Media queen rising
Gathoni Muchomba cut her teeth in vernacular radio stations and won the hearts of many. KIUNDU WAWERU tells us how she rose from abject poverty to become the proprietor of Smart Media colleges
Her fame sprouted in the dawn of the new millennium with the advent of the FM radio stations. She was a vernacular breakfast show presenter at Kameme FM, and later at Inooro FM, and, Gathoni wa Muchomba quickly became a household name. Gathoni Muchomba, during the interview.
Gathoni Muchomba, during the interview.
Keen on human rights, her fiery presentation and unbridled utterances would see her land in the corridors of State House — No, not for breakfast, but for a warning — try to zip her lips.
At 34 she is proud of her achievements. "God has shown me favour — I cannot thank him enough," she says. A brief pause then with her signature high-pitched confident, authoritative voice she adds: "But my life has not been all rosy. My humble background has made me who I am. I believe the poor make the best leaders because they have experienced hardships".
After sitting her O- levels, Gathoni landed a job as untrained teacher at a school in her neighbourhood; Makuyu Secondary School. Part time, she reared pigs and chickens.
Later, Gathoni joined University of Nairobi for a bachelor’s degree in education, but her spirit of entrepreneurship would shape her destiny.
"I opened a salon in campus and, later, another in Kikuyu town. I also imported hair bands from India and sold them in campus," she reminisces.
Her business acumen did not go unnoticed. While in her second year, a lecturer, Mary Ngechu identified this spirit and offered her a job. Gathoni narrates: "She had a project, Radio listeners group, for the University broadcast under an NGO, European Economic Community (EEC). My role was to identify what farmers were doing at the grassroots level. I travelled all over Kenya recording shows on agriculture. Later, the projects started to air on KBC".
In 1999 while in her fourth year, Gathoni heard that media mogul Rose Kimotho was about to open a vernacular radio station. "I walked in for the interview with a briefcase bearing records of all the projects I had done. I got the job and I started airing a popular show, Canjamuka, from 9am to 1pm".
From then on, Gathoni’s life was a roller coaster. She would be at the radio station by 6am and work until 5pm, then return to campus to work on assignments and study. "It was tough but I was always at the top of the class. I graduated in 1999 with a Second Class, upper division". Gathoni Muchomba doing her thing in studio. Her strong business acumen has shaped her destiny.
Gathoni Muchomba doing her thing in studio. Her strong business acumen has shaped her destiny.
She later returned to the University’s School of Journalism for masters in Communication. Around that time she got pregnant. Her daughter Melissa Wanjiru was born in 2003.
After her graduation in 2004, media mogul, SK Macharia approached her in a church. "He asked me to work for him in his soon to be launched radio station, Inooro, and tripled my salary".
At Inooro, Gathoni ruled the airwaves for three years with local polls ranking her as the favourite vernacular radio presenter.
The bug of entrepreneurship bit her again in 2005 and she started Smart Media College in Nairobi, which later opened branches in Nakuru and Naivasha, with another to open in Meru this August.
Because of its success, she quit her job the following year.
"I nursed ambitions of represent my Maragwa constituency in parliament. As a presenter, I become close to the people and was devastated by their plight. The leaders did not deliver their promises and I thought, once there, I would change all that," she says.
She hit the campaign trail and a despicable realisation dawned on her. She says "Politicians are sly thugs".
I was disgusted and I wanted out; I did not fit that bill. Fortunately or unfortunately, I had partnered with one of the politicians and someone else in birthing a radio station.
"But soon the politician did us in after I aired corruption allegations in the use of Constituency Development Funds in his constituency and his son was at the thick of it," she says.
The conflict of interest saw her step down as Managing Director and early this year, she quit. But one who does not give up easily, Gathoni dusted herself and put her energy into her college while at the same time working as a communications consultant for NGO’s and the private sector.
So how’s a typical day like for this self-starter?
"I am in office until 2:30pm then get down to public relations in hotels and golf courses."
Back to roots
She was brought up in Komothai, Githunguri in a family of four and a stepfamily of 11. "My dad was an irresponsible drunkard who cared very little for the family. Mum worked as a casual labourer to feed us. We walked 13km to school and drew water on our way from school from a river." This, she says, affected her so negatively that she vowed never to get married.
Despite living in squalor, Gathoni was a bright student who topped KCPE in the district. She proceeded to Precious Blood Secondary School in Riruta. She hated half-term breaks and school holidays because: "Mum could only afford Sh2 for my bus fare. This meant I had to hike a lift and if I was not lucky, I would stay home for days on end". Gathoni when she graduated from the University of Nairobi with a master’s degree in Communication. Photos: Jenipher Wachie/Standard
Gathoni when she graduated from the University of Nairobi with a master’s degree in Communication. Photos: Jenipher Wachie/Standard
And she would increasingly be sent home for school fees. But the school principal, a nun, was sympathetic and always took her back. "One day, the principal took all my belongings in her car and told me she will officially escort me home because the school could no longer afford me.
On reaching home, it rained so heavily that it seeped into the house from the rooftop. We collected the raindrops in cups and sufurias and covered the bed with polythene papers.
Blessing in disguise
The flood water carried away the porridge mum was preparing," Gathoni recalls.
The nun watched in dismay as her garb got soiled.
Gathoni delivers this succinctly and with a smile as it was a blessing in disguise. She says: "From then on, the nun never sent me home for fees again".
Later, a Good Samaritan, a Japanese, who worked as a volunteer teacher at Komothai Girls School where Gathoni’s mother was a casual labourer would pay Gathoni’s fees arrears and all other fees until she completed her secondary school.
Apart from the school woes, they would face eviction from their patrimonial home and later from Komothai’s school servants’ quarters.
"But everything that worked against us would at the end prove to be a blessing in disguise. I am inspired by mum’s patience and perseverance. Today she lives as a queen and I thank her for my character".
Looking into the future, she would like to go into community service. She says: "I especially would like to work with boys".
The empowerment of the girl child has seen the boy sidelined. Most of our men are ‘cabbages’ and if the situation is left unchecked, it will back fire in our faces".
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