Washington Akumu: Gentle giant who stretched the limits of business journalism  

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Washington Akumu, who died on Tuesday in Nairobi, had always been a reserved person—or so most people thought—until that afternoon when he was appointed the business editor for the Daily Nation.

He indeed had the usual trappings of an editor, such as a dedicated workstation and a reserved space at the editorial meeting. But he did not quite fancy the limelight that high positions brought.

From the less glamorous Sunday Business, Washington, simply Wash to his newsroom colleagues, was thrown into the deep end of business journalism in Kenya. Most people had come to know his name more than his face as he would feature more on the Daily Nation and Sunday Nation pages than he would prance around the newsroom like many journalists fondly do to announce their arrival or exit.

As a writer, Washington remains one of the finest business journalists ever to feature in the Kenyan media. With a natural flare of the English language, dotted with a sneaky sense of humour, he was every editor’s dream soldier, a writer you’d even think had been sent by the gods of journalism.

Of course, his stubborn penchant for a little sophistication in diction lost him some audiences, but he still commanded a huge following who cared—and indeed understood—what he wrote on the business pages. He would often retort to critics, saying, “If you don’t understand what I write, then you are not my audience.”

Instead of simply saying the market moved ‘up and down’, Wash would play around with words and write the “market gyrated,” peppering articles with bits of business jargon here and humorous anecdotes there. It was said some editors had trouble editing his articles and would simply let the “strange” words pass, not because they understood them but avoided appearing ignorant if they questioned.

And so the young Luo man carved a niche for himself in business writing, developing a brand that pushed him to the top post of business editor. In between, he would write on other subjects, such as entertainment, and still give the beat specialists a run for their money.

During his time in the newsroom, Washington worked alongside the likes of Jaindi Kisero, Geoffrey Irungu, Muna Wahome, and Peter Okong’o, among others. Some of the journalists he mentored and who have since blossomed in their careers include Joseph Bonyo, Jevans Miyungu, Mwaniki Wahome, Luke Mulunda, Bernadette Murgor, Abuna Ayiro, Wachira Kang’aru, Kaburu Mugambi, and Philip Wahome.

One of the hallmarks of his career was his firmness when it came to defending proper journalism. At some point, a business reporter, Catherine Riungu, was to be suspended over an article that went wrong, and Washington rose to her rescue.

“You can’t punish a reporter for making otherwise drab copy interesting. I assigned her the story, I edited it, enjoyed every word of it, and passed it for placing,” Washington hit back, writing to his boss.

“But since we put more premium on advertising than good writing and we must appease the advertiser by releasing our creative reporter if she goes, I go. If you wish to keep one of us, keep her. Publishing the offending story was my responsibility.”

His writing and sharp understanding of the corporate world caught the eye of the business world leadership. After a few years as business editor, when he replaced Nick Wachira, who had moved to start the Business Daily, Washington moved to Safaricom Ltd, one of the most admired companies then and even now, handing the mantle to Mulunda, who had understudied him for several years.

Granted, Nation was a force to reckon with in the media and at the Nairobi Securities Exchange, where listed companies flex their muscles. It was a big catch for Safaricom and an even bigger loss for Nation Media Group (NMG).

At Safaricom, he worked as a public relations manager, providing a vital link with the media industry. Having cultivated good relations with journalism colleagues, his work at Safaricom was nearly a walk in the park. But he would often talk of the suffocating corporate life, comparing it with the more carefree media lifestyle where journalists controlled their work—walking in and out of the office at will as long as the newspaper was published.

From Safaricom, Washington temporarily returned to Nation Media Group but would soon jump into the public relations industry, joining Redhouse Public Relations, where he worked as the Group Account Director. In 2016, he joined Media Edge Public Relations as Managing Director, a position he served until his death.

In the PR world, he quickly earned himself a name in media relations and training and would often be the lead trainer for his agency’s clients on media matters. Soft-spoken and often slow to act, Washington has left a huge legacy in media, corporate PR, and agency, held together by his often insightful social media posts that ensured he remained etched in the industry’s minds.

I joined NMG in 2006 from Standard newspaper when Washington was Sunday Business editor. I had met him at events as a reporter but never talked to him. On my first day at NMG, I read newspapers all day long. In the evening, as I planned to leave, he assigned me to cover a Telkom Kenya cocktail. Being a sub-editor, a cocktail was a low-profile assignment those days reserved for interns. Later, I asked him why he did that. He giggled and said, “Young Luke, I was testing your attitude.”

He lived this attitude himself, as he would often attend events and conduct interviews as a business editor—for him, no assignment was too small for any calibre of journalist. What mattered, he said, was the nose for the unusual. That is how he would get big stories from a cocktail or even a product launch.

Washington knew he was top of the game and, naturally, his writing and editing intimidated many. He even adopted a swag in his walk that betrayed what he did: slow and slightly leaning back.

Although he has succumbed to cancer of the spine, Washington will be remembered more for his time in the newsroom than his stint in corporate PR and agency.

Luke Mulunda worked under Washington Akumu for five years. He is the editor of Business Today. [email protected]

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