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Five brands that have shot to prominence from humble start

By Dominic Omondi | Published Tue, September 12th 2017 at 14:16, Updated September 12th 2017 at 14:30 GMT +3
Safaricom House . (Photo: Courtesy)

In summary

  • With Nakumatt on its knees, Tuskys that started from Nakuru could be perhaps the biggest retail now
  • Equity bank was incorporated in 2014 as a result of the corporate restructure of Equity Group Holdings Ltd. Prior to November 2014, Equity Group Holdings operated both as a licensed bank and a holding company for its subsidiaries
  • The inception of M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer service, has played a critical role in turning Safaricom into the behemoth that it is today


Some of the biggest renowned global brands have unbelievably had humble beginnings.

A good example is Samsung, a multinational conglomerate which started out in 1938 as a simple trading company in South Korea.

It was not until 1983 that Samsung ventured into the electronics business, with the production of its own personal computers.

Today, Samsung is one of the largest electronics companies globally. Similarly, on the local scene, there are a number of big brands with such modest beginnings. We look at five of them.


Safaricom is arguably the largest, most valuable and profitable brand in Eastern Africa today. Yet the telecommunications provider has not always been this big.

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In 1993, Safaricom started as a small department of the former State-owned telecommunications operator, Kenya Post and Telecommunication Corporation. It was formed in 1997 as a fully owned subsidiary of Telkom Kenya. In May 2000, Vodafone Group Plc of the United Kingdom acquired a 40 per cent stake and took over its management.

The Government owns 35 per cent stake while the public owns another 25 per cent after the telecommunications provider went public in 2008.

The inception of M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer service, has played a critical role in turning Safaricom into the behemoth that it is today.

Equity Bank

Equity Bank is Kenya’s largest bank by customer-size. But its history can be read on its logo of a house.

The tier-one bank which revolutionised micro-financing in Kenya, started out as a building society in October 1984.

It originally provided mortgage financing for the majority of customers who fell into the low-income bracket, most of them in rural areas.

The going was tough for the finance institution, so much that it even declared “technically insolvent in 1993.” Then it transformed itself into a micro-finance and ultimately into a commercial bank.


Although Nakumatt’s value today is less than that of the small duka Mangalal Shah, the father of current Managing Director Atul Shah, started in Embakasi, Nairobi, 70 years ago, it remains one of the finest brands to have come out of Kenya. From Embakasi, the older Shah would expand his duka to Kisumu town, then to Nakuru town and finally back to Nairobi. In Embakasi, Mangalal served many workers who were toiling in quarries around the area at the time. He later left for the lakeside city of Kisumu in search for greener pastures. While in Nakuru, Atul’s father would run into bankruptcy.

He folded his duka and went to join his brother in the latter’s shop.

But Mangalal’s two sons paid off his debts and revived the business to grow it into the retail giant it is today.

There is no doubt that Nakumatt, once bestowed as the ‘Walmart of Kenya’ has been a success story in Kenya’s retail industry, offering what most customers have seen as a unique shopping experience.

It is so unfortunate that such a success story is now under the threat of collapse.


Dubai-based private equity investor The Abraaj Group acquired Kenya’s Java House Group for a cost of Sh10.3 billion. It is one of the largest acquisitions in a sector that not long ago was insignificant.

Before Java came onto the scene, coffee-taking culture was a preserve of a few rich people with exotic tastes.

Today, buoyed a by a growing middle class, Nairobi Java House has been opening branch after branch.

The Nairobi Java House was started 15 years ago by three US-born former relief workers who simply wanted a place they could “get a good cup of coffee.”

From humble beginnings, in a shared kitchen where its co-founders learned how to roast coffee and make pastries.

Java has grown to become the face of the success of casual dining restaurants and coffee chain models in Kenya.


Tuskys is the country’s second largest supermarket. The retail store has experienced stellar growth. It is hard to believe that less than 35 years ago, it was a mere kiosk named Magic in Rongai town in Nakuru County. The shop would later grow into Tusker Mattresses, Kenya’s second largest retail chain.


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