Sabina Joy founder Gerald Gikonyo Kanyuira dies at 110, leaves behind billionaire legacy

Gerald Gikonyo Kanyuira. (Courtesy)

On the morning of June 13, Nairobi woke up to the news that an old man had passed on at his house on the city’s Luthuli Avenue. But Gerald Gikonyo Kanyuira was not just another old man in the city. He was the city.

The 110 year-old Kanyuira was not only an embodiment of joy and happiness. He sold it to Nairobians and made billions while at.

The founder of the famous Sabina Joy, the centre of night life that never closed its doors to merry seekers for over eighty years, was one of a bunch of poverty-stricken boys from Rwathia village in Kangema, Murang’a county, who walked to Nairobi with nothing but tattered clothes and a burning dream to find that elusive thing called mbeca (money). Little did they know that they would make tonnes of it.

Eighty years on, the value of property owned by the Rwathia businessmen in Nairobi, Thika, Murang’a and other towns runs into billions of shillings.  And  their billionaire sons and protégés control substantial wealth at the Nairobi Securities Exchange.

The tough-as-nails capitalists from Rwathia provide a story of unrivalled dedication, passion and inspiration that enabled young boys, most of whom are now deceased, to transform their lives through hawking vegetables, selling charcoal and wattle bark, setting an example in ambition, personal discipline, frugality  and entrepreneurship for generations.

Until that Thursday, Kanyuira was the only remaining patriarch of the great capitalist boys from Rwathia village that produced the legendary Rwathia Group of entrepreneurs, who control a swath of properties and businesses in downtown Nairobi.

But Sabina Joy is the most famous for most Nairobians because of the good music, sex, beer, and dance it has been offering for decades.

As an indication of the sheer determination of the boys from Rwathia, at 110 years, Gikonyo, who once employed Equity Chairman Peter Munga as a casual labourer in one of their hotels, still supervised several businesses owned by the various groups from Rwathia.

The journey to massive wealth for this exceptional entrepreneurs started in 1930, when a group of boys came to Nairobi and set up a vegetables hawking business.

“We would buy the vegetables from Marikiti (Wakulima) Market from traders from Limuru, and sell them to Asian families,” the father of 23 and husband to four wives who first worked as a farmhand in a Nyeri coffee plantation told this writer in an interview some years before his death last week.

Since there were no banks for Africans then, the boys would send one of their friends back to the village to deliver some savings to elders for safekeeping. When the boys in the city needed to increase their investment, they would go back to the village and get their savings. This cycle had a ripple effect. Seeing how their peers were able to save money, more boys from Rwathia were encouraged to go to the city and start similar or different businesses.

“There was a wave of boys from Rwathia coming to Nairobi. We encouraged it because we all wanted to do business together,” recalled Mzee Gikonyo, whose first child was born in 1936 and his last 36 years later.

It is then that the Rwathia boys decided to form several savings groups and one person would belong to several of them.

After seven years of selling vegetables and doing other businesses in Nairobi, the savings groups started buying buildings from Asians in Pumwani to set up shops and small dukas. A group of five to 12 people would buy one shop and jointly start a business. The Asians were selling the shops to move closer to the city centre.

In 1952, the groups decided to start buying plots, on which they built residential and commercial buildings. But this new investment was disrupted the following year when the Mau Mau insurgency saw Kikuyus in Nairobi hounded and repatriated to restricted areas known as ichagi (villages). The period that followed was of sheer destruction by the British colonialists. They particularly targeted Kikuyu-owned businesses as they suspected they were part of the Mau Mau support base. All that the Rwathia boys had built was razed to ashes.

By 1957, the Mau Mau war had slowed down because it was taking a toll on both combatants. The colonialists called for amnesty and began allowing some Kikuyus who had businesses back to Nairobi. The boys from Rwathia, now seasoned businessmen, took the offer and decided to up their ambitions.

“When we returned, we decided that we would henceforth enter the city centre, where we were not allowed before. Our idea was to rent buildings and start businesses,” said Mzee Gikonyo, who preferred boiro (boiled meat) to roast meat.

Today, the Rwathia groups control prime properties in Nairobi, especially within areas on the east side of lower Tom Mboya Street, Ronald Ngara Street and River Road, among others, besides the beer distribution outfit, Rwathia Distributors. Buildings and bar and restaurants like the famous Magomano, Kinangop, Njogu-ini, Eureka, Timboroa and Alfa Hotels, among others, are all owned by several savings groups from Rwathia.

“The big lesson that we learnt and which we would want generations to understand is that one cannot achieve much alone. It is important to cooperate, even if it is with your wife. People should come together. This is what I tell young men from Rwathia,”Gikonyo said, adding:

“We succeeded because we had passion for our businesses. It is important for people to have passion in what they do even if they are employed. If one is not passionate, it is better to resign than spoil other people’s business,” Gikonyo said.

 

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