Jaswant Singh Rai, a prominent businessman, made headlines last week after he was apprehended by gun-toting men in Nairobi, forced out of his car in traffic, and bundled into a pick-up that had blocked him.
Although details about his kidnapping and subsequent release on Sunday are scarce, President William Ruto waded into the mystery on Sunday, linking the businessman to a group of cartels he accused of sabotaging the government's plans to reform the sugar industry and vowing to confront them head-on.
Rai was born in India and moved to Kenya in the 1970s, where he began his business career in the fruits and vegetables industries.
He later moved into the sugar industry, establishing the West Kenya Sugar Company in 1989, which is now one of Kenya's largest sugar producers.
He is a reclusive Kenyan billionaire businessman and the chairman of the Rai Group, a conglomerate with interests in sugar, real estate, and hospitality. He is thought to control at least 43% of Kenya's sugar business.
Rai also serves as the chairman of the Kabras Sugar Company, Sukari Industries, and Olepito.
He also founded the Raiplywood Group, Kenya's largest manufacturer of plywood and other wood products.
According to Business Daily, the company supplies roughly half of Kenya's sugar needs. Naitiri Sugar Company, their fourth sugar mill, opened in Bungoma in 2022.
The facility, which costs Ksh.6.3 billion ($44 million) and has a daily production capacity of 6,000 tonnes of sugar, began operations in May.
According to Sugar Directorate data from 2020, Rai Group accounted for 45% of total sugar sales in the country. Sukari Industries received 11%, West Kenya received 29%, and Olepito received 2%.
The billionaire is known for his fashionable suits, which are created by renowned British stylist and designer Ozwald Boateng, who is also the first and youngest black tailor to have a shop on London's prestigious Savile Row, where the world's royalty shop for their clothing.
Jaswant Singh Rai, recently in the news for a two-day kidnapping incident, belongs to the prominent Rai family, known as one of the wealthiest in Kenya. The family holds significant stakes in the edible oils and sugar industries, making their mark felt in both the prosperity and challenges of Kenya's sugar sector.
Within this narrative, the Rai family's presence looms large. Under Jaswant's leadership, the family's influence within the sugar sector has grown substantially, accounting for nearly half of the country's total sugar production.
With the establishment of a new milling factory in Naitiri, Bungoma County, data from the Sugar Directorate reveals that the four companies under the Rai Group umbrella, namely West Kenya, Olepito, and Sukari Industries, contribute to over 45 percent of the nation's total sugar sales. The Rai Group has strategically expanded its reach to occupy the space once held by formerly successful state-owned mills, positioning itself as a dominant player in Western and South Nyanza's sugar belts.
The Rai family's impact on the sugar industry has garnered the attention of the government. President William Ruto recently engaged Mr. Rai in a discussion about the state of the country's sugar industry during his tour of the Western region.
Furthermore, the move to privatize Mumias Sugar Company introduced Kenyans to another Rai family member, Sarbi Singh Rai, who operates prominently in Uganda. The Sarrai Group, led by Sarbi Singh Rai, secured a 20-year lease to manage the assets of Mumias Sugar Company, once a leading sugar producer. The company has operations in Uganda, including Hoima, Kinyara, and Kiryandongo sugar factories, with diversified interests spanning plywood, wheat, soap, edible oil, and mattresses.
Jaswant Singh Rai, son of tycoon Tarlochan Singh Rai, and Sarbi Singh Rai, son of Tarlochan's brother, extended their family's business legacy after their fathers' passing. They individually expanded and diversified their businesses, with Sarbi venturing into Uganda to establish the Sarrai Group, which now operates across various industries.
However, the acquisition of the Mumias Sugar Company contract by Sarbi's Sarrai Group ignited a significant rivalry between the cousins. West Kenya Sugar, chaired by Jaswant Rai, missed out on securing the struggling miller, leading to disputes and a court battle over the distribution of the Rai family's substantial estate.
Central to the family disagreement is a disputed will dated December 17, 1999, allegedly left by Tarlochan Rai. The Rai family's interests extend to diverse sectors, including cement production (Rai Cement), edible oils and soaps (Menengai Oil Refineries), sawmilling (Timsales, Raiply, and Webuye Panpaper), wheat farming, horticulture, and real estate (Tulip Properties).