It’s blood and sweat for Kenya’s steel workers as tycoons mint billions

11 minutes

Despite the hellish conditions in the steel factories, the industry’s well connected operators exercise very huge influence on the Kenyan government, obtaining policies that protect them from competition, subsidies and are rarely checked for unfair labour practices or whether they have measures in place to protect their workers. In the second part of the series Factories of Death, we shine the spotlight on how some tycoons have made billions on the workers’ blood and sweat.

In September 25, 2007, at around 9.30 pm when most Kenyans were glued to their TVs religiously following the dramatic political campaigns that would culminate into one of the bloodiest civil unrests in post-independence Kenya, a huge blast was heard coming from one of the steel mills along Mombasa Road in Athi River.

It would later emerge that at the time the feeders were loading scrap metals into the boilers, with the content nearing the extreme melting point, the molten steel suddenly flew into the air like lava bursting out of an active volcano.

Five people died on the spot. Another five were admitted at the Kenyatta National Hospital with 80 percent burns. Three were being treated in dispensaries in Athi River. Three were unaccounted.

“The explosion might have been caused by dead bomb shells that were among the scraps and went off when exposed to extreme heat,” said the factory’s manager. 

The factory manager was Narendra Raval, the famous steel magnate that has charmed presidents Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. 

Devki CEO Narendra Raval meets India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Devki.

The factory was Devki Steel Mills Limited, which Raval started in 1985 to “protect consumers from suffering at the hands of monopolists and create jobs,” according to his autobiography. 

Known as Guru, the highest title that can be accorded a descendant of the Brahmin priestly caste of the Hindu religion, Raval’s story is one of  ingenuity in entrepreneurship and boundless philanthropy. 

Born in 1962 in a tiny village in Mathak, Gujarat, India, Guru came to Kenya to serve in a Hindu temple as an assistant priest. Although he continued reading palms, especially of presidents and predicting their future, his priesthood would officially end when he married a medical doctor in Thika with whom he ventured into manufacturing. 

The tycoon, who said in a past interview that he only owns a pair of ordinary shoes, is known for his philanthropy. Half of his earnings, he said in the autobiography, goes to charity. He disclosed that he had donated all the Kes100 million that he earned after selling his autobiography, “Guru: A Long Walk to Success.”

He has built schools for the poor, fed the hungry and treated the sick. He has set up an orphanage in Athi River and built Devki Primary School in Ruiru, Kiambu County. Devki has also adopted Devki Emukutan School at Emali.

He can afford to be philanthropic because he is filthy rich. 

Guru rose to position 46 in Forbes list of Africa’s Richest in 2015. Forbes Magazine valued his estate at around Kes 75.7 billion. Apart from steel, he has also made his wealth from cement, fertiliser, aviation and packaging.  

Narendra Raval was featured in in the exclusive club of African billionaires by Forbes Magazine.

The tycoon who owns Devki Group—the parent for Devki Steel Mills and National Cement, Kenya’s largest producers of steel and cement respectively—has benefited massively from protectionist policies enacted by both the governments of retired President Uhuru Kenyatta and now William Ruto. Recently, he hit the headlines by rooting for the controversial Finance Act 2023.

Guru might have done so much good for the society, but he has also been fingered for various corporate malpractices. 

The man who says he started his company in the mid 80s to end the monopoly that existed then, is ironically being accused of a scheme to kill competition in both steel and cement by using his influence to push for higher duty on finished metals and clinker by invoking “Buy Kenya, Build Kenya Strategy.” He has denied these accusations. 

Devki is also a cauldron of some of the grisliest accidents. It has been the subject of many employment lawsuits, and in most of them, the company has been accused of negligence.

One such case is that of James Makau Kisuli who worked as a machine operator for twisted metal at Devki Mills.

President Uhuru Kenyatta pictured with Devki Group Founder and CEO Narendra Raval. [Photo/ NMG]

On July 7, 2020, at 5am, a piece of metal from one of the machines broke off from the motor and flew through the air – “vicious in its force; rapid in its velocity,” according to Judge Joel Ngugi.

Judge Ngugi noted that the flying piece hit Kisuli in the back, pelvic and buttocks area and forcefully threw him to the ground.

Mr Kisuli insisted that his employer did not offer him a safe working environment. Devki countered by noting that first, Kisuli, was not wearing protective gear—a pair of gloves—even though he had been provided with on this fateful day.

But the judge called Devki out, dismissing this argument as a red herring.

“A pair of gloves would not have changed the course of that flying piece of metal. Neither would have a pair of boots,” added Judge Ngugi.

And in any case, employers in the steel industry do not strictly enforce the requirement for the employees to put on protective clothing, until when they are tipped off by a Labour ministry official.

“People are warned in advance that Ministry of Labour officials are coming. That is when people put on protective gear,” said a worker in the steel industry.

However, when in December 14, 2000, Joseph Mulwa, who had been employed as a turn boy at Devki, was electrocuted, the court spared his employer from bearing the full liability because he was not wearing protective gloves despite having been provided with the same.

But the manner of the accident forced judge Alnashir Visram to  apportion equal liability to Devki for the accident.

On this fateful day, Mr Mulwa was offloading billets from the crane when the driver asked him to pump fuel into the machine.

When the crane was about 10 metres high it touched an electric wire that electrocuted him. The electric current coursed through Mulwa’s body leaving him with fatal injuries on the head, right hand, thumb, elbow, right foot and burns on the stomach.

The driver, who was wearing gloves, was not electrocuted and thus did not suffer any injuries.

The lower court found Devki up to 85 percent liable, for allowing the crane to come into contact with a live wire. Mulwa’s liability, the lower court found, was 15 percent.

But the High Court Judge Visram reversed the lower court’s ruling, noting that both parties were equally liable.

“The employer is expected to take all reasonable steps to ensure employee’s safety. He is not expected to watch the employee constantly,” said judge Visram. 

Life saving barriers too expensive

In the case of Kisuli, Devki argued that it had met its statutory duty of care. That duty of care, Devki argued, was not supposed to be absolute. It described the accident as an Act of God, which it could not reasonably have anticipated.

The steel company insisted that it would have been prohibitively expensive and unrealistic to construct solid barriers around each machine as Kisuli suggested was the way to protect the machine operators.

The judge found that Devki did not give evidence to show that it is prohibitively expensive or unrealistic to provide such protection.

“This position is made more morally attractive by the fact that the Appellant has not even explained negligence in this case. It has not even taken the step to demonstrate that the machines were kept in good working order and all reasonable precautions were taken to maintain them as such,” said judge Ngugi.

The devil’s contract

But it is perhaps Devki’s third argument in Kisuli’s case that went on to show how factories of death continue to exist.

Devki, the court noted,  pleaded the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria: the work offered to the Respondent (Kisuli) was inherently dangerous. 

“He (Kisuli) willingly and voluntarily accepted it. He calculated his risks. He rationally accepted them. He now cannot reverse course and blame the employer for accepting to run the risk,” argued the company.

Do we owe our roof producers any concern

But for a nation with millions of unemployed youths, where any job that can help them put a meal on the table, regardless of the risk involved, is welcome, should such justification for wasting lives be acceptable?

For Stephen,* [from Part 1] the hard work that led him into the factories of death have left him scarred, mutilated, unable to earn a living and after a year in hospital, his torment from the first hour of his injury seems to never end.

A year after the accident, we found Stephen in the third hospital, still bedridden.

When the ambulance whisked him from the steel factory, he was first taken to the nearest health facility, which found the severity of Stephen’s injury beyond its capacity. 

So Stephen, the pain still intense, was rushed to KNH, Kenya’s largest referral hospital. But KNH did not find the injury serious enough to warrant its attention, so Stephen was sent back to the first hospital where he stayed for five months.

Third rate hospital

After spending hundreds of thousands at the hospital without any progress, Stephen was admitted at KNH’s private wing for another five months. A huge bill, running close to Kes 5 million, compelled Stephen’s employer to transfer him to the third hospital.

In the two months that he had been admitted here, he told us, patients had been pouring in every week with various injuries. Nearly all of these patients were victims from a steel milling factory. 

Clearly, Stephen’s employer’s approach, who had already spent more than Kes5 million treating him alone, was re-active rather than the recommended proactive approach to managing workplace safety and health. This is having a toll on the company’s bottom line. 

How difficult is it to eat fish?

We found Stephen helping himself to a meal of ugali and Tilapia fish. He didn’t look like he was enjoying the delicacy. For all the years I have been eating fish, it never occurred to me that a certain posture is needed for you to enjoy this delicacy.

Lying on his back, he placed the food close to his chest. Using a fork and spoon, while slightly straining his head forward, he literally wrestled with the food as he tried to snuff the meat from the bones. 

In the end, the fish was half-eaten and the ugali barely touched. Such a waste of good food!

“There is improvement,” he said, “a major improvement.”

Stephen has gone for a year without walking. He just switches positions- from lying on his back and sitting on the bed, mostly while eating like today.

He will have to be trained how to walk like a baby.

“When I try standing, I just shake. You feel the blood rushing from the head to the toes. And if it finds a small opening, it gushes out,” said Stephen.

Treatment had been going on well at KNH, and he was looking forward to walking out of the hospital in about a month, when the visits by the doctor suddenly stopped. 

Bill payment arrears

Payment from Stephen’s employer to KNH had been delayed and services could not be given for free.

It was around Christmas season, and most factories had closed for the festivities.

“They stopped treating him and the injury got worse,” remembers a cousin of Stephen.

So, they started afresh when the payment was made. But you could tell that there was a clear clash between the Hippocratic oath of ‘first do no harm to the patient’ that his doctor had taken and the profit motive of the hospital.

The hospital would instruct the doctor not to treat the patient.  The doctor was not entirely happy. “Even the doctor said this job is crap,” said Stephen.

Once, when we visited Stephen at the KNH, his cousin pointed to us a patient who had been thrown from the ward and made to spend the nights on the corridors of one of the wards for non-payment of the hospital bill that was running into millions.

Stephen was initially rejected by KNH when doctors said his injuries were not serious. He returned to KNH’s private wing but hospital bills became unbearable. Photo: Capital News.

The hospital bill at KNH private wing was too much for Stephen’s employer, so he was brought to the third hospital. 

Here, there is some progress. He says the fluid that was dripping from the wound is no longer, the blood too.  

“But the problem is this,” he says pointing towards his upper arm, where the doctors sliced a piece of the skin to graft his injured leg. 

“It is taking a long time to heal.”

*Not his real name

Share tips, stories and comments on

Support MtaaSkika.

Fund independent journalism.