Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Story of Njeri Rionge: From Humble Beginning to a Billionaire

The Story of Njeri Rionge: From Humble Beginning to a Billionaire
The Story of Njeri Rionge: From Humble Beginning to a Billionaire

Celebrated technopreneur Njeri Rionge, whose death was announced on Tuesday, had a humble beginning in her journey to the top.

From a young lady selling flavoured milk to high school students, Rionge rose to build a multi-billion business empire.

With about 35 years in top business management, she grew stronger and stronger.

Her entrepreneurial mind helped her co-found the multi-billion Wananchi Group runs pay TV Zuku and also owns three other IT firms.

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When the Star interviewed her some years back in 2014, Njeri described herself as an entrepreneur, corporate director and business strategist.

The technopreneur has lived and worked in Nairobi, Toronto(Canada) London (UK), Texas and Dallas(USA), Barcelona (Spain), Rome (Italy) and Athens (Greece).

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During the 2014 interview, she shared her perspectives on entrepreneurship at that time when a report by the World Bank indicated that four in every 10 Kenyans are grappling with poverty.

At the time of the interview, she was in Toronto(Canada) marketing one of her businesses.

She spoke to the Star reporter through a platform she helped build as a business.

Here is how her 2014 interview with the Star panned out:

Q: How does one become an entrepreneur?

To be an entrepreneur you have to be a certain kind of person – it doesn’t suit everyone.

I have always wanted to build my own businesses, and I think I have an innate entrepreneurial spirit.

You have to be very positive and multi-task. It is important too to know yourself and your limitations, as well as your strengths.

As a small business owner, for example, you cannot do everything yourself even if you think you can.

So build a reliable team around you that includes people who have the right skillsets. Trust is King!

Q: Would you say Kenyans generally have an entrepreneurial mindset?

Kenyans are very entrepreneurial.

The difference comes when you look at the way you run that business and structure it.

A business enterprise that can scale and run efficiently is not the same as a ‘mom and pop’ trading shop.

When you want to grow your business or attract investment, you need to have certain organisational structures in relation to sales and marketing, IT, accounting, regulations, human resources, governance and succession planning.

Q: What should authorities do to create a facilitative business environment for existing and prospective entrepreneurs?

Kenya needs to understand the core strengths of an entrepreneurial society first.

If we did understand it, we would be ranking top of the list with our neighbouring regions on the continent, and we the entrepreneurs would have a sense of pride in the work that we do if we felt that the government was committed to our success.

An emerging market like ours needs to have a team of expert entrepreneurs in decision-making portfolios.

The right skill-set balance is something we must have to allow for exponential development and growth across our 47 counties and work across other areas of development and regulatory reforms.

It is not enough to introduce youth funds and neglect capacity building and developing worker’s funding.

Small business funds are equally critical in bridging the learning gap for onboarding entrepreneurs into experienced avenues before they launch into their own startups.

Minding our developmental steps and staging our development cycle is a policy, legal and regulatory mandate, to be followed by holistic institutional frameworks.

This needed to start yesterday and it needs to be done urgently.

Q: Where has the country gone wrong?

Kenyans have an inherent capacity to focus on ‘what’s in it for me’, as opposed to ‘what’s in it for us’.

If we can get passed the ‘me, myself and I’ mentality, I believe we can forge forward expeditiously.

Q: When you look at your growing business empire, what keeps on running in your mind?

Success for me is defined by increased value – not simply financial rewards. So I am always looking to add value.

Q: How did your childhood prepare you for your present lifestyle and position?

I learned early on that I was responsible for all of my actions and expected consequences.

In one instance I remember when my father and mother had a debate about my consistent requests (as most children do).

My father was quick to tell me, “Never have doubt in asking or questioning because you never sent an application to be born”.

This was my ticket to life on my own terms.

Q: Your entrepreneurial journey began with the selling of yoghurt. How did you settle on that product and where did get capital?

I used to sell yoghurt out of the back of a friend’s car to High School students during their breaks. I was working as a hairdresser at the time which is how I bought my initial stock.

Q: How did you then set up Wananchi Online?

The inspiration was that I wanted to create value (this is always the driving element for me and it also keeps me on track) and I saw the need for a company that gave every person access to the internet, not just big corporates who could afford the high price tag at that time.

I believed in what I was doing and in my ability to get it done, and I could see very clearly that there was a market for the business.

I travelled to the north of the country with my business partner and we watched how market traders were using mobile phones in the remotest areas.

I could see the potential of the internet and that the demand was already there.

If the wananchi(citizens) could actually afford access to the internet, they would want it.

Q: Tell us the story about Wananchi then?

I co-founded Wananchi Online in January 2000 and was CEO for the first seven years.

Our fundamental mission was to bring connectivity to the wananchi(citizens); and to see everyone gaining access to the internet.

It was about adding value and I always knew it was going to be a success.

It’s hard to imagine it now, but we were East Africa’s first ISP (internet service provider) targeted at the mass market.

We helped to drive down internet connectivity prices and build up usage among average households.

It didn’t happen overnight, though, and was a lot of hard work with very long days and nights.

I would say that part of the success was also built on the fact that we had a strong strategic blueprint from the beginning, which we stuck to.

Having a strong business plan is key to any new enterprise.

This led to a merger and acquisition involving the consolidation of the second-largest Kenyan ISP and a cable television service(Zuku), which in turn allowed us to introduce triple-play services.

Before Wananchi was launched, it was a work in progress for close to 3 years before anyone heard about it.

Lessons were taken from previous market competitors as a key learning.

Q: But you just don’t seem to stop. You have gone on to set up three other companies?

I’m an entrepreneur and I continue to see new opportunities.

We are in an emerging market which brings with it many opportunities for growth across many sectors.

I’ve been focused on the IT sector for most of my career, so it’s natural for me to see opportunities within this sector which is probably changing fastest.

We now have a strong internet infrastructure in Kenya, so the obvious question is what do we do with it?

It’s not just about sharing emails and photos and entertainment, there are many business opportunities that new technology and the internet bring along with it.

So my latest business Insite Ltd, continues to add value through utilising that new connectivity.

Insite is focused on bringing businesses to the cloud, to take advantage of the benefits that online technology and services can offer local entrepreneurs and businesses across different sectors.

Q: Is that what is preoccupying your mind in Toronto?

Yes. I’m busy with the day-to-day logistics of running my business, as well as talking to potential investors and partners.

Insite has one foot in Kenya and one in Canada, and the two business environments are very different.

It can be a challenge navigating some of those differences, but I always enjoy a challenge.

Importantly, the launch of customer relationship management firm) is taking most of my time.

I need to understand the nuance of communications here and identify my critical vertical market in focus for this first stage of the business development phase.

Q: What do you tell those who argue that start-up capital is a major challenge to prospective entrepreneurs?

It depends on what you are trying to do. I know very successful business leaders today who started their companies with as little as Sh100,000.

First, you need to have a good business plan, that is well thought out and can be shared with potential investors.

Most entrepreneurs are passionate about what they are doing and that passion is contagious, so generally you can get some support from friends and family as a starting point.

Know what you are going to spend the money on too and don’t take on debt that you then spend on something else.

Transparency is key. If you want to have the confidence of your investors you must be able to show them where the money will be spent and be true to your word once you receive the funding.

Q: Where does Njeri see herself five, 10 years from now?

Njeri will continue to do what she does.

I am older and wiser now.

Therefore I don’t feel the need to project too much into the future. I shall go where life leads and importantly where my spirit flows.

Quick read:

My most valuable possession: Family. I feel very free(with them).

My ideal day: I focus on work, family and a good measure of fun while I look to challenges as stepping-stones to greatness.

My idol: I have only one Idol… my God. Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.



The Story of Njeri Rionge: From Humble Beginning to a Billionaire

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