Njeri Rionge is one of east Africa’s few women pioneer investors in the IT sector having co-founded the region’s first mass market internet service provider Wananchi Online in 1999.
The self described serial entrepreneur ventured into business at the age of 19 selling yogurt at schools in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Rionge went on to import and sell clothes, and ran many other businesses. Then she founded Wananchi Online (now called Wananchi Group, a leading provider of pay television, broadband internet and VoIP services).
Having risen from what she calls ‘ground zero’ to building a company of the magnitude of Wananchi, Rionge is now working with SMEs and entrepreneurs to grow indigenous African businesses that can be scaled across the continent.
“I am passionate about entrepreneurship, about people, about business. I am very interested to see growth in African businesses. A lot of companies in Africa are largely family owned and are also more likely to be trading without creating capacity for scaling into larger organisations. I think a time has come for Africa to pay attention to the opportunity of changing the landscape of how business is done,” says Rionge.
Her love for Africa is almost infectious. She explains that the continent is experiencing unprecedented growth with seven out of 10 of the world’s fastest growing economies being in Africa.
Rionge today runs several companies, including Ignite Consulting, a business consultancy; Ignite Lifestyle, a health care consultancy; and Insite, a digital marketing firm.
In five years she expects to see more Kenyan SMEs to begin to grow within the east African region. “Today we are seeing a lot of the banks scaling, we need to see other indigenous companies scaling.”
Rionge explains that to achieve this, SMEs need to change the way they do business. SMEs should create succession planning, transfer skills, train, develop organisations with structures and enhance the value proposition when it comes to work ethics, governance and integrity in the work place.
“We know that the SME sector is what will create jobs. There has to be a whole new way of financing these companies either through angel investors, impact investments, or venture capital firms. Banks need to change the metrics on how they lend to SMEs and reduce their interest rates,” she says.
Rionge recently launched the Business Lounge, an incubator that offers workspace and networking opportunities to Nairobi’s entrepreneurs and to corporations establishing a Kenyan footprint. The Business Lounge seeks to nurture and encourage entrepreneurship.
She also runs the brand Njeri Rionge
“My brand is a motivational speaking brand. It is really about business and creating an opportunity that is global for me. I want to be able to play in a level playing field that is not confined to Kenya,” says Rionge.
And she is not done just yet.
“You should expect a few more things from me. If I had to do one thing and do it for the rest of my life, that would be rather boring.”
Having succeeded in an industry where all over the world women are still a minority, Rionge argues that being a woman has not made things more difficult or easier.
“In my experience women and men suffer the same experience; the only difference is that women have more responsibilities. As a player in the business world, you are still expected to be a mother, wife and homemaker. That increases the number of things you are responsible for. Men in our African culture, all they do is business and everything else at home is taken care of,” explains Rionge.
She cannot remember receiving her first big cheque, but recalls one feat.
“We raised US$500,000 in 1999 for Wananchi from an angel investor. It was a no-brainer, we needed it and we got it,” she says.
Well that’s a no-brainer a lot of tech start-ups wouldn’t mind.
Rionge’s way of dealing with challenges is converting them to opportunities.
“I have no time to think about challenges. Even when they come I try to solve them so quickly and get over with it. Because I convert them, they stop being challenges. I have been at many points where I knew the cookie was about to crumble, but my focus was [that] it cannot crumble, therefore I focus on the upward movement,” says Rionge.