Described by Forbes as one of Africa’s most successful serial entrepreneurs, Njeri Rionge, is a multimillionaire and IT pioneer in East Africa. She turned a $500,000 startup business into East Africa’s leading internet service provider valued at $173 million.
Njeri once was a hairdresser, a job she said she loved though she never stopped looking for ways to innovate or improve her brand. This drive to succeed led to her taking the opportunity to take discounted courier trips to London where she purchased luxury brand clothes and brought them back to sell to her clients in Kenya for a profit.
These were all after she had tried her hands at the yoghurt business alongside a friend. Then a 19-year-old, she and her partner used to drive to two high schools where they sold the treats during school breaks. They would return to Limuru every second day for more stock. Njeri Rionge’s habit of starting up several ventures simultaneously remains a fundamental part of her even today.
In the 1990s, when computers and the internet were in the global consciousness but still restricted to the business elite, Njeri recognised an opportunity to make information readily accessible to the masses through the internet. In 2000, she co-founded Wananchi Online as an affordable internet service provider for anyone who wanted to access the internet.
Njeri faced several challenges while starting up Wananchi, describing the early days as a “roller coaster ride”, full of the ups and downs that come with any start up environment. An internet technology startup in Africa in year 2000 however also had to face the difficulties of challenging tightly-held assumptions that the internet was only for the elite. She took on the industry regulators, government, Kenya’s limited telecoms infrastructure and existing competition and won.
The journey was tedious and often times frustrating but she persevered because of her strong belief in the value of internet access for the average household.
“We know that our industry is probably one of the few mediums that can actually bridge the gap between the poor and the rich in our economy,” she said, and despite her setbacks and challenges, she has turned Wananchi Online into Wananchi Group, East Africa’s leading provider of cable television, broadband internet and internet-based phone services. The challenges she now faces include money to continually grow the business, and a shortage of skilled staff.
While all this was going on, Njeri maintained her disposition towards serial entrepreneurship and started up several other ventures. She founded Ignite Consulting, a business consultancy; Ignite Lifestyle, a health care consultancy; Insite, one of Kenya’s most successful digital marketing companies; and Business Lounge, described as her ‘labour of love’ and Kenya’s leading startup incubator. Njeri is passionate about startups and does not envision herself sticking to any one project for too long.