Business

‘Sir George’, big man behind Big G: How marketing guru inspired a generation

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The hilarious ‘Mbinginjii imekulwa na ndogi’ song released by Ochungulo Family two years ago created a buzz on the airwaves.

Although the hit targeted the youth using Gengetone, a genre of hip hop that incorporates sheng, it inspired nostalgia for Kenyans who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Big G, the chewing gum, was really cool.

The man behind Big G, George Owino, was a humble Kenyan who hailed from Kateg Jera village in Ugenya, Siaya County. He was the first Kenyan employee when Wrigley, a subsidiary of US-based Mars Incorporated, began operations in the country in 1971.

He started off as a sales supervisor and was promoted to a field manager in the same year. As a marketer, Mr Owino promoted Wrigley brands such as Doublemint, Orbit and Juicy Fruit, among others, in the East African market.

Due to high demand for a big chewing gum, he convinced the company to manufacture Big G. Wrigley put up the only manufacturing plant in Nairobi, which helped him to aggressively market Big G in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Popular chewing gum

His commitment and zeal made it a popular chewing gum in the region and raised the profile of the company in East Africa. Due to his hard work, Wrigley appointed Mr Owino the company chairman.

Born in 1941, he first worked as a prison warder, but never really liked the duties. His first wife, Mrs Agnes Owino, said he quit his job at Manyani Maximum Prison due to dissatisfaction and returned to Siaya.

“He came to the village and did some farming for a few months, after which he travelled to Nairobi where he started vending ice cream and sweets on a bicycle in the streets before he joined Wrigley,” she told the Nation.

His star started rising when he opened a distribution office along Kijabe Street and later moved to Bamburi Road in Industrial area. He later established Jera Inn Restaurant in the village, which became one of the most popular entertainment places in the region.

“Whenever he visited the village, his burly presence caused excitement as everyone celebrated his arrival when he went to the local markets. He was a generous who would lift locals with whatever he had,” Mr Owino’s cousin, Mr Lucas Ngala, told the Nation.

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Owned posh cars

His entrepreneurial skills earned him several opportunities to meet with former President Daniel Arap Moi as Wrigley became a key player in the economy. He owned posh cars and had two homes in the capital.

“When I visited him at his Lavington home, he received me with a fleet of vehicles. When I asked him the need for all of them, he joked that those were like his cows and would sell them,” said Mr Ngala.

Mr Owino retired on medical grounds in 1998 after he was diagnosed with kidney failure that saw him suffer a stroke. His wife termed the moments as the most devastating for the family as they saw their loved one waste away to the disease before he succumbed in 2004.

He had four wives and 11 children spread in the US, Australia and Kenya.

Due to financial challenges, the family sold all his vehicles and their posh homes in Kilimani and Lavington in Nairobi.

Sad tale

As you enter his rural home in Kateg Jera village, his two bungalows tell the sad tale of one of Kenya’s greatest marketing gurus.

Despite having been built in the ‘70s, his first wife’s five-bedroom house is still elegant. His second wife’s home is also a shining jewel in the village.

Behind his yard lies the ruined Jera Inn that features 24 self-contained rooms, a dance hall, a kitchen and a bar.

“We are hopeful that we will one day be able to raise funds and be able to rekindle the lost glory of the facility that used to be the place of choice for revellers who wanted to sample life in these sides of the world,” said one of his sons, Mr Nicholas Owino.

In its heyday, Jera Inn was a key economic pillar of Jera market as it attracted local musicians and the legendary Super Mazembe from Congo. Big George was buried at the family’s cemetery. BY DAILY NATION


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