Meet the Olivia Pope of Kenya
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
She has changed the fate of Kenya’s biggest companies. Now she wants to change your view of Africa.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Finding Gina Din-Kariuki’s office is easy — look for the door that reads “Boss.” Behind it sits the public relations mogul, reviewing the interview questions she asked me to send in advance. Her walls are covered in photos of her famous friends, from Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio to Paul Kagame.
At 56 years old, Din-Kariuki is one of the most influential businesswomen in Kenya, with 35 years of experience and more PR industry awards than any other African. Her company, Gina Din Group, has helped transform some of the country’s biggest brands, including Safaricom and the Kenya Red Cross, into household names. Now she is on a mission to change the way the world perceives her continent.
It’s a gray morning in Nairobi, but Din-Kariuki dresses like she is headed to an awards ceremony in Cannes. She wields two phones at all times and an iPad is never far from reach. “We are as healthy and confident as the stories we tell ourselves,” she says, “and Africa’s story must be told by Africans.”
Teachers told me I would amount to nothing, so I felt like I had something to prove.
PR is invaluable for changing the African narrative, according to Christopher Harvin, partner at PR firm Sanitas International and co-founder of Vanguard Africa, a pro-democracy nonprofit. “It’s critical,” he says, “to navigate the next steps of economic and social development as the continent strives to elevate its global standing, shape its brand and offset its critics.”
To be sure, it will take more than good PR to solve Africa’s biggest problems — whether it’s HIV, youth unemployment or Boko Haram — and Din-Kariuki explains that her intention is not to downplay Africa’s challenges but to highlight Africans’ ability to tackle them. That’s why she works for the Kenya Red Cross, spearheading initiatives like “Kenyans for Kenya,” a campaign that raised $7.9 million from local donors to feed the malnourished. Din-Kariuki is also keen to showcase her continent’s talented youth. To that end, she is in charge of promoting the upcoming NBA Africa Game, a yearly event that brings top athletes to South Africa and, more important, a venue for American scouts to spot and groom local basketball stars.
Still, Din-Kariuki is not only fighting foreign stereotypes about Africa. She is also wrestling with the increasingly negative perception of PR companies on her continent. Civil rights activists have long accused Africa’s politicians of using PR experts to airbrush their despotic ways and manipulate voters. Just last year, the infamous British firm Cambridge Analytica was hired by Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and later accused of inflaming tribal tensions ahead of the post-electoral violence that left scores of people dead.
Din-Kariuki met the Cambridge Analytica team when they first arrived in Kenya. She remembers being shocked, not so much by their methods as by their inefficiency. “I thought they had no idea what they were doing,” she recalls with a hint of superiority. “They didn’t understand the local context.”
The PR tycoon is certainly no stranger to political communications. Prominently displayed in her office are photos of Din-Kariuki shaking hands with heads of state, including Kenyatta, who was charged with inciting ethnic violence by the International Criminal Court, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame — long accused of jailing political opponents and threatening journalists. She admits to working for politicians but insists she never works in electoral campaigns because “those always get dirty.” “I am not a spin doctor,” she declares. “I am an evangelist.” (Which sounds a bit like spin.)
Fighting the many negative stereotypes about the so-called “dark continent” is no small task, but Din-Kariuki enjoys a challenge. Born in Nanyuki in central Kenya, she was the youngest of four daughters and grew up knowing her entrepreneurial parents were disappointed she was not a boy. In high school, Din-Kariuki was a straight-D student. “Teachers told me I would amount to nothing,” she recalls, “so I felt like I had something to prove.”
Din-Kariuki loved writing so she decided to become a journalist — only after earning a degree in the U.K., the optimistic graduate returned to find her country run by Daniel arap Moi, a dictator who regularly sent reporters to jail. Kariuki abandoned her dream job. Then her father died.
Amid the personal loss, a friend suggested she apply for a marketing position at Barclays. What began as a nine-month contract turned into a 14-year stint, progressing from communications manager to head of corporate affairs for all of Africa. Then she hit a ceiling. “I realized I was never going to become CEO unless I started my own business,” she recalls.
In 1997, with two children and a pilot husband who traveled constantly, Din-Kariuki founded Gina Din Group, among the first PR agencies in the region. Four years in, she was managing 80 percent of Kenya’s corporate clients, including Safaricom — a small company that would become the country’s biggest mobile provider.
But Din-Kariuki did much more than script TV commercials. She helped the company successfully lobby the Kenyan government to regulate in its favor. But power came at a price. At the peak of her popularity, with 60 employees and 35 corporate clients, Din-Kariuki found herself being rushed to the intensive care unit with double pneumonia. “I had been ignoring the pain because I was working nonstop to help Safaricom pass a piece of legislation in Parliament,” she says. The bill passed while she was in the hospital, hooked up to an oxygen tank.
That was her wake-up call. Once recovered, Din-Kariuki surprised everyone by dropping Safaricom as a client. The move meant forgoing 60 percent of the company’s revenue, but it also freed her to pursue a new cause: shaping African conversations. Since then, she has been on a mission to bring her services to clients across the continent, from Senegal to South Africa. “I have discovered so many countries that are beautiful in culture, progressive in solutions, but still largely misinterpreted,” she says.
Gina Din Group continues to grow thanks to its founder’s personal connections to the continent’s elite, from lauded philanthropists to controversial heads of state. Yet some would say this is a precarious strategy because the firm won’t function without her. Nisha Van Hoek, managing director of Advance Public Relations and Marketing, says, “Gina Din has anchored her business around her personality and that has been her biggest strength, but will also be her undoing.” Din-Kariuki admits she struggles to delegate work, but she is trying nonetheless.
Her secretary interrupts us with a reminder that it’s time for the next meeting. Din-Kariuki explains she is organizing a visit to Kenya for a client who exemplifies the continent’s immense potential. “It’s pretty exciting stuff,” she says coyly. The client is Barack Obama.
5 Questions for Gina Din-Kariuki
What’s the last book you read? A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, by James Comey.
What do you worry about? I actually don’t worry about too much. I have a lot of faith.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My phone!
Who’s your hero? Nelson Mandela.
What’s one item on your bucket list? To climb a mountain.
Source: Photographs by Nathan Siegel for OZY