Tycoon Gerald Gikonyo: The Illiterate Hawker Who Employed Former Equity Bank Chairman As A Casual Labourer and was the first man to own a car in Kenya

Gerald Gikonyo best exemplifies the bottom up economy being propagated by a section of Kenyan politicians. His success from the claws of poverty can be attributed to sheer hard work, business acumen and the power of working as a team for a set goal.

This is the story of the 106 year old entrepreneur who once employed Equity Bank Chairman and founder Peter Munga as a casual laborer in one of his hotels.

Growing up in Rwathia, all he saw was poverty. Gikonyo lost his mother when he was only four years old. Death did not give him respite as his father followed four years later. He knew he had the arduous task of assisting his foster mothers and his younger brother. He moved to Nyeri where he lived with his maternal uncle.

“It is from there that I went to the Mathari Catholic Mission where I got a job as a farm-hand on their coffee plantation,” he was quoted by the Nation Daily.

His pay at the time was Ksh4 which was good money at the time. He invested in goats and used the proceeds to relocate to Nairobi in the mid 1920s.

He juggled between tea farming back at his Rwathia home and working in Nairobi. Often, he fell prey to thieves who stole his tea seedlings. Sometimes, the seedlings would be stolen even after being transplanted. He suspected his immediate neighbor but had no way of proving it. He decided to buy paint and mark the seedlings at sensitive points.

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“This way, if the thief decided to remove the mark, it would dry up. If the thief planted it on their land, it would be easy to argue that the seedling was mine. If something pesters you and you think hard about it, you will find a solution,” he said.

To date, he still grows tea on his farm.

He relocated to Nairobi where he got a job at the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union’s (KPCU) coffee mill. He earned a princely sum of Sh20. He would dabble between his work and hawking.

“I would report for duty at 4 pm and work through to 1 am.

I would then make coffee for sale to my colleagues up to 4 am, after which I would proceed to Marigiti (now Wakulima market) to buy vegetables to hawk to mainly Asian families.

I would knock off at 2 pm. That would leave me with two hours to sleep before reporting for duty,” he told the Daily Nation.

Gerald Gikonyo quit his job in 1931 to concentrate on business full-time. The job was difficult as he was required to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and work even during harsh weather conditions.

He went on to partner with Solomon Karanja to secure a hawking license. That same here he opened a shop in his Githioro home in Rwathia and day to day of the business to his step brother Gikonyo Muthuri.

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In 1947 everything aligned when together with a couple of friends from Rwathia, they decided to open a hotel in Majengo. He was approached to contribute capital for the venture and he had only Ksh700 of the required Ks3,000.

With his partners, Wacai wa Muhu, Gatu wa Kirubi, Kimani wa Gathere and Macharia Kirubi, they managed to open the hotel and it did exceedingly well.

They opened a second hotel in Eastleigh. Unfortunately, the businesses established by these village mates went up in flames as Kenyans fought for self-rule.

The Rwathia boys, as they came to be known, would team up to own a number of properties in the city.

Leading up to independence, a lot of white settlers began selling their lands and they snapped up this opportunity. They bought a number of buildings in several places including along Tom Mboya street.

They started Magomano and New Kinangop hotels. His wealth grew and he invested in Alfa Hotel, started a distribution company named Rwathia distributors and ventured into real estate. He would also come to be known as the landlord of Sabina Joy.

The entrepreneur ventured in the transport business in the early ‘60s and has no fond memory business. According to Gerald Gikonyo, the business is very risky and has so many unforeseen variables. They owned two buses christened Mwijoyo and Kayi. The seasoned businessman was categorical that he rather invests his money in building since such an investment cannot knock down a pedestrian.

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Interestingly, for a man who was the first Kenyan to own a car in the country-he doesn’t know how to drive one.

In the late 50s, he was among those arrested and accused of aiding the Mau Mau fighters. He recalled in an interview on the Standard how they were stripped to their underwear and physically tortured. They would go without food at times and when one of them messed up all of them got punished.

He, however, said it was all worth the freedom we are enjoying today.

Out of Gerald Gikonyo four wives, only one-known as Wangari-is surviving. He has 23 children but has no recollection of the number of grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren he has.

“They are probably 200 or 300. I can’t be sure. They are so many that you would require an auditor to verify the actual number,” he told DN

His eldest son, Mr Stephen Karanja, was born in 1936 while his last-born, Mr Javed Kamau, was born in 1972.

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