From picking coffee to apex of tech world

 Entrepreneur Rebecca Wanjiku at the headquarters of Fireside  Group in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU
Entrepreneur Rebecca Wanjiku at the headquarters of Fireside Group in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU 

The story of two coffee harvests is told in a brilliantly coloured mural opposite Rebecca Wanjiku’s desk. Some days are good, the berries juicy and red. Some days are bad — the berries are lacklustre and you have to “grind out” earnings.

This mural is at once a reminder and a metaphor. It is a reminder of a place to which she can’t and won’t return. She began her entrepreneurial life as a pre-teen picking coffee to earn pocket money.

It is also a metaphor for the hard work that has characterised her journey to this corner office in her own building, steering her engineering services firm, Fireside Group.

“Besides, there are no more coffee estates in Kiambu,” she laughs. “If I don’t make it here I have no coffee to fall back on.”

Fireside Group, a firm whose clients include Safaricom and Kenya Power, was born nine years ago. Wanjiku is shy with her numbers but the company’s over 100 employees and her ownership of this headquarters — a four-storey, 25,000 square-foot building off Lower Kabete Road—serve as proxy indicators for her success.

Advisory board
The regard she holds in the tech community is also another signal of this success. She was on the advisory board of the iHub and former ICT permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo confesses he has on occasion turned to her for counsel.

So how did that pre-teen girl with coffee-stained fingers become this 38-year-old businesswoman whose journey is so symbolic of the growth of Kenya’s tech sector but one whose story is little-known?

“I knew when I was growing up that I either wanted to be lawyer, a journalist or a business person,” says Wanjiku.

Her chance to pursue the first of these dreams came in 1997 when she visited the Kenya Times offices with her high school commerce club. Weeks later she wrote to the editor of the Kenya Times, telling him exactly why he should hire her as a journalist.

“I believe I am a born journalist,” she wrote. She even went so far to as to suggest a commencement date for the new job, November 17, 1997, four days after she finished her KCSE exams.

She joined Kenya Times as a young girl at a time when a thin skin was still a fatal flaw in journalism. But Wanjiku thrived. She carved herself a niche in technology, eventually becoming a sought-after reporter among international news agencies. In an interview with a senior government official in 2005, she asked a question that led to more than just a story.

Tech opportunities
“I asked him, what are the opportunities in tech for people who don’t have a lot of money?” Invest in ICT support services, she was told.

At the time telecom firms were not outsourcing their work yet. Nevertheless, she cobbled together her own savings and her mother’s savings and by 2008 she set up a business that initially installed DStv.

When telecom companies started outsourcing infrastructure work, Ms Wanjiku had already positioned Fireside as a company that could take up these jobs. One of her biggest clients was Safaricom #ticker:SCOM.

Then in 2012 she lost Safaricom as a client after Fireside “botched” paper work for a tender application. At the time, the telecom accounted for 70 per cent of Fireside’s turnover.

The shock of losing that much revenue overnight taught Ms Wanjiku a lesson that explains her work ethic today— fate will not forgive mediocrity. The next two years were spent “atoning for our sins”.

Fireside built a diverse client base that included Kenya Power and the Rural Electrification Authority.

The company has since recovered from this low point, even managing to clinch another Safaricom contract in 2014. But even so, there are challenges.

Condescending attitude

Wanjiku still has to deal with the condescending attitude that is often directed at women pioneers, especially in industries as male-dominated as infrastructure and engineering.

Nevertheless, what she’s built in Fireside, she says, is the model workplace she once craved. A crèche, decorated with Mickey and Minnie, is being completed on the second floor.

“You cannot be a woman working for me and express in the bathroom,” she says.

Upstairs is a canteen where employees are given free food. Segments of this building are still waiting for occupants. But when asked if she plans to rent any of space out, Wanjiku answers with a quick, emphatic “no”. At some point, she says, this space will become too small for Fireside. “Just give me another five years.”