When I first met Njeri Rionge, she was in the throes of a Spartan life. She had just shaved off her locks. They took up too much time and money, she said, and she could save both by doing The Big Chop. I was interviewing her for a lifestyle profile in True Love East Africa magazine all those years ago. She kept us riveted for well over an hour till it grew dark telling tales of her intrepid entrepreneurial journey, delving into Ignite Consulting and Wananchi Online. Extroverted, bubbly, and excitable, she gave me and my photographer her raw, unedited life story. It was filled with intellectual adventure, calculated risks and an unfettered spirit. Here are some of her milestones and ways in which she changed the tech landscape not just in Kenya, but in East Africa.
1996: Manager Corporate Sales & Marketing, Form Net Africa – Njeri is just starting out and is enrolled by Form Net Africa to develop the market strategy for their corporate sales department. Which, she of course, implements, enhancing the revenue growth in that market segment. The search for Form Net yields this.
1999: Co-Founds Wananchi Online – This is what has since become the stuff of legend. Co-Founded with Joe Mucheru, Rionge enters Kenya’s, and Africa’s history books, as a pioneering woman in technology. The first ever ISP in East Africa was inspired by the greatest need technology strives to meet – connection; both human and digital. At this point, the Internet is a rumour – a fantastic one – but a rumour nevertheless. Rionge admits it took a minute before the political elite could understand what her end-game was.
1999: Co-Founds Urukundo Investments – Rionge’s reputation as a serial entrepreneur begins to take off with the creation of this investment club. She structured, recruited, and drafted policies and the core team. Urukundo is Kinyarwanda for ‘love.’
2003: Member of the Board of Directors, ICANN – As an elected official for two terms: June 2003 – November 2008, Rionge was key in the development of a communication strategy, positioning ICANN Internationally through engagement with a collection of committees. Shifting mindsets to the audit process within ICANN, resulting in improved decision-making and an enhanced operational structure in line with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
2005: Member Board of Directors, Institute of Directors (Kenya) – Strategy and corporate branding were some of Rionge’s superpowers and she sprinkled them here generously.
2006: Founder & Executive Director, Ignite Consulting and Investment Limited – Think coaching, strategy facilitation, organisational effectiveness, skills training, and high-impact workshops before they became a thing. It is like executive presence with a bang and then some. Rionge is on the tail end of Ignite Consulting when I meet her.
2008: Chief Commercial Officer in Charge of Marketing and Customer Services, Telkom Kenya – Orange – She is headhunted to spearhead the restructuring of Telkom Kenya, a previously state-owned corporation. This is just after the French Telkom merger/acquisition of Telkom Kenya’s 51 per cent. Here, she oversees and is instrumental in the retail brand launch of Orange into the Kenyan market. She is now handling a commercial budget of up to $44 million and is responsible for 826 employees. Throw in change management and a brand strategy rollout to over 3,500 employees. She basically turns the colossal lumbering elephant into a nimble, agile player. Her exceptional expertise means she is on speed dial for her critical insights and advice to France Telecom assisting them to better understand cultural and political dynamics. Buoyed by a capital injection from France Telecom, Telkom is already providing integrated IP-VPN (Internet Protocol-Virtual Private Network) solutions to one local bank based on Multi-Protocol Label Switching.
Also 2008: Say hello to Zuku. Kenya’s middle class embrace Zuku Fibre and Zuku Satellite, and TV is never the same again.
2009: Member, Board of Directors, dx5ve (formerly CIO Africa) – Rionge joins the Board of Directors at the then CIO East Africa, now dx5ve, bringing with her extensive contributions to the tech community in East Africa.
2010: Member, Board of Directors, East African Tea Trade Association – EATTA is a member association for producers, brokers, warehouses, packers, and buyers within the East African Community (EAC). This includes Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. As an independent director role, and, keeping in mind her trailblazing, the first female director on the board, she rejigs governance.
2010: Founder, Director, and Board Chair – Insite Limited – She founds yet another business. Insite Limited is specialised in web technologies increasing your efficiency while reducing your operational costs. She hits up the client’s target audience and equips both the young and old(er) with digital skills for everyday life. Running the gamut from cloud solutions to web development, from e-commerce solutions to digital skills camps, the purpose of Insite is to customise and apply its range of solutions with an integrated approach to digital content generation, software development, content management systems and distribution solutions. Insite is built to pack a whopper of a punch for the tech community.
2011: Member Board of Directors, Wananchi Nominees Limited – Yet another investment company is born responsible for investments in ATMT Fund. Its primary interest is in the Wananchi Group. The investment portfolio is in triple-play voice, data and cable assets in East, South and West Africa. Her funding is tied up in the Group.
Also 2011: Director, President & CEO, NRBC (Network, Research & Business Capital) Toronto, Canada Area – Rionge and team act as the liaison between investors, experts and issuers seeking funding, and opportunities and to build relationships for investment, support and monitor opportunities in growth markets. She identifies 15 projects that meet the investor threshold.
2017: Investment Officer, UpCountry Africa Fund Asset (Canada) Corp. – Rionge is determined to change the landscape of how companies on the continent are funded and supported in Africa. UpCountry Africa Fund a closed-ended private equity fund, scales and builds capacity of indigenous African businesses.
2020: The 12 years of the ATMT Fund come to an end.
2023: Group CEO & Chairperson Board of Directors Wananchi Group – Now known as Wananchi Group, her strategic blueprint has attracted over $300 million worth of investment from both domestic and international investors to date. With private equity currently standing at $130 million, the Group has undergone several founding rounds notably raising $25 million in 2009, $18.8 million in 2010, $57.5 million in 2011 and $130 million in 2014.
Also 2023: Njeri Rionge passes away at 54.