From Charcoal Burners To Respected Multi-Billionaires In Kenya

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From Charcoal Dealers To Billionaires
From Left: Gerishon Kirima, Gerald Gikonyo, Njenga Karume, and Joseph Karanja. |Photos| Courtesy|

A number of the wealthiest individuals in Kenya boast some of the most intriguing success stories you can ever listen to. What these individuals overcame to establish multi-billion empires is somewhat of a now impossible task.

These individuals have interests in various sectors of the Kenyan economy, owning companies and businesses that are household names. WoK has purposed to motivate the general public through the narration of ‘rags to riches’ stories and in this article, we look at some of the billionaires in Kenya who started out as charcoal dealers.

Joseph Karanja

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Karanja is hardly mentioned in conversations when people talk about leading alcohol manufacturer, Keroche Breweries, maybe because his wife, Nakuru Senator Tabitha Karanja is the face of the company having served as its CEO and Managing Director since inception.

He is considered among the richest people in Kenya with a net worth in the billions. However, before the success, he tried his hands in a number of unsuccessful businesses until Keroche Breweries happened.

According to a post shared by his daughter a while ago, Joseph eked out a living through burning charcoal and that’s how he sustained his family.

“My dad had tried so many businesses and almost lost hope before (he) started Keroche Breweries. KB started when he was 50 years old. At the age of 50, is when he got to see some hope. Now he is the chairman of a whole company. From a charcoal burner to a chairman. I haven’t met anyone who is as hardworking as him,” Arnelisa Muigai shared.

In 1997, Tabitha and Joseph started KB by making fortified wine. They started the company at their farm in Naivasha with capital pooled from a hardware they owned. With only five employees, they were ready to take on the market. The pricing targeted those who couldn’t afford very expensive wine. They would then begin making spirits which were packed in inexpensive sachets.

However, in 2007, the government placed very heavy taxes on locally made wines forcing them out of the market. This did not deter the couple as they began to make ready-to-drink gin and vodka. In 2008, they ventured into the beer market.

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Njenga Karume

James Njenga Karume was one of Kenya’s wealthiest businessmen by the time he died in July 2012. From a humble man selling exercise books, timber, charcoal and distributing beer, accumulated wealth that runs into tens of billions of shillings in land, real estate, companies, agriculture, hotels, transport and distribution.

By the time of his death, Karume owned more than 500 acres of land in Kiambu valued at over Ksh3 billion according to The Nation. He is also owned 9,000 acres of land around Lake Elmenteita known as the Elementeita Badlands or the Otutu Forest.

Some of Karume’s other commercial investments include the United Touring Company Group, Nairobi’s Jacaranda Hotel, the Indian Ocean Beach Club in Mombasa, the Highlands Hotel, Lake Elementaita Hotel, Kentmere Club and Cianda House on Koinange Street, Nairobi.

The former Kiambaa MP owned Cianda Flowers, Kacheroba Ltd companies, as well Highland, Kivurini, Kambala and Katikati farms and also had shares in Kenya Wines Agencies Ltd.

Gerishon Kirima and Gerald Gikonyo

Gerald Gikonyo and Gerishon Kirima left Rwathia village in Kangema, Murang’a County in 1930 for Nairobi with the hope of making a fortune for themselves and their families. They started out hawking vegetables, selling charcoal and wattle bark in Eastlands and Pumwani areas.

Coming from humble beginnings, the Rwathia Group of entrepreneurs now own properties worth billions. According Mr. Gikonyo, the only remaining patriarch of the capitalist boys, what they learned is that it is important to cooperate since one cannot achieve much alone.

The Rwathia entrepreneurs built businesses in Eastlands and Pumwani from hawking vegetables. They later ventured into retail shops and then restaurants. When the Nairobi CBD opened up after independence, the businessmen built commercial buildings.

They now owns a number of notable properties at the heart of Nairobi: Magomano Hotel, New Kinangop Hotel, Timboroa Hotel, Alfa Hotel and Rwathia Distributors, and a string of bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

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