Margaret stares out of the window and sighs deeply. Her office on the 17th Floor of Jahazi Towers in Nairobi’s Upper Hill gives her a perfect view of the city. The office itself is spacious and luxuriously furnished as befitting the head of a large corporation. Margaret is the CEO of Jahazi Group, which is touted as the largest Agri-tech company in East Africa. Jahazi is a company in the agricultural sector, using technology to increase food production. This was the job that was supposed to bring her ultimate satisfaction. It was supposed to represent the climax of her career. But now it is threatening to ruin her.
Jahazi Group has a complicated corporate structure. The Group owns three subsidiaries: Jahazi Farms Limited, Jahazi Processing Limited and Jahazi Irrigation Limited. Jahazi Farms is the production wing of the company. The company owns large tracts of land, where it produces mostly fruits and vegetables. The agricultural produce is then sold to Jahazi Processing Limited, which processes the fruits and vegetables for sale. The fruits are mostly sold as blended juice, and Jahazi prides itself in using zero chemicals in its processing procedures. The company also sells fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and vegetables as well as fresh fruit and vegetable salads. Jahazi’s products have become especially popular in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. While Jahazi Processing buys the bulk of its fruits and vegetables from its sister company Jahazi Farms, it also buys fruits and vegetables from other farmers, provided they meet its standards. But it also provides farmer education on modern methods of farming and how they can meet the standards needed by the company. The third company is Jahazi Irrigation Limited offers modern irrigation solutions to farmers using technology. Jahazi Farms uses its sister company’s products, but Jahazi Irrigation has been aggressively selling its solutions to other farmers as well.
Jahazi is well established in in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. In each country, the three subsidiaries have their own subsidiaries. The Group has been successful in all these countries, but it is its intended entry into Somalia that has been causing ripples. Jahazi made the bold decision to enter the Somali market two years ago, and even acquired five hundred acres of land in the area between the Juba and Shebelle river valleys. But farming efforts are yet to begin, as the company has been going through government bureaucratic challenges both in Nairobi and Mogadishu. There have also been issues internally, but Margaret did not know that until she joined.
Many experts have opined that what Jahazi Group is trying to do is impossible, and could lead to the ultimate downfall of the Group. They pointed out that Somalia is no Egypt, where food is grown through irrigation. They mentioned that the biggest problem with Somalia is political instability, and even if the company has proven that its irrigation tactics work, Somalia would be a tough nut to crack.
But the company has a reason to be confident, at least as far as irrigation efforts go. Most of the company’s farms are in arid and semi-arid areas. In Kenya, the company has large tracts of land in Lower Eastern, North Eastern as well the drier areas the Coastal and Rift Valley regions. The then company’s CEO, the late Rashid Kwameka, often reminded critics that the Group has a very successful farm in Mandera where it grows traditional vegetables, melons, mangos and grapes. The farm is located on the Daua River Basin. He also pointed out that the company had helped many farmers in the region turn the county green through irrigation. The company created dams that collect water during flash floods and use it for irrigation. There are similar farms in Garissa and Wajir counties, the other two counties in the North Eastern region, as well as Tana River and Lamu counties. Rashid pointed out that these regions were also once rocked by conflict. But as they turned green due to the company’s efforts, the ensuing prosperity ensured that peace and stability was more or less restored.
And this is what the company wanted to do in Somalia, as CEO Rashid explained over and over again in media interviews. Rashid was a mix of competence, eloquence and experience. He knew his stuff and could articulate it well. It also helped that he was incredibly handsome and media savvy. He was a giant at the corporate scene and Margaret knows that she has huge shoes to fill.
Rashid died suddenly of a heart attack last month, and Margaret was headhunted to lead the giant corporation. And it is a giant indeed. Jahazi is the second largest company in Kenya in terms of revenue, ahead of traditional giants such as East Africa Breweries, Equity Group Holdings and KCB Group. Only Safaricom is larger, and Jahazi has been narrowing the gap between them year by year.
But Margaret is not new to the C-Suite. Although she grew up in a poor village, going to school barefoot and sometimes sleeping hungry, her determination drove her to where she is. She topped her class in KCPE and was one of the best students in the region, even though she schooled in a run-down public school. She earned a scholarship that took her to Alliance High School, where again she became a top student, and ended up as the second-best student in the whole country in KCSE.
She got a scholarship to study Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US and she graduated as the fifth in her class. After her graduation, she was snapped up as a graduate trainee by Cargill, one of the largest agricultural firms in the US. She moved to Minneapolis to work at the company’s headquarters. She worked there for six years, rising from a graduate trainee to be a middle level manager. In those years, she managed to complete her MBA degree at the Carlson School of Management, the business wing of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
At the end of her sixth year at the company, she requested the company to transfer her to its Nairobi office, and the request was granted. She came to Nairobi as the Operations Manager of the entire Kenyan operation, and she held the role for three years before she was poached by Nkomo Foods as the company’s Operations Manager. She worked at Nkomo for five years before she moved to Mastermind Tobacco as the company’s COO. She stayed at Mastermind for only a year she was lured away by their rivals BAT in the same capacity but with a better pay package. Jahazi poached her from BAT and gave her the ultimate corporate title: Group CEO. She is only 42 years old.
BAT is a large corporation, but it pales in comparison to Jahazi. Yet Margaret wasn’t even the boss at BAT. Here she is the boss of a company that straddles four countries. In the two weeks she has been the CEO, she has already done two TV interviews, and she is scheduled to sit and have a conversation with a newspaper special features reporter this weekend. Her appointment came with her media buzz that thrust her into the limelight. She is becoming something of a celebrity, but she is yet to come to terms with that. She has always operated behind the scenes, known only in corporate circles.
Having worked for large corporations ever since she left MIT, Margaret is no stranger to corporate politics. She has had to navigate them on her way to the top, although she doesn’t like it. She would have preferred to have her work and competence push her to the top, but she came to learn very early in her career that being good at her job is only part of the equation. Navigating the murky waters of corporate politics is the other essential part for anybody with ambitions of becoming anything more than a middle-level manager.
Still, she has come to know, to her utter dismay, that the politics at Jahazi are more intense than anything she has ever experienced. And for a reason. In the two weeks she has been in this office, she has come to learn what is at stake: billions of shillings. That would hardly be surprising for a company its size, a company whose taxes are way more than the gross revenue of most its competitors.
But what the public doesn’t know, and what she didn’t know before she signed up, is most of the company’s income is from illegal sources. Jahazi Group is a hub of money laundering by its owners. The money is pumped in through all the twelve primary subsidiaries, sieved through the three intermediate holding companies before reaching the mother holding company, Jahazi Group for distribution to the shareholders. The company’s clever junior accountants cover it up without realizing exactly what they are doing. But Margaret knows that the senior most accountants in the group are in the know.
The Somalia question has dragged out for so long because of emerging differences over the sharing out of this money. In fact, the decision to enter into Somalia arose from these differences. One group of owners is feeling shortchanged by the others, and it has been seeking leverage. This group consists of a group of Somali investors based in the US. They feel that their Kenyan and Ugandan counterparts have been shortchanging them in the recovery of the laundered money. This has led to intense infighting within the board.
The Somali wing was behind the push to expand to Somalia. They were ready to finance the expansion, and indeed they financed the purchase of the land through a loan that the company secured at a bank controlled by the Somalis. In exchange, they wanted another seat on the board to even out the balance of power within the company.
Former CEO Rashid was said to be sympathetic to the Somali’s cause, the chagrin of the Kenyan and Ugandan shareholders and their directors. It is rumored that this latter group is the one that orchestrated his assassination, allegedly through a chemical injection that triggered the heart attack. The company cannot afford bad publicity, that is why his death had to appear natural.
Now it is Margaret’s turn to drink from the cup. The Kenyan group has constantly reminded her that they sponsored her appointment to the top seat, and they fully expect her to frustrate the Somali project. The Somali side has warned her that if they don’t get their project, they will frustrate all her other efforts and humiliate her. There has even been a veiled threat of an assassination, both as revenge for Rashid and as part of a strategy to push their agenda. All this has happened in a space of two weeks.
Today, after carefully considering the conflicting positions, she tendered her resignation to the Board. But the Chairman laughed until he shed tears. He told her point blank that she knew way too much to walk away. The only way to leave the company, he said, was to commit suicide. Otherwise they would be forced to silence her. He said that without batting an eyelid, and Margaret knew he meant it.
As Margaret watches the traffic below, she wonders why she agreed to enter this death trap.
Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/woman-mannequin-fashion-store-shop-7025796/
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