A member of the the Toronto elite and the now-deposed Kenyan elite, businessman Charles Field-Marsham has made his fortune in novel ways. And his philanthropy is no more conventional.
His flagship business is a 9,000-acre mine in the Kerio Valley that supplies fluorite, the mineral that is key to refrigeration – and a key entry point. Mr. Field-Marsham bought the mine in the mid-1990s and over the years has reinvested hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of profits from there and other businesses into philanthropic projects.
Some are commonplace, such as a primary school and health clinic at the mine. Others are inspired, like the Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project (KenSAP), an athletics scholarship program which sends dozens of needy, talented Kenyans to the Ivy League. And one is downright peculiar: amid the extravagantly crumpled green hills of the Rift Valley, he opened a state-of-the-art martial arts dojo this month.
In the surgically clean centre, lined with inspirational keywords – “Respect,” “Persevere,” “Indomitable Spirit” – 200 children of varying ages sat cross-legged on the crash mats in their crisp white uniforms awaiting their first-ever class, to be given by eight-time Canadian champion Victor Luke.
“It’s the spirit of tae kwon do, the mental discipline, the physical training, the respect it teaches,” said Mr. Field-Marsham, who has a black belt (as do two of his daughters) and a sports addict’s square-jawed composure.
The dojo is a centrepiece of his program of philanthropy that stems, he said, from his breeding: He is descended from English nobility (the family makes numerous appearances in Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage) and his father attended Eton College before moving to Canada.
“I grew up in a very well-to-do middle class family, I went to Upper Canada College, the equivalent of Eton, and I realize it more now but it was one of those schools where you were reminded often that you were privileged and with privilege comes responsibility to help the community,” he said.
In Kerio Valley, the fluorite mine is a big business, a $45-million enterprise that employs 400 people. Mr. Field-Marsham said this means his company has an obligation to the local people.
“I want to give the kids an opportunity to get a better education and get out of this valley,” he said. “Their parents were herders. We don’t want these kids to be herders.”
At the the Field-Marsham Medical Centre, which opened in March, employees and their families receive free treatment while outsiders are given cut-rate consultations for $1.20 and in-patient care at $6 per day. The closest similarly equipped facility is more than 64 kilometres away.
In the Kenya Fluorspar Primary School there is an impressively stocked library, dozens of computers, a wireless network, e-readers and Smart Boards in the classrooms.
But while these charitable acts are laudable, they are not why Mr. Field-Marsham is here. “I’m not a Greenpeace type of person but I can build a business and employ people,” he said. “I think our philanthropic work is great, but the business is more important.”
Many in the West are only now grasping the idea that Africa is not simply a swamp of misery but a place with world-leading growth rates and an emerging consumer class – a vast continent worthy of investment.
Mr. Field-Marsham discovered this earlier than most, but by accident.
His first visit to Kenya was in 1990 with his girlfriend Rita, the daughter of powerful Kenyan politician Nicholas Biwott, a veteran survivor of the country’s corrupt, often brutal politics and a loyal right-hand man to former President Daniel Moi.
Both slim and handsome, Mr. Field-Marsham and Rita made a dashing young couple when they met at McGill University and, after a stint in investment banking in New York while Rita studied law in Scotland, the pair returned to Kenya in 1993 to get married.
Mr. Field-Marsham recalled the early 1990s as a time of jolting post-Cold War change in Africa. Economies were in free fall and the solution, prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, was to release currency controls and privatize state-owned enterprises.
His first move was to open a stock brokerage in 1995 and then to set up Panafrican Group, importing Komatsu industrial equipment. In 1997 he bought Kenya Fluorspar, a loss-making state-owned “mess” of a company.
“I was 25 years old, and I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity.’ My wife and her family were very confident the country would pull through,” he said.
Their confidence is understandable given the family’s privilege at the time. “It opened doors for me, undoubtedly,” Mr. Field-Marsham said of his new-found connections. But it later became a hindrance, he said, when President Moi left office in 2002, leaving his cronies out in the cold.
“When you’re a powerful politician people try to make your life difficult and by extension they try to make your family’s life difficult,” he said of that time.
Things came to a head with the leaking of a confidential 2004 report by risk consultants Kroll Associates which linked Mr. Field-Marsham to Mr. Biwott’s allegedly corrupt business dealings.
“The Kroll report was a nightmare for me,” he said. “It didn’t say I did anything bad, it didn’t say I’d done nasty deals but it said I had partners I didn’t have and it said I held people’s money which I don’t hold and said I had a bunch of businesses that I have nothing to do with. It insinuated. It was guilt by association.”
“One decision I made early on was that my wife is my partner but nobody else [in her family] is my partner, because then it gets confusing,” he added. “Although I’ve sat on the boards of my in-laws’ businesses here, I don’t own any shares in the businesses.”
Despite being caught on the wrong side of history he has emerged unbowed and said he remains committed to Kenya. He blames Western companies for their lack of exposure and an historic lack of a need to invest in Africa, but argues that this is changing, and fast. “It’s growing at 6 to 8 per cent a year and it’s going to have a middle class the size of India’s by 2015.”
“Africa is the last frontier,” added Mr. Field-Marsham. “If I did business in Canada I’d just be another employer.”
Special to the Globe and Mail