His fingerprints are on just about everything that is giving Nairobi a world-class look. From the elite Brookhouse and Saint Christopher’s schools to the up-market Migaa Golf and Country Club, Runda Park and the exclusive Morningside office block.
And now he has moved upcountry to include the holiday-makers paradise, the Longonot Gate in Naivasha, Kisumu’s Lakeview Estate, Llango in south coast, and the Kikwetu in Machakos. Yet the seed that germinated to the multi-billion empire began as a chama Lee Karuri formed with a colleague while a third year student at the University of Nairobi.
He tells the story: “As a student I teamed up with a colleague, Musyoki Dinku, to raise money as a chama and start a consultancy. We offered our services to several architectural companies in town. Being a consultancy, we were able to negotiate better pay than our colleagues who were engaged as individual employees.” The consultancy Karuri formed with his colleague employed even fellow students.
“We had up to 10 students working for us. We rented an office at the university and I was able to buy myself a car while still a student in my fourth year,” he recalls with a sense of pride. Longonot Gate “We earned some good money for ourselves but, most important, we created jobs for ourselves and for other students.” To Karuri, creating work is the most important thing. Money comes second.
“If you have an idea and transform it to a project, money will naturally follow. Money is the fruit you reap from the tree of hard work and innovation.” The same chama bug at college would return when a few years ago, Karuri teamed up with a few friends to come up with Home Africa.
A combination of innovation and brand-building has seen Home Africa come up with the landmarks such as Migaa Golf and Country Club, Kikwetu, Lakeview and Morningside, among others. Migaa Golf and Country Club is Kenya’s first ever integrated city estate that opened to the public in August 2009.
“We started Home Afrika as a chama for a few members before it grew to the big business that it is today”, says Karuri. Home Africa was the first ever real estate firm to be listed at the stocks market in East and Central Africa. An offshoot of Home Africa is the Longonot Gate where Karuri is chairman and his wife Consolata, the managing director.
The new holiday resort, conference and leisure city on 2400 acres land is located at the foot of Mount Longonot and next to the world-famous Hell’s Gate in Naivasha. It will entail integrated gated country homes, including a 18 hole golf course, sporting facilities, ornamental lake, retirement cottages and conference facilities. Asked the total worth of his construction empire, Karuri says with a light touch: “I am yet to do the calculations myself.
They are done by other people in the industry, the banks and the stock market.” Karuri leads from the front, so to speak, and was once a long serving chairman of the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK). It is a leadership streak that goes back to the Alliance High School where he was school captain and the University of Nairobi where he was chairman of the Wildlife Club.
Born and brought up in Karatina, Nyeri county, Karuri has travelled the road of hard work to earn the fulfillment that comes with being at the top of one’s game. “I would like to make the world a better place than I found it. I feel that is a service and duty to myself, the people around me and to my God.”
Born 50 years ago, he attended Karindundu and Huhoini primary schools before joining Alliance where he was school captain in his last year in 1982. Following the 1982 failed military coup in the country, the third-born child in a family of 11 children had his entry to university delayed for a year. He says: “Because of the disruptions of the coup, we were at the university for a year longer.
It was not a good start for me. I lost my father at the same time. We were then living in a university house at the Kikuyu campus where my father worked as a lecturer. We were forced to relocate to Nanyuki where my father had bought a piece of land and we began a new life altogether.”
On completing his university education, he started off as an employee of Symbion, one of the country’s leading architectural firms for two years before moving to Triad Architects. In 1994, he partnered with Chema Katua to start the Dimensions Architects Company along Ngong Road. It is today one of the biggest architectural firms in the region. He ventured into real estate development in 2005.
“Ours is a pan-African vision. We want as many people in the continent to have a decent roof over their heads”, he says. In the media, Karuri is referred as development magnate. His privately held firm, Dimensions Architects and Interior Designers, is the umbrella corporate entity through which all of his main interests are held. But it has not all been a bed of roses.
“Business was tough when I started my first company. When you don’t have much capital, it is paramount that you have a dog-like nose that never ceases to sniff out for food. That is how you develop an instinct for success,” he says. “My philosophy as a businessman is really quite simple”, he says.
“Just keep working and investing whatever profit you make in new businesses. That way, you grow as you generate more jobs for others.” Karuri discloses that he is a lean spender as most of the time he is working. “After all, you also need time to spend money. When working you spend none.” Those who have worked with Karuri say he is a hands-on man especially in things close to his heart like property development.
“Real estate is the industry that’s closest to my heart. I wake up every morning with a feeling of excitement, knowing that I will be building more homes and helping more people realise their dreams of owning a home,” he concludes.