Meet the Boss: Jennifer Riria, CEO, Kenya Women Holding

‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.

Jennifer Riria

Jennifer Riria

Dr Jennifer Riria, CEO, Kenya Women Holding 

1. What was your first job?

When I was 10 I worked in a neighbour’s kitchen garden removing weeds so that I could get some money to buy underwear. He did not give me money but he sent me to the village tailor who made for me underwear and my school uniform. I was so happy. That is how I started my entrepreneurial journey. My first job out of university was teaching, which I did for 10 years to the level of a senior lecturer at a local university, before joining the UN and later the Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT).

2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?

My mother. I came from a poor background. I watched my mother and other women in the village operate as donkeys. They would carry on their backs firewood, bananas, a bag of other stuff and a baby. I saw them get abused, beaten and work 24 hours a day and they did nothing. When I qualified to go to high school my mother told me “don’t you ever allow a man to hit you and don’t ever stop because a man tells you to stop”. She said “I have suffered for you and I have bore it for you. You will never go through anything I went through” and she repeated that over and over again until it stuck with me.

3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?

It depends… In the early stages I worried about where I would get the next penny to pay my staff. Later in life it became how to grow the institution into an organisation that would outlast me. The other thing that keeps me awake at night are my children. As a parent you worry about your children no matter how old they are. My father is 95 and he still calls me to ask whether or not I have eaten.

4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I am a visionary leader. I like to work with people because I believe that I can’t do it alone. I am committed, consistent and I have the Lord in me.

5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?

I have had the chance to live anywhere in this world. I got my first five year visa to the US in 1978 when everybody wanted to go the US. I could have stayed there but I cannot fit in any other country. I have travelled to three quarters of this world. I think the places I haven’t been to now are Yugoslavia, Russia, Afghanistan and Japan. This country is beautiful. Kenya is home. With all the problems we have in this country there is space to do what you want to do. Why would I want to live anywhere else?

6. And the worst?

Self-service [and] lack of commitment to society by leaders. That is why you see corruption.

[Leaders] are serving themselves [instead] of serving the people. Insincerity among our leaders drives me crazy. We do need to change that philosophy. People should not become leaders so they can be worshipped by the people, but so that they can truly serve the people with commitment and with sincerity.

7. Your future career plans?

I can tell you even when I exit from Kenya Women Holdings, which will happen sooner or later, I will continue with charity work. I have begun preparing for that by establishing my charity called Compassion Outreach. I plan to change its name to Riria Foundation. It will reach out to distressed people. I also want to focus on writing. Retirement is about changing course and pace. It does not mean sitting at home on a chair and knitting, if you are a woman, and men smoking a pipe. It is doing something that is important to you. For me it is running a foundation and writing. We are very poor in Africa in documenting [history]. I am a professor; I should be able to do that more.

8. How do you relax?

I like to exercise so I try to do that within the confines of my home. I also like to read.

9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?

What are they passionate about? What can you die for? That is the first thing they should find out and go die for it.

10. How can Africa realise its full potential?

Africa is an emerging economy and we have all the resources needed to drive this continent to the next level. What we need to do is to change leadership in Africa. Leadership is our problem and we are the ones who put [leaders in office]. An example is Kenya; flowers have not been picked since [Thursday] in Naivasha, and at the Coast shops are closed because of politics. It is not my mother and your mother who are causing these problems. It is the leaders in this country and every other country in Africa, except Rwanda. We need leadership that will uproot corruption, which is the cancer in Africa. One of my friends told me that fish rots from the head. So this society needs to sort out the head.

Dr Jennifer Riria is the CEO of Kenya Women Holding Group (KWH) a microfinance, banking and insurance group that works with 900,000 women, mostly in rural Kenya. She is the Kenyan country winner of the 2014 EY World Entrepreneur of the Year award.