Behind Africa’s original mass market internet service provider is female entrepreneur Njeri Rionge. Popularly known in the business and entrepreneurship world as “the serial entrepreneur”, this mother of a young daughter has demonstrated a full capacity to take any start-up and turn it into a success.
Rionge grew up in Nairobi and had what she calls a normal upbringing. Her father was the head architect for the city council of Nairobi and her mother was a farmer. She was the firstborn child in their family of five. Later in life, she married Canadian John Hogan and had a daughter, Waruiru. She now divides her time between Canada and Kenya.
Soon after finishing high school Rionge had her first taste of the world of entrepreneurship, selling yoghurt during school break times, setting up shop literally in the back of a friend’s car. Her other job at that time was as a hairdresser. She discovered her mainly wealthy clients wanted more access to luxury goods. Seeing this opportunity, Rionge wasted no time and took economy courier trips to London to buy branded clothing, flew back to Kenya and sold her wares to her clients for a tidy profit. Through it all, she completed several vocational certificate courses that she credits to be instrumental in developing the resourcefulness required in her chosen field of entrepreneurship.
The decade of the nineties saw the boom in personal computers and the slow-growing reach of the internet, which was at that time still restricted to the use of the wealthy and important people in business. Still, towards the tail end of the nineties Rionge saw a good opportunity to provide Internet access to the Kenyan masses. She then started Wananchi Online in 2000, which eventually became extremely popular as an affordable and accessible Internet service provider. The name, meaning ‘citizen’ in Swahili, was chosen to deliberately align the company with its objective of providing internet access to regular Kenyan citizens.
There were many challenges starting up Wananachi Online. Rionge describes the experience of her first big startup as a ‘roller coaster ride’. It was the general assumption in Kenya and the rest of Africa at that time that the internet was a service only for the elite – a notion that Rionge had to challenge in order to break through. At that time, many of Kenya’s movers and shakers still had no concept of the opportunities the internet offered. Also, she had strong resistance from essential factors such as the government, industry regulators and existing competition. Still, she dealt with the blows brought by each and won in the end.
Changing the status quo was made easier with training courses on computer use for politicians (who had to give the nod) and the encouragement for the information technology sector to further develop. The challenge of the limited telecoms infrastructure in Kenya, Telkom Kenya (which was also owned and monopolized by the government), was resolved in a painstaking manner by Rionge and her partner. At one time, they spent over two hours inside the office in order to fill out forms that totaled six hundred pages and photocopied their credentials six hundred times just to secure two hundred phone lines for their venture.
Despite the challenges and setbacks, Rionge’s perseverance not only gave Kenya the gift of affordable access to the Internet but also allowed her to expand Wananchi Online into something bigger: the Wananchi Group, which became the leading provider of broadband internet, cable television and internet-based mobile services in East Africa.
True to form, Rionge busied herself with other things apart from Wananachi even while it was still being developed. Other ventures that she went on to establish include the following: a business consultancy (Ignite Consulting), a health care consultancy (Ignite Lifestyle), one of the most popular digital marketing companies in Kenya (Insite), and the leading startup incubator in Kenya (Business Lounge).
Rionge’s passion for startups is that she operates on a formula of building organizations and then handing them over to others to operate before moving on to the next. A desire to further education in the world of entrepreneurship has prompted her to continually invest in building a space for many entrepreneurs in Business Lounge, where they can gather to develop ideas, brainstorm, network and finally turn promising ideas into robust enterprises. She also now has turned her name, Njeri Rionge, into a brand that services budding entrepreneurs by providing them with coaching services and doing motivational talks.
Njeri Rionge takes no break from her role as serial entrepreneur. She has lived in seven countries apart from Kenya, and is well travelled – with countries such as Italy, Canada, Greece, London, Spain and the United States being particularly impactful to her as a businesswoman with a gift for identifying innovations. Her driving force is to develop Africa into the “next big economic miracle”, and has stated in many interviews about her desire to do her part in helping the continent reach its full potential.
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