2 City Billionaires Who Started Out as Illiterate Street Hawkers

  • There are numerous grass-to-grace stories but very few people can have their name mentioned in a sentence that includes the words 'billionaire' and 'illiterate'.

    In the 1930s, two illiterate hawkers left their Rwathia village, in Kangema, Murang’a County, and set out to find greener pastures.

    Gerald Gikonyo and Gerishon Kirima, who cofounded Rwathia Distributors, arrived in the city while wearing tattered clothes and dove right into hawking vegetables, selling charcoal and wattle bark.

    They worked hard to open a hotel and once employed Equity Chairman Peter Munga as a casual labourer in one of their establishments.

    One of the two billionaires, Gerald Gikonyo Kanyuira, who is the last surviving.

    “We would buy the vegetables from Marikiti (Wakulima) Market from traders from Limuru, and sell them to Asian families,” recalled Gikonyo who is aged over 100 years.

    At the time, banking was not so popular in Kenya and so they had to trust their savings with their village elders. Every time they needed a boost, they would run back home for withdrawals.

    “There was a wave of boys from Rwathia coming to Nairobi. We encouraged it because we all wanted to do business together,” continued Gikonyo.

    When their peers arrived in the city to look for wealth, the two billionaires embraced them and even set up seven savings groups in which a member could join.

    So successful was the idea that the groups started acquiring buildings. For instance, a group of 12 members could save enough money to acquire a shop and start a business.

    One of the properties owned by Rwathia group.

    In 1952, the groups started acquiring entire plots and constructing commercial and residential buildings. The ride was not that easy as shortly after, the Mau Mau fighters disrupted the economy.

    “When we returned, we decided that we would henceforth enter the city centre, where we were not allowed before. Our idea was to rent buildings and start businesses.

    “But most of the buildings we wanted to rent were owned by Asians. They were fearful of the Mau Mau, 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 to date," explained Gikonyo.

    Today, Rwathia Groups own a sprawl of buildings in Nairobi including in the areas of lower Tom Mboya Street, Ronald Ngara Street and River Road among others.

    The two grew so rich that they influenced Munga, Equity CEO James Mwangi and Britam CEO Benson Wairegi, to work together as men from the same village, Rwathia.

    Their association grew so big that Dr Bitange Ndemo, in an article in 2014, highlighted that Rwathia controlled almost 20% of GDP and nearly half of the stock market in the country.

    Equity Bank CEO, Peter Munga.