Njeri Rionge, one of Africa’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, used to work as a hairdresser and a yogurt vendor. When she saw a business opportunity, she immediately acted on it, made it grow and became one of the very few pioneers in the technology sector. In fact, one of her several successful companies, the Wananchi Group, is now worth over $173 million!
“I believe that success is defined by increased value — not simply financial rewards,” Rionge once said and she continues to demonstrate that throughout her own entrepreneurial career.
At age 19, Rionge started her first business of selling yogurt from a friend’s car trunk to two schools in Kenya over their school breaks. They would go to another town to stock up on their products and return to school every day to sell it.
Around that time also, Rionge also worked in a salon as a hairdresser. In her line of work, she realized a business opportunity in selling luxury products to her wealthy clients. She regularly flew to London using discounted airplane tickets. There, she would buy luxury goods and re-sell them to her clients for a profit.
A leap of faith
During the 1990s, many people didn’t have any idea about technology and the Internet yet but Rionge already saw a great opportunity to make it accessible to the general public. In the year 2000, she co-founded East Africa’s first mass-market oriented Internet Service Provider called Wananchi Online, which is a Swahili word meaning ‘citizen’ or ‘the people. It made Internet connectivity affordable for the average household for the first time.
As one of the very few pioneers in the ICT sector, Wananchi sure faced challenges including industry regulators, government monopoly, existing competition, and even the firm belief that Internet was only for the upper class. But despite it all, she grew the business from a $500,000 startup business to East Africa’s leading and largest ISP worth over $173 million.
Because of her passion for creating businesses, she continued launching numerous companies that are becoming successful one after another. She founded Ignite Consulting, a business consultancy firm; Ignite Lifestyle, a health care consultancy firm; Insite, a digital marketing company; and Business Lounge, Kenya’s leading startup incubator.
“I create companies serially because I believe that Africa is the next economic frontier and we must build indigenous organizations that will support this growth,” she said.
Aside from building companies, she also builds dreams that ignite the potential of other entrepreneurs. She invests more on Business Lounge to help start-up entrepreneurs develop their ideas into successful businesses. She also provides motivational speaking and coaching to encourage future entrepreneurs through sharing her wisdom and experiences under her personal brand Njeri Rionge.
With over three decades of experience in leadership and management, Rionge is definitely a perfect inspiration for other entrepreneurs. She encourages them to be resilient as she believes that resilience, or having a strong backbone that can handle challenges, is the key to successful entrepreneurship.