A successful broker gave up everything to build and run schools for Malawi’s children. Ellen Bennett talks to Chris Knott
Chris Knott was a successful independent broker, employing 35 people, when a letter from Malawi changed his life.
Five years later, his business has been sold in a management buy-out and he works full time for Starfish Malawi, the charity he founded, which operates alongside African Reviva, a charity founded by another insurance figure, Tony Allen of Allen & Allen.
As the festive season approaches, Knott and Allen are turning to their old friends in the insurance world and asking them
to support the work they do with African children, by contributing time as well as money (see overleaf).
Seated in a French restaurant on the fringe of the City, Knott, tall, well-dressed and softly spoken, orders frugally, struck by the contrast between the ornate menu and the survival rations served in Malawi, an AIDS-ravaged, poverty stricken African nation from where he has just returned.
He tells his remarkable story with quiet humility, but his deeds speak for themselves. “In 2002, I received a letter from a pastor of the church in Malawi,” he remembers. “I suppose you might call it a begging letter, but it was more of a ‘can you come and help us?’”
“He had written to 200 people – I was one of only two to reply, and the only one who replied more than once.”
Moved by his story and motivated by his Christian faith, Knott entered a regular correspondence with the pastor which resulted in a four-day visit to Malawi the following year.
“When I arrived, I saw this school,” he says. “At first I didn’t know it was a school – I assumed it was a cattle shed.” Here, Malawi Starfish was born. Appalled by the conditions in which children were starting their life, Knott, an Oxford graduate who had studied law before moving to insurance, was inspired to help.
This experience shaped the charity Knott came to set up, which has a strong focus on education, building and maintaining schools in the world’s poorest country. But there were some hurdles to jump first.
“I resolved that when I got back to England I would try to assist them,” says Knott, who is married with two adopted children. “But I recognised that I was working – I had a job and responsibilities, there were a lot of things to consider.
“I thought that I would work part time, and put half my time into the charity – I was about 53, so I thought it would be reasonable to start selling my shares as I moved towards retirement.”
But events moved faster than Knott had expected. “I developed a formula for how this would work, and I took it to my accountant, who said ‘if you do this, you’ll pay 40% tax on everything. If you do it in one go, you’ll pay 10%.’
“It was a no-brainier. The decision seemed to have been made for me,” he says.
So Knott accepted a management buy-out offer from the directors of his Kent-based broker business and devoted himself, full time, to Starfish Malawi.
By this time, he had made contact with Allen, who was then establishing African Revival, and the two decided to work together.
Friends warned Knott, a workaholic who had fallen into insurance 25 years before because “it was something I was good at”, that he would miss the industry painfully. But his life now, which consists of touring the country telling schoolchildren and potential donors about life in the African nation and what his charity does to help, as well as trips to Malawi, is too consuming for regrets.
“It’s all embracing – life encapsulating,” he says. “This is a job which demands the whole of you – just to give a bit of yourself is not enough.”
In selling his business and dedicating his life to the charity, Knott has certainly given all of himself. Now, he is looking to the industry where he spent his first career to help him give something back.