7 Kenyan Billionaires Who Started as Hawkers

Left to right: Politician Zedekian (Buzeki) Bundotich, Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and Nice n Lovely founder Paul Kinuthia
Left to right: Politician Zedekian (Buzeki) Bundotich, Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and Nice n Lovely founder Paul Kinuthia.

Life is a series of concentric circles in which individuals and teams always work with the aim of reaping the success benefits of their daily undertakings and enjoy the fine things in life that are a preserve of the elite in the society.

The most envied is the 1 per cent category that, through the fulfilment of their existence, sacrifice and strategise on how to make it in life. 

Unknown to many, however, are the vital lessons that they can derive in their pursuit of success and happiness from those who have already trailblazed the way.

From persistence and innovativeness, these seven billionaires have truly shown that true grit and hard work will eventually transform into success. 

1. Gerald Gikonyo and Gerishon Kirima

Tycoon Gerald Gikonyo (left) received key to the city from then Governor Evans Kidero (right) in 2017 as President Uhuru Kenyatta looks on.
Tycoon Gerald Gikonyo (left) received key to the city from then Governor Evans Kidero (right) in 2017 as President Uhuru Kenyatta looks on.

Three decades before Kenya became a Republic, two hawkers, Gerald Gikonyo and Gerishon Kirima, from Rwathia village in Kangema, Murang’a County dared to dream.

They packed up their bags and embarked on a journey to Nairobi in search of a better life, kicking off their empire building by hawking vegetables, selling charcoal and wattle bark while donning tattered clothes.

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

Later, they founded Rwathia Distributors which was then transformed into Rwathia Group that then acquired plots and constructed commercial and residential buildings.

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.

2. Hassan Ali Joho

Governor Hassan Joho
Governor Hassan Joho

Mombasa Governor, Hassan Ali Joho, also rose from the streets, having started by hawking vitumbua (a popular coconut and rice vegan donut or pancake) to owning a shipping company.

His success, however, came early on in life as he started working while still in high school but his persistence catapulted him to cross the Ksh1 million net worth mark by the age of 20 years.

"Whenever I used to come back from school, my grandmother would be sitting at that corner (gesturing during a past video interview). My job would be to pack, carry and sell," he stated.

When he was about 20 years old, Joho got a job as a clearing and forwarding agent at the Port of Mombasa. He made Ksh6.6 million in his first transaction and that was the largest amount of money he had handled since birth.

3. Paul Kinuthia

Interconsumer Products Limited MD Paul Kinuthia addresses an audience at a conference in 2017
Interconsumer Products Limited MD Paul Kinuthia addresses an audience at a conference in 2017

Starting as a hawker in the rough streets of Nairobi, Nice & Lovely company founder, Paul Kinuthia, is the epitome of a grass-to-grace story.

In 2013, he closed a Ksh1.5 billion deal after L'Oreal Cosmetics from Paris, France acquired his then fledgling Nice & Lovely manufacturing Company InterConsumer Products.

His journey to the top was, however, not easy one and it involved, with just a capital of Ksh3,000, conceptualising the manufacture of his own shampoo and selling it to assorted salons.

He was stationed at a shop along Kirinyaga Road before relocating to Kariobangi and then Gikomba. As of 2012, the company was commanding an annual revenue of Ksh1.7 billion with profits of Ksh200 million.

4. Madatally Manji

An image of the late Madatally Manji at the House of Manji factory along Likoni Road, Nairobi in 1962.
An image of the late Madatally Manji (left) showing guests around the House of Manji factory in Nairobi in 1962.
The Standard

House of  Manji products, mostly known for its biscuits line, is virtually a main stay on the shelf of major supermarkets and retailers countrywide.

As much as the company is now an ubiquitous brand in country, their existed an era where none of it existed and it took the zeal of Madatally Manji who started out as a hawker at Karatina Market.

In his autobiography written in 1995, Manji noted that he would capitalise on the needs of traders who were ever busy in the Nyeri County market.

"The farmers and traders were so busy at the market selling wares that they had no time to go to the stores in Karatina to make their own purchases. I decided that I could sell them some of the things they would require at the stores and shops without having to leave the marketplace.

“I decided that on market days, I would utilise the two-hour lunch break we had from school, between 12 noon and 2pm to embark on my small business activities,” he noted.

His empire has grown to a point that the London-based newspaper, The Sunday Times, referred to him as the biscuit baron.

5. A.M. Jeevanjee

People rest at Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi
People rest at Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi.

Businessman Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee can easily be referred to as the father of Nairobi's green spaces due to his immense contribution to the green city in the sun (when it was still green anyway).

Identified among the founders of Nairobi, Jeevanjee played a pivotal role in upending the city's looks and at one time, he owned 70 per cent of the town after importing over 31,000 people to build the Railway line.

His journey to the top was, however, not an easy one as it began in Pakistani and culminated in East Africa.

In 1905, the tycoon's net worth was pegged at four million Euros (which translates to Ksh74 billion after inflation adjustment to modern-day value). 

6. Mbugua Githere

In 2008, a biography by Mwangi Gicheru posthumously detailed the inspiring life of the deceased billionaire Mbugua Githere.

The tycoon's shine began in the little-known Gachie neighbourhood in Kiambu County where he started as a street hawker.

His specialty included the sale of vegetables and fruits but through his sheer hard work, he opened a secondhand bicycle dealership in Limuru .

Before his death, his empire had expanded to owning Runda Estate and was a large shareholder of the Pan Africa Insurance Company.

7. Bundotich Buzeki

File image of Buzeki during a past interview
File image of Buzeki during a past interview

From a humble beginning of hawking milk using a cart in the Coast region, Bundotich Zedekiah Kiprop, popularly known as Buzeki rose to become a business mogul who is among the richest CEOs in Kenya.

"I am just a humble entrepreneur seeking political leadership as an agent of change to eradicate poverty in the region.

"I am a self-made individual who rose from a mere milk hawker in Mombasa to my current economic stature," he affirmed in a previous interview.

After his stint in the milk distribution sector, he bought the company he worked for from his employer and rebranded it to Kilifi Gold. His shopping spree extended to Molo Milk and Limuru Dairy Farmers Cooperative Society. 

In 2013, Brookside made him an offer he could not refuse, propelling him into billionaire status after buying two of his dairy companies for approximately Ksh1.1 billion.

5 Lessons derived from the experience

Collectively, the billionaires have shown that with proper calculation and sheer works, all dreams are valid no matter where one comes from.

1. Start from anywhere - In the case of Paul Kinuthia, it is important to start with whatever capital you have since what matters is the amount of physical work you will be willing to put in and record growth, no matter how sluggish. With Just Ksh3,000 investment, he now enjoys the sedentary life of a billionaire master.

2. Innovation - As much as any investment will get you in the game, it is your street smartness and taking calculated moves to reposition your product that will keep you there. Madatally Manji studied his market and pivoted to utilising his lunch break to ensure his clients are comfortable.

3. Adaptive to change - Since the communication age was introduced with the paper, adaptation to change has always reigned supreme down to the internet age. That characteristic is also true for virtually any industry. Paul Kinuthia began with Shampoo products but after market analysis, his products expanded to face creams as well as body lotions, in line with the market demands.

4. Be persistence - One common characteristic for all the billionaires on the list was there ability to persevere the rough streets of their towns as well as the latter challenges of multi-nationals.

5. Illiteracy is not a factor - The Rwathia duo Gerald Gikonyo and Gerishon Kirima did not let their illiteracy hinder them from creating employment to the learned. It is the willingness to learn, unlearn and re-learn as you progress.

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