In 2009, Dr Kalebi, a pathologist, set up Lancet Kenya as an offshoot of its parent company in South Africa. They moved into the then unfinished Fifth Avenue building on Ngong Road, using the building contractor’s generator to power their laboratory works.
It is proving to be a fruitful trajectory.
They have since opened 16 more laboratories in 17 counties and also have presence in Tanzania, Uganda and recently, Goma in Congo.
An avid storyteller, he met JACKSON BIKO at his office for a long conversation about growing up and working around the clock.
What do you find most challenging about doing business as a CEO?
Honestly that is a difficult question to answer satisfactorily. But I would say that in my medical business the biggest challenge has been the environment. The ecosystem was not ready when we started—there were no clear regulations for the kind of work we are doing here.
Another thing, and this I tell people all the time, that money is not the problem in business since I have always had a great growth support system from my bank, Stanbic Bank. I’m a great believer that if your bank does not foster your growth as a business, you ditch them, it is that simple really.
The biggest challenge in business is people. We have business in Tanzania which has a human resource problem. That speaks to their ecosystem; the universities and the kind of graduates they produce.
We just opened in Rwanda and the challenge there is that the industry- specific laws are not there. They are actually using what we are trying to do as a template given that we are the first independent laboratory. Mature environments like South Africa have refined businesses.
How was your childhood?
I grew up in Kibra— born and bred. Primary school was in Kibra, high school was in Jamhuri High School or Jamu. Yeah. Kibra was fine, in retrospect I actually think it was the best thing ever. Of course when you’re in primary school you tend to get a bit embarrassed when you’re going home and you’re walking to the shacks. But when I think back, I’m very proud of my background in Kibra.
Where are your peers? The guys you grew up with in the so-called shacks?
A number of them are dead, shot by police or lynched. Out of a group of maybe 50 people I grew up with, I think at least 10 would be dead now. In fact one of them, like a close playmate of mine was actually lynched when we were still in high school.
The rest are scattered in Dubai, Saudi… Quite a number of them are still in Kibra. Some do small businesses. I was the first to go to medical school in my family, actually, I think in my whole class I’m probably the only one who went to university. So I was pretty fortunate.
What was your break and was it luck or was it deliberate?
What do they say: Luck favours the prepared? My mom— a single mother —is a good mother, raised us with certain values. I came to know my dad only when I was in high school. So I grew up with my mum in an extended family.
If you have an extended family in Kibra or Kibera, you grow up in a plot with your grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts and a whole host of relatives. One time I remember stealing and being beaten up by every member of the family. (Laughs}
(Laughs) Yes. My uncle beat me up, then my mom, then when my grandmother who adored and favoured me came and asked why I was being beaten, trying to stop them, she was told that I had stolen. She joined in and beat me so hard I thought I was going to have fractures.
I took off running, the whole clan after me. You know where former President Moi’s house is? I started running there to go and report them. (Laughter). Running fast, whole clan in chase, I reached a place where very well known thugs used to sit chewing miraa and smoking weed and my grandmother screamed at them, “Stop him!” and these thugs chased and grabbed me and beat me up as well. They said, “you can’t be like us.” (Pause) Kibra was fun and I think the thing about it is that some of the guys were very bright, but the environment was not right.
What happened to your father?
He is originally from Uganda, met my mum here in Kenya, got married, then they divorced. He then went to Kisumu where I went to visit him once — he had another wife — whom he later divorced with three children.
I ended up raising those step-siblings and paying their school fees. He married someone else and then divorced her with two children. The story of my father goes on and on…
They say we eventually turn into our fathers…
Are you afraid you might somehow turn into your father?
I can tell you that’s a fear I’ve had since I met my dad. Okay, probably even before I met my dad because he — now reformed — used to drink a lot. They say you can have positive influencers and mentors that shape your life but something negative can also be a mentorship or an influence on you.
I’ve not touched alcohol because I saw what it did to him. I could not imagine how a man can just leave his kids, walk away and never look back.
So those kind of things influence me not to be like my dad. But of course biologically I’m like my dad. So in terms of biological risk for diseases — my dad is diabetic, it’s good to know so I’m able to take care of myself better.
Your religion allows you to marry a number of wives, has it crossed your mind that you could…you know…
(Loud laughter) No! My wife keeps telling me that “the day you decide to get somebody, just go ahead and do it. Please don’t start behaving funny, just do it.” You know, I wonder about those guys who marry many wives; how do they manage?
What’s your vice, then?
I’m a workaholic. That’s my biggest vice. I’m a rehabilitating workaholic. (Laughter)
How many hours do you put in a day?
If I tell you right now be prepared to fall off. (Chuckles). When we started this place I was the pathologist, project manager, lab manager, finance guy, you know everything. I was the guy who dealt with KRA and Kenya Power and the bank. That was during the day. Nights would be to work on my microscope slides.
There are days I could go for two days without going home and my wife would bring me change of clothes here. My routine would be; mosque at 5am, then work until 2 am. I would get home, sleep for two hours and I’m up again.
Sometimes I used to work 23 hours, then the last two years I was doing 18 hours, sleeping like four hours. Nowadays I try to sleep at least six hours, seven hours. I try to be home for supper. My biggest challenge is travelling a lot — because of the regional expansion.
What was the turning point?
The home front was suffering and I did not want to end up like those men who made lots of money, but the family forgot them.
What’s your relationship with religion?
I’m very passionate about my religion. One of my passions…one of my bucket lists is to memorise the Koran. I had actually started when I was in South Africa.
What’s your one trait you think your wife resents most?
She keeps saying that I lack reticence. I’m quick to reply, to give my thoughts. That’s probably my biggest weakness. I’ve had people quitting work here because of that. I struggle with that a lot.