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By Steve Umidha
“Wow I can’t believe it has been 13 years…I hope I will write a book about that at some point,” was her first avowal when we sat down over a mug of caffè mocha to discuss her life journey since the passing on of her husband more than a decade years ago.
In March 2007, Esther Muchemi – a renowned and enviable Kenya’s telecom magnate, lost her soul mate and life partner Gen. Gerald Muchemi – the then Kenya’s chief of military intelligence after a short illness in the United Kingdom (UK).
“When he died of cause the first thing you get is shock…because I was a much protected person, I was delicate physically as a small girl and even from people’s perspective I was vulnerable. People never thought I would make it by the way, they gave me just two years to live,” opens up a charming Wanjiru, during an interview at her After 40 Hotel, an elegant 4-Star rated establishment positioned at the heart of Kenya’s Capital, Nairobi.
Wanjiru is her native Kikuyu name meaning ‘path or way.’
Esther Wanjiru Nderitu mostly familiar to many as Esther Muchemi, is the founder and the Chief executive of Samchi Telecom – the country’s largest telecom dealership who easily passes for another ordinary woman.
The young Wanjiru first rose to prominence in the early 2000s and by the time of her hubby’s demise, Esther an accountant by profession was already a household name in the Kenya’s corporate circles handling hundreds of millions of shillings from her Safaricom’s Mpesa businesses and sale of airtime scratch cards.
Mr. Muchemi’s death – the then a powerful and very influential electrical engineer in charge of communication in the military, she reveals, took something from her but at the same time gave birth to the woman she has become today.
“When my husband was alive he allowed me to be. He had pride in my success, he never oppressed my success. He was comfortable in who he was as a military person so my success was never a threat to him,” opines Esther – a woman of bold personality, adding that there was no competition between herself and her late husband.
She also attributes her initial success to the level of trust they both shared at an early stage of their matrimonial life –an important virtue she believes gave her the peace of mind she needed to focus on her free enterprise journey.
“I saw my kids and broke down,” she reveals, upon the arrival of her husband’s body at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). “And when I saw them break down I told myself, I am going to stand strong for myself and my children…and from that moment my perspective changed and I began to identify the reason that gives me meaning to life when the person who gave you the identity was no longer there,” reveals the mother of two.
The difficulty with navigating the first year after the loss of a partner cannot be minimized. It is not only facing alone all of the milestones such as birthdays, the wedding anniversaries and the holidays, but the shedding of your entire sense of self, she tells me.
One is forced to purge possessions that evoke emotions, change routines and experience social situations as an entirely new person.
It is a journey she says, in a big way changed her perspective about life and quickly had to readjust to her new environment following her husband’s entombment and subsequent relocation of her children to the UK in September of the same year for their advanced education.
Finding my identity
“Then all of a sudden you don’t have a husband you don’t have your children around, what do you do in your own house,” she wondered, the reality hitting her so hard she says, she resolved to get back her mojo.
At this point – Esther who is in her own bubble albeit at the peak of her entrepreneurial career, says it took her time to adjust, straining and even went a step further in breaking some friendships in order to get back her identity and pursue her goals in the absence of her husband who she expressively says was her friend and a confidant.
Coming home late every night meant she was having less time to spend with no one and most nights became solitary. Any interests outside the boundaries of her fields, she says, were pushed aside.
“You must believe in your vision strongly enough to sacrifice almost everything that’s not a part of it,” says the author of Give me My Mountain – her first book she has dedicated to her two children Sam and Ciru, who she says are equally following in her footsteps.
“Taking the first step on my business journey and staying on course has called for tremendous support and sacrifice from my family,” she writes in her book launched last year.
“For me this higher force is my God. My walk in Him has taught me to trust in him and to work with him to conquer one mountain after another,” she tells me on her choice for the book’s title.
Replaying many past experiences and giving eye to family members, she says caused her profound sadness and thinking about the unknown future caused intense anxiety.
It sounded so simple, she says, but once she trained her mind to do it, it made each day easier.
“I told myself I needed to discover who I am. When I was married I became someone’s wife but who is Esther Wanjiru Nderitu beyond the title I held,” she pondered, adding “It took me two years to do that and during that period I chased all my friends away because I was in an avoidance mission, I did not want pity from people.”
Naturally, while in that state, her grief she says, overtook her body, mind and emotions – but once she became comfortable with a deep fog or racing mind, mood swings and emotions that seemed to have arrived out of nowhere, she became in a better place, emotionally.
“I needed to build myself again and after that period I felt I was ready to face the world and I was determined to do so under my terms and conditions,” she says.
Adding that, the decision meant, she had to change her relationships with business partners and bank managers.
“That is how I survived and so today I have gained my own respect and my own recognition, but I still honor my husband till today,” says corporate executive who runs a diverse Kenyan conglomerate, whose companies span telecommunications, microfinance, hospitality, real estate, restaurants and ICT.
Esther built her business brand after recouping money from her initial investment as one of the early adopters of the Safaricom dealership network where she invested at a time Simcards were retailing for Sh2,500.
Besides her telco business, today, Esther owns a number of properties and has also ventured into hospitality and accommodation concept targeting young people as well as office space business.
She attributes her success to honesty and integrity and God-given intellectual and physical abilities that has seen her successfully try her hand in several sectors.
“I value honesty and integrity, not only because of my fear for God, because they are a form of capital that entrepreneurs need more than they imagine,” she says in her book
Esther who describes herself as a common girl from Othaya in Nyeri town is on the verge of releasing her second book which she says will mainly talk on “HOW WHEN YOU GET THE OPPORTUNITY” a book she says will be an inspiring guidebook for entrepreneurs especially young women in business.
The book, she says will also touch on key principles to guide women to thrive in a male dominated arenas of business in their independence.
Her third book – a memoir is also in the pipeline one she says will expressly took her readers through her journey of losing a loved one and bouncing back or healing from such an adversity. It will honor her late husband.
Esther Muchemi’s efforts to set up one of Kenya’s most successful businesses has seen her nominated and won several business awards across the continent as well as across the globe.
Her journey to the top started some 20 years ago when she founded Samchi Telecom to sell airtime a brand that was first honored the top M-Pesa agent by Safaricom in 2009. The company has severally been ranked as top airtime dealer for Safaricom in subsequent years.
Samchi was the pioneer M-Pesa dealer when the mobile money was invented. M-Pesa was piloted at Samchi for six months before it was rolled out. Esther Muchemi was the first to transact with M-Pesa in Kenya holding the till number 0001.
In 2017 she received the Global Inspirational Women Leadership Award for her ingenious efforts and accomplishments. In the same year, she was inducted into the Amazon’s 100 Global Women Leaders Hall of Fame.
Her boldness, resilience and unshakable faith in God has made her reach unimaginable heights. Give Me My Mountain is Esther’s story simply told; to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs, male and female, to ask for their mountains, their destiny, their inheritance and ferociously go for them.