Esther Muchemi laughs a lot. She laughs about the absurd and about things that were once sad but are now no more than a passing pain. She even laughs at genuinely funny things— like when I fumble around, looking for a polite way of telling her that she is shorter than I expected her to be.
You will never find anything like Esther’s office. The Turkish rugs, the abundantly floral tea service and the porcelain figurines all point to the boldness of a woman who has spent the last two decades building Samchi Group— a company that is one of Kenya’s biggest telecommunication dealerships and whose interests extend into real estate, microfinance and hospitality.
My first question, “busy morning?” is met with laughter.
We met at her Barclays Plaza office in Nairobi.
So you’re not an early morning person?
Maybe not in terms of getting to the office. But that does not mean that I don’t wake up early. I am up at 4.30am. There are certain routines that I must do and if I don’t do, I feel like my head is congested. I wake up early, take water and just stay calm. After that, I meditate, do yoga, then I take my breakfast slowly from 6.30 to 8.00 am. I am deliberate.
Does the deliberateness extend to the office? How would you describe your demeanour at work?
I am a perfectionist and these days I have no apologies for that. I have leant to express that is who I am.
Perfectionists can be difficult to work with. Are you difficult to work with?
To be honest for a long time it was not easy. I will tell people it’s either my way or my way (Laughs). Sometimes it doesn’t sound very kind but with time they begin to respect that position. Many times a leader must have a position and if you don’t have a position it becomes very difficult to lead your people.
So how did a deliberate perfectionist jump from the orderly life of auditing to take a risk of starting a business in what was a chaotic telecommunications sector?
When I left university, I joined accounting firms. I did that for 16 years. But sometimes today I think: surely was I an accountant? Today I can’t even sit down to work on a balance sheet. No way. I realised that that was not where I wanted to be. A time came when I said enough is enough. The stakes were high, but I walked away. When I quit my peers started [making fun of] me because they said: “Esther has become a dukawallah”. And truly that is what I became. I was literally coming to open a shop, selling, ordering and cleaning.
You did your own cleaning? Really?
Oh yes, that first shop was just me and nobody else.
Eventually you became the first M-Pesa agent?
I was the first dealer to roll it out in all my shops. I didn’t know where this thing was going. I didn’t understand it. But I told my people: “We’re going.”
Were you not afraid? And not just in that first instance but in your other ventures, including the hotel?
One thing I can almost authoritatively say, when you overanalyse a situation you end up not doing what it is you want to do. Because you end up supporting the fear that is in you.
And now you even have a significant stake in Safaricom #ticker:SCOM, one of the largest individual investors?
In terms of shareholding? The other day this guy (points to an employee) tells me I am a shareholder. I didn’t know I am a shareholder. But I have now employed a PA in finance whose job is to follow my investments.
Seriously? Had you forgotten about the shares?
It was not forgetting per se. First of all, I wouldn’t want to sell. I am happy with the dividends. There was a time I was a serious investor in the stock exchange. But to be honest, now I am not sure if I would do it [again]. I don’t consider it wealth of hard work. That is the legacy I would want to leave.
About your hotel, why is it called After40?
When I was looking for a name of the hotel, it was a big struggle for me. I told my son: ‘‘we need to get a name for this hotel and it must have a [spiritual] story.’’ He sent me some names— At40 (40 years in the wilderness); and M&H (milk and honey). Forty represents trials and tribulations. There is so much mention of the 40 [in the Bible] before the promised greatness. Symbolically I said I was not interested in the time before 40 or at 40.
Are you wealthy?
Oh my God! (Laughs). I don’t know whether I am because I don’t know what criteria people use in making that assessment. But there is one thing that I know—I am happy and proud of the position I am in, especially knowing where I came from. I am a common village girl. I was born in Othaya and the other thing I am proud to say, nothing has been handed to me. My husband was a general in the army, politically connected. We could have got free things. But I always say in a basket there is nothing free.
What role did your husband and the rest of your family play in the business?
One of the things I honour him for is that he allowed me to be. He supported me. I am not very easy. I am a very determined person. Honestly if that was not the position, I would either have crashed or left the marriage. The business is now a pride of the family. Even my children today are very proud and my daughter has now joined me. She is a general manager.
Does he still have a presence, in your life and your business?
Let me tell you, I rarely refer my husband as my late husband. Having said that I know for a fact I have been able to walk my journey and identified myself as me. When you are married you tend to get your identity a lot from your husband. But I realised I needed to get my identity if I was going to walk a journey of success.
Have you broken the glass ceiling?
The other day my daughter wrote me a note to say thank you for breaking the glass ceiling for her. I said I didn’t know I have done that.
Are you going to retire?
I am building structures at the moment that allow the company, the businesses to continue running without depending too much on me. But no, I have no plans whatsoever of quitting. I am working hard at the moment. Retirement? Sitting at home? I would be sick.