Today our Man Around Nairobi is Dr. James Wanjagi. James Wanjagi is the MD of Iricon Consulting Group. He teaches Strategy, Technology, Change Management and Project Management at Strathmore Business School and is a huge technology enthusiast. James has lived and worked in the USA for over 15 years and just recently moved back home (Kenya) to settle, work and live. His last job internationally was as a Vice-President of IT for a premier services organization. Locally, James recently left Mobile Decisioning (MoDe) where he worked as the Group CIO to start his own consulting company. James believes that the greatest mind is that which constantly lives by the power of intentionality.
- Did you grow up in Nairobi?
I actually did not grow up in Nairobi per se. My growing-up life was split between Meru (where my mother lived), Karatina (where my dad worked and lived), and Nairobi (where I went to boarding school). Eventually, I did move to Nairobi, living in various places (Uthiru, Buru Buru, Prudential) before I left for the United States.
Growing up was hard – no need to mince words. My parents were separated when I was young so it felt like my brother and I were yo-yo balls, being transported to one house after another, and then school. The only benefit I now see was that my brother and I grew up faster than most of the other young men our age and learned to fend for ourselves early in life.
Believe it or not, I did not have much time to play. I was in boarding school. However, every once in a while we would build cars from maize cobs and metal coat hangers and then drive around the neighbourhood racing like crazy. I have a couple of scars on my leg and hands to prove how “good” I was. Maybe this is why I love Formula 1 car racing (included on my bucket list)
I loved (still do) to travel. I cannot tell you how much I would get up and just go. I remember one time literally hitching a ride with a family I did not quite know because I wanted to go to Mombasa (I had never been and I did not have permission from my parents). We get to Mombasa and I do not have a dime to my name and they end up paying for my accommodation and meals. When we got home, my mom was fuming because she did not know where I had gone to. We have been family friends since.
Coming back to Nairobi after living abroad was both exciting and scary. Exciting because there were so many changes in Kenya that impressed me and mirrored many cities in the US. Scary because there is a rawness of Kenya and specifically Nairobi that can scare you. I remember one evening driving home and I noticed a car trailing me. You should have seen my aggressive driving skills put to good use.
- What do you love about Nairobi?
I love the diversity, cosmopolitan feel, cultural charm and flamboyance of Nairobi. Literally, Nairobi is a melting pot. Infused with people who grew up here, those like me that moved here permanently in their 20s and beyond, visitors both permanent and temporal from distant and not-so-distant lands and those that visit and leave daily. Nairobi offers you a very telling story of diversity in colour, thought, attitude, people and attractions. It is these things – and more – that make Nairobi thrive.
Having lived in the United States for 15 years, coming back to Nairobi was for me the highlight of my adult life. While many do not understand how anyone could be excited coming back to potholes, loud blaring matatu music, never-ending jams, and throngs of people walking, it is the other fabric of Nairobi that continues to excite me – its opportunities, its vibrant technology appetite, it vibrant contrast between Rio and New York City.
- What would you change about Nairobi?
The impunity of matatus, the rot and depth of corruption, the idea that you cannot get anything done in Nairobi without someone’s help, the congestion, the zoning laws, the lack of infrastructure to do basic things like hire a competent plumber etc.
You see – Nairobi is a bedrock of opportunity. But with opportunity comes challenges. We seem to be very quick to pursue the opportunities but not to fix the broken issues that make up this vibrant city
- As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
Working in Nairobi as a professional is exciting. I have been fortunate to get great opportunities.
When I came back to Kenya it was not easy getting a job. There is a whole shift in how to re-work your CV (even have to shift from Resume to CV), there is the process of networking (70% of the jobs you tend to get in Kenya, especially in Mid to Senior Management have an element of networking), and then when you get a job, there is the element of being over qualified.
My 1st opportunity was working as the Group CIO for a Financial Technology organization that provided digital solutions to Telcos across Africa, and the EMEA region. It was a great opportunity. It allowed me to put to good use many of the skills gained through my experiences working internationally.
Because there are very few well-established Fin-Tech companies in Kenya with scale similar to this company – the opportunities are not that many. However, one can get related opportunities in Banks, and Telcos to help manage their digital and mobile solutions both from a Financial and Service perspective.
My 2nd and current opportunity was to teach. I teach at a premier business school in Kenya and love it! However – truth be told – I would rather be working in Corporate Kenya for the next 5 years before going back to teach. But who says I cannot get the best of both worlds? Teach part-time and work full-time
My other passion is consulting. This is a growing trend in Kenya. It takes oomph (lots of it!) to venture into consulting. Clients tend to pay late, consulting assignments might be far and in between, and many clients may not see the true value you bring. A major challenge in consulting I would say is perception. Because there are many accidental consultants (quacks if you ask me) who do not offer clients the right solution, or who tend to not execute well, you find that consulting has and continues to receive a bad rep…
- If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting?
I would sell them – the vibrant Nairobi life, the Tech city south of the Sahara, and a cultural blend that is second to none
Vibrant Nairobi life – visit the bar and club night scene in Westlands, attend a rugby game at Impala club on any given Sunday, drive to the wilderness for Rhino Charge, go to Kiserian and eat Nyama Choma, or go to any of the huge malls springing up all over Nairobi and sip a latte or whatever you fancy
The Tech City South of the Sahara – If you love technology as I do, you are in the right place. Kenya is the Africa Silicon Valley, with perhaps the highest number of technology incubators in Kenya: iHub, Nailab, KIRDI Technology Business Incubator and many more. Or just go to any University and ask for their technology centre and you will find a beehive of activity – young men and women frantically trying to be the next technology entrepreneur in Africa
The Cultural Blend – The rich diversity of cultures in Kenya can be seen from the Lamu, Turkana, Mombasa, and International Camel Derby festivals – to the Safari Rally, KCB rally, and others. You are always guaranteed to experience the uniqueness that these cultural events offer, and the hospitality of the rich heritage of the Kenya people.
If you would like to interact with James you can find him on Twitter at @DrKirimi_Jagz.