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Njeri Rionge, Co-founder of Zuku’s Wananchi Group Passes On

Njeri Rionge, the co-founder of Wananchi Online, a once popular Internet Service Provider (ISP)which grew to become East Africa’s leading pay-TV, broadband Internet, and VoIP services firm has passed on.

TechMoran is yet to establish the details of her death but the once successful and revered serial entrepreneur reportedly fell victim of suspicious religious teachings that emphasized intensive religious fastings, prayer and repentance above her health and work.

The body is the Lord’s

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In 1999, Rionge, together with former ICT Cabinet Secretary Joseph Mucheru co-founded multi-million dollar firm Wananchi Online which grew to become today’s Wananchi Group, Zuku’s parent firm. Rionge and her team saw the company from idea to conceptualization, to their final exit. Rionge and her team saw Wananchi Online raise several rounds of both equity and debt financing from Private Equity firms such as Liberty Global, Emerging Capital Partners, Export Development Canada, Altice, and Prudence Holdings, among others to form what is now known as Wananchi Group Holdings with operations in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia, Malawi, and Mauritius among others.

Early days at Inter-Connect ISP

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Rionge, ventured out into business early at just 20. She was selling yogurt to the International School Of Kenya and Loretto Convent Musongari High School students from her car trunk during their breaks and also moonlighted as a hairdresser. She could later start going to London to bring in re-sale luxury merchandise for her growing clientele. Rionge would later join Inter-Connect, a local ISP and after three years and working faithfully and growing up the ranks to become its marketing manager decided it was time to venture out. In February 1999, Rionge, then the marketing manager and Mucheru, the ISP’s technical manager stepped out in faith to serve Wanainchi, Swahili for common man or common folks who were not being reached as internet and computers were the preserve of a privileged few.

In February 1999, Rionge and Mucheru decided that it was time to fulfill their ambitions. Unlike Inter-Connect, their employer, Rionge and Mucheru’s dream was to make internet affordable and available to every Kenyan whether in an urban or rural area. In December that year they incorporated Wananchi Online Limited (WOL) and in March 2002 the company began operations with a radical price war of up to 85 – 90% discounts. By December 2005, WOL was a darling of both corporate, SME and individuals customers making it the leading ISP services provider in the Kenya. As WOL was acquiring customers, others saw the firm as their best acquisition target in the then nascent local internet and tech ecosystem. 2008 was the beginning of WOL’s end but a happy ending to that effect for the firm’s founders and shareholders.

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Joseph Mucheru and Jimana Ltd

WOL was run simply by Rionge, its founder and CEO and Joseph Mucheru, its CTO and later Director of Strategy and Business Development and a board of six. James Mungai Gachui of Jimana Ltd was the Chairman and the majority shareholder of the company with 51% ownership while Rionge and Mucheru had 20% each. Another board member, Joseph Kamau had the remaining 9% ownership. James Mungai Gachui and Joseph Kamau have interests in Transcentury Holdings.

Though the internet became available in Kenya in 1993, it was expensive, slow and unavailable to most Kenyans. Wananchi Online came on the scene to provide high quality, high speed internet services at affordable prices. WOL also provided domain registration, e-commerce, email, web hosting and collocation solution for individuals, businesses, developers and resellers under three product categories namely X-Plore, NetLife and Tunda. X-Plore was tailored for corporate business entities including commercial and non-commercial institutions. NetLife targeted individuals, small and medium firms, and small Office Home Offices while Tunda was targeted at the common man, home users and students.

Change of guard

In 2008 things began changing. Rionge’s Wananchi Online would partner with a cable television service to form Wananchi Group Holdings which launched triple-play service and brand Zuku in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia. Fast forward October 2014, Helios announced $40 million investment into Wananchi Group Holdings with participation from existing shareholders, Altice S.A. and Liberty Global Inc and existing financial investors, ATMT and Emerging Capital Partners. The total raised was $130 million to fund its growth and expansion in East and Southern Africa.

“The new capital investment will be used to consolidate the group’s market leadership in East Africa and to extend our services across East and Southern Africa. We will continue the deployment of fiber to the home networks in more cities in East Africa and extend our business services networks and product offerings across a wide variety of geographies and market segments. With our stronger balance sheet we will also invest in exciting new technologies and service platforms to improve the quality of our products and deliver a superior experience for our customers,” said Richard Bell, Vice Chairman of Wananchi Group.

Foreign ownership

With Wananchi Online diluted and 75% of Wananchi Group Holdings sold to foreign firms, Ms. Rionge put all her energies behind Ignite Consulting, working with startups and entrepreneurs from across the world from her office in Nairobi and Toronto. The entrepreneur became a director and board secretary of the Corktown Residents and Business Association, a Northern Secondary School Council member and Co-Secretary. She was also Co-Chair for Elevate Tech 2018 Toronto, and was a well known events speaker globally, including attending the 2015 Oscars for Cadillac.

In Kenya, she held board positions at Unilever Tea (Brooke Bond Kenya), the Institute of Directors (Kenya), the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA), and Ambulance Air Rescue (AAR) Holdings, and at Wananchi Group. She was also an advisory committee member of Sport at the Service of Humanity at the Vatican. She was instrumental in the restructuring of Telkom Kenya and its merger with France Telecom to launch the Orange brand in the country.

New found zeal

Before her demise, Ms. Rionge 54, was one of the few female pioneers in the technology sector in Africa and she was raising capital for an African private-equity firm based in the Cayman Islands. These plans were likely thwarted when Ms. Rionge went neck deep into new found zeal into the alleged cult. Ms. Rionge has always been a staunch born-again Christian throughout her entrepreneurial life but was later consumed by the alleged extreme religious beliefs. And her social media profiles attest to that. Her baby, Wananchi Online was gone. No cases of severe depression were ever reported or made public.

In August last year, Triple Hold Co Limited, Liberty Global Europe 2 Limited (Liberty), and Altice Africa S.A.R.L (Altice) were granted equity shares and controlling rights of Wananchi Group by the Competition Authority of Kenya(CAK). CAK approved the conversion of their loans to Wananchi Group into equity shares and certain controlling rights.

Wananchi group Holdings’ Zuku has not been the best in the market and has continued to lose market share to Safaricom’s Home Fibre. However, Safaricom Fibre is only available in a number of counties and in just over 200,000 homes across the country in Nairobi, Nakuru, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Thika, Bungoma, Kitale, Nyeri and Nanyuki towns. Wananchi Group Holdings has therefore continued to consolidate its market leadership in other East Africa countries and aims to extend her services across East and Southern Africa. It’s likely to continue the deployment of fiber to the home networks in more cities where no serious competition exists. Safaricom’s trial at triple play services also failed terribly before launch, giving Zuku more confidence to survive in the market.

Sam Wakoba
Sam Wakobahttp://techmoran.com
Taking you on tour through Africa's tech and business ecosystem, one story at a time since 2010! Based out of Nairobi, Kenya, Sam is the founder and managing director of Moran Media, which runs  TechMoran.com, various other digital platforms and a startup incubation hub for Kenya's youthful entrepreneurs. Drop me a mail at [email protected]

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