RWATHIA: The inspiring story of a small village that runs Kenya’s economy

In 1931, and for several years that followed, groups of boys from Rwathia village in Kangema, Murang’a County walked to Nairobi in tattered clothes in search of money.  Several decades later, they got money and a lot of it, but their children have even more.
Today, the value of the property owned by the Rwathia businessmen in Nairobi, Thika, Murang’a and other towns runs into billions of shillings, and their billionaire sons and mentees control substantial wealth at the Nairobi Securities Market.
Rwathia’s Capitalists is a story of unequalled dedication, passion and inspiration that enabled young boys, most of whom are now deceased, to transform their lives through enterprise and set an example for generations to come.
Gerald Gikonyo Kanyuira, now aged 102 years is the only remaining patriarch of the great capitalist boys from Rwathia. Perhaps as an indication of the sheer determination in them, at his age, he still supervises several businesses owned by the various groups from Rwathia.
The trigger for the business acumen that has put Rwathia in the global map of villages that have produced exceptional entrepreneurs started in 1930 when a group of boys came to Nairobi and ended up starting vegetables hawking business.
“We would buy the vegetables from Marikiti Market, brought in by people from Limuru, and sell them to the Asian families,” he said. This business was done exclusively by boys as girls were not allowed to work outside their homes. They had to wait for marriage.
Today, however, it is women who hawk vegetables to the Asian families in Parklands and Ngara.
Since there were no banks for Africans then, the young boys would send one of their friends back to the village to deliver some savings for safe keeping by the elders. When the boys in the city needed to increase their investment, they would go back to the village and get their savings.
This cycle had a ripple effect. Seeing how their peers were able to save some money, more boys from Rwathia were encouraged to come to the city and start similar or different businesses.
“There was a wave of boys from Rwathia coming to Nairobi. We encouraged it because we all wanted to do business together,” he said.
It is then that the Rwathia boys decided to form several savings groups. One person could belong to several savings groups.
After seven years of selling vegetables and doing other businesses in Nairobi, the savings groups started buying buildings from the Asians in Pumwani to set up shops and small dukas. A group of five to 12 people would buy one shop and jointly start a business. The Asians were selling the shops to come closer to the city centre.
In 1952, the groups decided to start buying plots where they built houses for rental and business premises. But this new investment was disrupted the following year when the Mau Mau issue became so hot that the Kikuyus in Nairobi had to be taken to the villages and hounded in restricted areas known as Ichagi.
The period that followed was of shear destruction by the colonialists. They particularly targeted Kikuyu-owned businesses as they suspected they were part of the Mau Mau support base. All they had built was razed to ashes.
Entry into town city centre.
By 1957, the Mau Mau war had slowed because it was taking a toll on either side of the divide. The colonialists started to allow some Kikuyus who had businesses back to Nairobi.  They called for amnesty.
The boys from Rwathia, now seasoned businesses men, took the offer and decided to up their ambitions.
“When we returned, we decided that we would henceforth enter the city centre, where we were not allowed before. Our idea was to rent a building and start businesses. But most of the buildings we wanted to rent were owned by Asians. And they were fearful of the Mu Mau war so many of them were migrating from Kenya and selling those buildings. This is how we started buying some of the buildings that we still own.”
“Again, we started buying in groups as we had done in Pumwani and Majengo. As many as 30 people would buy one building. All the small saving groups from Rwathia worked in harmony. So you would find one person owning shares in several groups. It was the best thing we did for ourselves.”
Today the Rwathia groups control prime properties in Nairobi especially within areas of lower Tom Mboya Street, Ronald Ngara Street, River Road among others.
Buildings and hotels such as Magomano, Kinangop, Njoguini, Eureka and Timboroa among others are all owned by several savings groups from Rwathia.
“The big lesson that we learnt and which we would want generations to understand is that one cannot achieve much alone. It is important to cooperate, even if it is only with your wife. People should come together. This is what I tell young men from Rwathia.”
“We succeeded because we had a passion for our businesses. It is important for people to have passion in what they do even if they are employed. If one is not passionate, it is better to resign than spoil other people’s business.”
He says the Rwathia groups thrived on trust. “Each group would pick one of them to manage the business. Every month, members of the group come to inspect the financial books. At the end of the year, we divide the profits or re-invest,” said the Mzee Gikonyo.
The seeds of capitalism sowed by the uneducated boys in the 1930s germinated and have grown into a new generation of immensely rich, influential and educated individuals in Kenya and across the world.
These include people like Equity Bank Chairman Peter Munga, who had diversified business interests in banking, insurance, education and farming in Kenya and Rwanda among other countries.
Equity Bank CEO James Mwangi who is one of the most respected bankers in Africa. He is a wealthy philanthropist. In 2013, Mwangi donated Sh100 million of his own money to Meru University of Science and Technology to help set up teaching facilities.
Billionaire investment banker Jimnah Mbaru, insurance magnate Benson Wairegi, influential scholars like Prof. Peter Kagwanja are just a few of the larger Rwathia high fliers in Kenya and abroad.
According to Dr Bitange Ndemo, a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Business School, although no scientific research has been conducted, he says probably the most successful people in Kenya or East Africa come from Rwathia.
“This village arguably controls almost 20 percent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and almost 40 per cent of the stock market in Kenya,” he said.
“Their forbearers like Gerishon Kirima and Gerald Gikonyo, one of the co-founders of Rwathia Distributors) were successful in spite of the fact that they had limited education. Rwathia’s third generation is succeeding not just here in Kenya but in far-flung areas like the United States,” said Dr Ndemo.
“Equity’s Corporate Social Responsibility in Wings to Fly, which is sponsoring students to attend some of the best universities in the world is enough to shower blessings on its founders. So whichever way you look at this, Dr. Mwangi and his teams have left an indelible mark that will never be matched by any organization in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Henzlon Waithaka, a distinguished accountant and director of several companies, educationists and researchers have not conducted enough research to establish the factors that influence the people of Rwathia to venture into business and  why most of them are successful.
“We need to conduct a research and document the factors that influence entrepreneurship in the area. The other area where we have successful entrepreneurs is Karatina in Nyeri and Kiambaa in Kiambu Counties respectively,” he wrote on his blog.
“It is important to encourage the Youth by giving them examples of people who have worked smart and hard to rise up to the top although they were from humble backgrounds.  Many books in this country we read about Companies such as General Electric, Ford, and many Indian Companies. Books should now be written about the successful people in Kenya, East Africa and Africa and they will motivate the youth,” he said.
Story courtesy of Mt Kenya Star