KATHLEEN WANJIKU KIHANYA, 53, is an indomitable woman whose passion for public relations and marketing has propelled her to the top of her game. She will best be remembered for having pioneered the branding of sugar in Kenya through the successful launch and promotion of Mumias Sugar. She is also closely associated to Gatundu South MP Uhuru Kenyatta. She spoke to SHIRLEY GENGA.
From a very early age, about ten years old, I was always fascinated with people’s purchasing behaviour patterns. From church, we would go through the shops with my mum and the things people bought enthralled me. I always asked myself, what influences buying decisions? Why buy Lux and not Lifebuoy?
This question heightened my interest and prickled my curiosity. I knew I was a born marketer. However, when I sat for my ‘A’ Levels at Kenya High School, I qualified to go to university but my points did not qualify me to study Bachelor of Commerce, my course of choice, at the University of Nairobi. Although I was discouraged, I decided not to give up my dream, so I applied to three universities in the United States without my parents’ knowledge, and I got accepted to Indiana State University.
My next hurdle was to convince my parents. My dad refused to buy it so I got my uncle Kung’u to convince my parents, which he did. Thus, at 19 years, in August 1981, I left home for the US to study marketing. I later transferred to the University of Texas where I graduated with a degree in Bachelor of Science in Marketing. I came back home immediately after graduation in 1985.
My first job was as a marketing executive at Diners Club, the first Kenyan credit card company. I worked there for five years before joining McCann Erickson Advertising Agency as a senior public relations consultant where I set up the public relations arm of the business. I worked there until 1994.
It is at McCann that I horned my work ethic skills. In an agency, you must meet set deadlines. Clients always make unreasonable demands and you have to meet their expectations. So we would work sometimes between 15 and 20 hours to complete the job. Long hours were the norm and I became a workaholic. It was during this time that I also became a perfectionist.
After I left McCann, I set up my own company, Aces Ahead, a public relations and marketing consultancy firm. A colleague later joined me and we worked together until 1998, when she chose to pursue other interests. We developed brand and marketing strategies for big clients including Kenya Breweries, Cadbury’s and BAT. We handled many brands in Kenya and Uganda. My love affair with brands was firmly cemented.
I love challenges and making things happen. In 1998, an opportunity came my way and I went for it. Mumias Sugar Company was looking for a head of sales and marketing and I applied for the job. The brief was to set up a marketing structure from scratch, as the company did not have this department. My brief was to not only set up the structure, but to execute it as well.
I had never been to Kakamega before and in my ignorance, I thought it was near Kisumu, but after flying into Kisumu Airport, we drove for another 90 minutes to Mumias, and at that point, I decided there was no way I could live that far from my family. So during the interviews, I was 50-50 about accepting the job.
When I was short listed, I really prayed and asked God to give me wisdom. During the board interview, I was very apprehensive, but I must have hidden it well because I emerged tops and got the job. I decided there and then to take the job and to face the unknown with courage and determination. My family was also very supportive and they assured me they would help look after my daughter, who was only eleven years old at the time.
I moved to Mumias and discovered it was a beautiful and serene environment. I quickly settled down and got to serious work. The next three years turned out to be the most eventful and challenging. I had entered the university of life. It became evident that I would spend 60 per cent of my time lobbying for the survival of the sugar industry and the other 40 per cent on my real job.
I drew up a three-year strategic plan and enjoyed the marketing challenge. I hired excellent managers and staff, trained them, took them through the strategic plan, set objectives together with them and set the standards of operation. We worked really well together.
Although we excelled in the department, I made enemies everywhere. Sugar is a very sensitive commodity. While I was setting structures in place and closing many loopholes in the process, I did not realise I was closing other people’s lifelines. For instance, one of the things I did was to open up sugar sales to everybody, including the kiosk owner who wanted just one bag. I also set up a pricing structure such that the more volumes one bought, the cheaper the price.
What that meant, and I did not realise it at the time, was that I had cut out the middleman and killed corruption. They wanted me out. The battle had just started.
I set up branches in Mombasa and enhanced the ones in Nairobi to bring the sugar close to the customers. Again, this did not make the crooked sugar importers happy, as they could no longer sell their sugar since Mumias sugar was readily available. And Kenyans loved the local sugar. They could identify it by colour. Imported sugar is bleached white. In fact, this observation had a lot to do with the packet I developed, which has a transparent window to allow consumers to see the colour of their sugar.
We also got into a deal with Kenya Railways to transport Mumias Sugar via rail safely from Bungoma to Nairobi or Mombasa. This turned out to be a great bargain as rail transport was 70 per cent cheaper and more dependable. That destroyed the transport cartel, and I made more enemies.
My vision was to brand sugar. Initially, I did not get a lot of support, even from the board. The idea seemed too far-fetched. It was also going to be an expensive project with a heavy budget allocation. Eventually, however, after many presentations with figures and facts, the board approved the project on one condition — that I find the money to support the project. And I did.
I had many challenges as I developed the sugar pack. I had very little knowledge about packaging and I will forever be grateful to the late Suru Tanna, Chairman of General Printers for teaching me everything I know about packaging film, specs, lamination (to fight counterfeits) and packaging machines.
At the launch, a kilo of branded sugar cost two shillings more than a kilo of the same sugar in a brown paper bag. But the power of advertising is amazing. Eventually, everyone wanted the branded sugar, regardless of the price. We could not meet the demand. We also had good partners who supported us, including supermarkets that set aside shelf space.
By this time, I was managing three offices — Mumias, Nairobi and Mombasa — and I had to spend equal time in each office during the week. So I flew a minimum of twice a week for three years. That was very tiring. Balancing my life became quite a challenge, but I ensured that whatever I did, I was in Nairobi over the weekends to spend time with my family.
Successfully branding Mumias Sugar was my greatest achievement. I feel gratified even today when I go to a supermarket and see people picking the pack. I get very emotional. I thank God every day for having blessed me so much by putting me in a place that would allow me to make such an awesome contribution to this country.
My joy was complete in 2001 when Mumias Sugar won the overall Marketing Society of Kenya Warrior Award for the most innovative brand. After branding Mumias Sugar, all the other sugar companies followed suit and today, sugar is a very competitive brand. It is no longer a commodity.
I left Mumias Sugar in 2002 after the successful privatisation of the company. I felt I had achieved my objectives and I needed to move on. At Mumias, I learnt that no matter the odds, you must always fight for what you believe in, and that your integrity will always preserve you.
Being an election year, I found myself right at the heart of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential campaign. I gave my all to his campaign, but the tide was too strong against us. It was a great experience for me and it is then that I learnt that in politics, there is nothing black and white — everything is a shadow of grey.
After the elections, I was ready to go back to my marketing career and I decided to set up my own company, but the Government had just introduced CDF funding to constituencies. Uhuru asked me to assist him set up a structure that would effectively manage and run his constituency’s CDF. He also wanted me to manage his appointments, requests and media relations, so I set up the Uhuru Kenyatta Centre.
After six months, I was ready to move on. Uhuru asked me to stay on and appointed me his CDF chairperson. Once again, I shelved my marketing plans to focus on the new role. It was a hard job but I delved into it and put up a structure that gave power to the grassroots by setting up CDF sub-committees in all the 24 sub-locations.
I really enjoyed working with the women and youth groups, encouraging them to have income generating projects and empowering them. It always gave me such a joy when a project like a dispensary was completed and the look on people’s faces fulfilled me.
After the 2007 elections, I was ready to go back to marketing and in April 2008, I joined Keroche Breweries as the sales and marketing director, and successfully launched the Summit beer.
Later on in the year, together with a colleague (Samira Matthews) who is a creative expert, we set up 24 Hours Africa, an integrated marketing communications company. I love what I do and we have good clients, some of whom we represent in many African countries.
Most of them have renewed our contracts for another year. My partner and I have an excellent relationship, as we have the same vision and values. We complement each other perfectly. God has been good to us.