Business lessons from Kenyan rally champion

Alastair Cavenagh is one of Kenya’s prominent rally drivers. The UK-born two time winner of the Kenya National Rally Championship (KNRC) is also an accomplished entrepreneur with interests in various sectors including energy, tea trade and real estate. In the mid-1980s he was involved in tea trade in Germany and occasionally travelled to Kenya for work. He eventually settled in Kenya in 1994 and started a number of businesses. Today he is the chairman of Vipingo Ridge, a 2,500 acre private residential golfing estate at the Kenyan coast. He is also executive director of Dalbit Petroleum, a sub-Saharan Africa focused petroleum importation and distribution business.

Alastair Cavenagh

Alastair Cavenagh

Dinfin Mulupi spoke to Cavenagh about the golfing estate, his experience doing business in Africa and the business lessons he has picked up in his rallying career.

What inspired you to relocate and do business here in the mid-90s when Africa was still perceived as a ‘dark continent’?

All of my working life, since the age of 18, has been focused either on or in Africa, so it is the place I know best and seemed the most natural for me to invest. There is huge potential in Africa and I have believed this from the first moment I stepped foot on the continent.

Africa is not always the easiest place to operate. Foreigners wishing to invest would do well to properly understand the local business environment before investing. The best way, in my opinion, is to identify and form partnerships with reputable local individuals or companies who can assist with circumnavigating the numerous hurdles one often encounters as well as providing ongoing value addition thereafter.

Why were you inspired you to establish the golf development and what impact is it having in the industry?

The Vipingo Ridge project was initially conceived to be a far smaller development on only a few hundred acres. It then blossomed into what it has become today, a world class residential golf estate. We believe that Vipingo Ridge has kick-started a significant awareness of the potential and importance not only of golf tourism in Kenya, but also of secure residential estates where environment and lifestyle are key attributes.

Due to the calibre of these developments a very significant amount of new and sustainable employment is created within the communities in which they are constructed. Also it is an acknowledged fact that golf tourists spend on average four to five times the amount that typical beach destination tourists spend. The resultant effect to the Kenyan economy and tourism revenue, when all of these new golf developments are up and running, stands to be enormous.

You have several investments in the energy field. Why is this industry interesting as an investor?

The energy sector is a very interesting space in Africa where there is a massive population expansion across the continent. The past couple of decades have not seen the investment required in energy infrastructure by African governments to cope for this rapid growth and expansion. Consequently, the need for electricity to improve lives and sustain projected growth will be with us for years to come.

And there will be numerous opportunities for the private sector to work together with governments to enable this. Being in the petroleum business, the energy sector seemed like the logical next step for me.

How do you juggle both business and competitive rallying?

I have had a keen interest in rallying since a young boy. When I moved to Kenya I bought an old Datsun SSS from former rally legend Mike Kirkland and it just took off from there. Most of the people participating in the KNRC are businessmen, and we all manage to take off the few days necessary in order to prepare for, and participate in, the sport which we enjoy so much.

It is important to balance work and play, or life becomes very boring.

Are there sound business lessons learnt in your rallying career?

When rallying you have to prepare properly and ensure the car is well maintained. You also need to be thorough, diligent and physically fit. These help with rallying but also apply in other aspects of life including business. A good business person has to concentrate and focus on the job at hand just as a rally driver has to when driving the stages.

I have also learnt to give it your best and if you are not the fastest on that particular day or stage, at least you know you have given it your all.

Any advice for budding entrepreneurs?

Give everything your best shot and if it doesn’t work out do not despair. Sit back, have a rethink and try something else. If the motivation and desire to succeed is there, eventually it will happen.

When young one tends to think that they know it all, but with age comes experience and I find myself learning new ways to approach business opportunities and situations in Africa every day.

So probably I would say I should have paid more attention to those older and wiser than I was when I first came here 30 years ago.