How former auditor became matriarch of a business empire

Esther Muchemi is well-known in the telecoms industry circles. After all, she was the first M-Pesa agent in Kenya. She has built her business, Samchi Group of Companies through determination and hard work

Esther Muchemi, the Chief Executive Officer Samchi Group of Companies walks into the room with a confident gait, her smile putting everyone in the room at ease.

When we meet for an interview at her After 40 Hotel, she engages everyone in the room – including her employees and the patrons – asking how they are and whether they are enjoying the services.

If you did not know her, you wouldn’t imagine that this woman with quiet strength and amiable personality runs a multi-billion shilling business empire and has been in the male-dominated telecommunications industry for two decades.

In her own right, Muchemi can be ranked as one of Kenya’s millionaires for her various achievements in the business world, which she joined in 1996 after quitting a lucrative job as an auditor at Ernest and Young Global Limited. When the entrepreneurial bug bite her, she started her own audit firm by the name Esther Muchemi and Company, but later felt the need to diversify and try something new that would be easily picked up by her children for continuity.

“When I set up the audit firm, I did big internal audits and it was great because within five years I had bought a Mercedes Benz. But deep down I wanted to do a business that each of my family member could do. So, I opted for something different,” says Muchemi.

In the year 2000, she decided to venture into a different path that was inspired and fully supported by her late husband General Muchemi who was at the time a telecommunications engineer in charge of communication in the military.

Being a well-travelled man, General Muchemi supported her to start a telecommunications shop. After setting up a little shop that sold mobile phones and wares, she learnt the art of multi-tasking because she was the owner and the employee – she did everything from ordering and  buying stock – until she built her own basic networks that led her to grow the shop to the empire it is today. In 2001, mobile business was taking root in Kenya and her shop was the first along Kimathi Street.

With time she became a Kencell (now Airtel) and Safaricom dealer, but later abandoned Kencell to work fully with Safaricom. 

At the same time, Safaricom broke from Telkom and Muchemi became a dealer with the company and her shop became among the few that did direct sale of Safaricom lines.

She later became the first M-Pesa dealer. In this, she would benefit from commission where for 1,000 lines in a sale of Sh 2,500, she would get a Sh500 commission. However, big dealers with good cash flow came into the lucrative business and almost elbowed her out.

“The people who had money would sell and even undercut the cost of the lines because buying in bulk gave them better profit margins. I couldn’t play that game because I was working on a tight budget and did not have the financial muscle to compete with them,” explains Muchemi.

Her commission dipped, but using a different tactic, she became one of the top dealers within eight months.

Muchemi decided to invest in staff and recruited 30 of them. They did the distribution in her small shop, a situation that baffled both the company and the top dealers.

With time, Safaricom wanted to pilot M-Pesa and she was the first dealer to roll it out in all her shops. According to Muchemi, she didn’t know where it would lead to and neither did she understand it. She was given Sh64 million with no security, a feat she terms as an integrity test. She had the option of walking out as the money was in her bank account. She did not. She faithfully worked and delivered.

Gaining trust and cementing business relationships, suppliers gave her credit facilities and sub-agents started giving her money to buy stock for them. Today, Muchemi is one of the top business people in Kenya, a matriarch of an empire spanning different sectors.

“I am no longer in business for the money. I am now in business to create opportunities for other people,” says Muchemi.

Muchemi is currently building structures to ensure that her business outlives her. Her largest and most expensive project so far is the After 40 Hotel, which sits at the heart of the capital city, Nairobi. The 11-floor hotel has 63 rooms and six conference rooms. Apart from these, Muchemi is in the real estate industry and has two other buildings in South C area in Nairobi and two other in the city centre.  She acknowledges she was born a common girl who attended local schools in a rural village in Othaya. She attributes her sucess in the telecommunications industry to the  values she possesses.

“I have done my best” are the words she detests most, especially coming from her employees.

The mother of two says she was so keen to instill values in her children that she never took them to boarding school.

Unlike her children who enjoyed the fruits of her hard work and maybe haven’t struggled in life, for Muchemi, education was the major element that has made her the woman she is today. She runs her business empire with her two children.

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