 1972.
“At some point, the relationship began to get frayed. Neither Elizabeth nor I found it easy to put a finger on what exactly went wrong. Was it the pressure of our careers, combined with that of the new life we had suddenly been thrust into? Or was it our own ambitions and fear of failure? I do not know,” he writes.
After bringing up the children as a single parent, he later remarried Anne Njambi Kiarie, with whom he has a son, Joseph Wanjui, and a daughter, Jean-Anne Wanjiru. He, however, remained close to Elizabeth until her death in 1998.
Wanjui represents the pioneer African Kenyan capitalist class with a global connection. But at the same time his story tells more of what Kenya could have been – or still could be – with the establishment of institutions to guarantee home-grown entrepreneurship and a friendly business environment.
This feature on Joe Wanjui Profile is partially adapted from the Daily Nation.