Walking in downtown Kisumu, one would not be mistaken to assume all the area has to offer is rows and rows of hardware and wholesale shops selling everything from the latest synthetic hair to vehicle spare parts.
Except that assumption would be wrong because tucked in between two hardware shops, on Accra Street is a gem that holds great significance to the city of Kisumu and to the country at large.
The Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation Limited (LUTATCO) was the brainchild of the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and his contemporary Achieng’ Oneko under which they built the first African owned office block in Kisumu, Afrika House.
Incorporated in 1947, LUTATCO’s goal was to promote thrift and commerce in the Lakeshore districts of the then Nyanza Province and the company registered significant success before independence.
The over 1000 shareholders were Luos from all walks of life, policemen, soldiers, businessmen and post office workers all who were thrilled by the prospect of building and owning something of their own. Though there were also a few shareholders from the local Asian community.
They managed to acquire several assets including flour mills, commercial buildings in Maseno, Bondo, Ng’iya; a commercial farm in Miwani and Ramogi Press in Kisumu whose base became Afrika House after shifting from Nairobi.
Much like many institutions of the time, Afrika House served more than just a space for office work where it still stands sixty three years later.
One who is still alive to tell it all, is 81 year old Adera Osawa who has been involved with the company since 1962.
‘Back in the day, this was a very prestigious place. The kinds of meetings that would take place here shaped the politics of that time,’ he remembers with nostalgia.
Sitting in what used to be the office of Jaramogi, he recalls how he interacted with many dignitaries as they came in to discuss matters of great importance to the country and to some extent the continent.
‘Jaramogi Oginga Odinga used to meet here with leaders from all over the world, Milton Obote, Julius Nyerere and even Mzee Jomo Kenyatta came here before he and Achieng’ Oneko were detained by the colonial government!’ says Osawa.
The office now bears a few photos of Jaramogi and one of Patrice Lumumba, former Congolese Premier as most were taken to the museum at his home in Bondo.
‘Jaramogi was involved with the politics while the late Achieng’ Oneko was heavily involved with the printing press, and the newspapers published were quite popular before the company broke down,’ adds Osawa.
The printing press was popular and published several newspapers for local communities within the western region. They included Ramogi and Nyanza Times for the Luo, Mulina wa Voosi, the Luhya, Radio Posta, Sauti ya Mwananchi and Mumenyereri.
As Oneko was detained and Jaramogi immersed himself with the politics of the day and the business of Kenya’s independence, the company was left bare as those who remained could not manage it.
Even after independence, there was the business of nation building and so any leaders of substance left behind went to take up various political and public positions in the newly independent Kenya.
‘We also had problems with successive governments because we were often viewed as a vehicle used to spread propaganda because our founder was a politician, though that was not the case,’ explains David Oginga, current manager of the printing press.
Though there was lack of proper management, there was also the problem of shareholders that made it difficult to make certain decisions within the company.
Many of the original shareholders died and few passed on their shares to specific children making it impossible to establish who owned the shares with the wrangles for property that often happen once a person dies.
David also alludes to the fact that, there was also failure by shareholders to pass over their interest in the corporation to younger and better educated children deprived the corporation of effective governance and strategic leadership.
All these left the company vulnerable and led to it’s decline over several years and fifty one years after it was opened, the company closed down most of it’s operations in 1998.
Currently the office space is rented out to different individuals but there are plans for a revival of the press in future.
‘We have plans of reviving the printing press in the near future. With the advent of devolution, it’s a fresh start and there are better opportunities and we intend on taking advantage of them,’ adds Oginga.
Next time you’re in downtown Kisumu remember there’s more than just spare parts and cheaper goods at wholesale, there’s also history etched in the stone walls of those buildings.