Samuel Kamau Macharia was among the first in his hometown to buy a transistor radio—villagers would congregate at his home to listen to the news or football commentary. This gadget would turn out to be the pillar of his businesses.
Nothing about the communications center hints at the secrets and wealth inside. Located in upmarket Nairobi, a stone’s throw from State House, one of the newest buildings in this neighborhood, is hardly worth a second glance. On the third floor, in an office the size of a swimming pool, sits an aging man simply known as SK—the initials of his first two cultural names.
SK Macharia, now in his early seventies, is the proprietor of Royal Media Services (RMS), Kenya’s most successful broadcasting media house valued at $500 million. It runs a television channel, Citizen TV, and 14 FM radio stations. Many agree that Macharia, balding but with a smooth face, is Africa’s answer to America’s Ted Turner—the founder of Cable News Network (CNN), the first 24-hour cable news channel.
Macharia has built his empire in less than 10 years, from one television and radio station in 2002, by thinking and acting local. RMS has a presence in six countries in East Africa—Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi as well as Zambia—where it broadcasts through transmitters and the internet. The company broadcasts 12 radio stations in vernacular, one in English, the official language, and another in Swahili. Most elitist media investors frowned upon this niche market since they believed that only English and Swahili speakers had buying power.
“What we have achieved is purely because of local productions,” says Macharia.
Nearly 70% of Citizen TV’s content is locally-produced, exceeding the 40% recommended by the government. This local thinking has helped Citizen TV overtake established private stations such as Nation Television (NTV), Kenya Television Network (KTN) and state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), which are now playing catch-up in local programing. According to a survey by Ipsos Synovate Kenya, a research and polling company, Citizen TV controlled 52% of the television viewership market in Kenya in the last quarter of 2011, leaving nearly a dozen rivals to the rest of the pie.
Only KBC had vernacular broadcasts and they were restricted to an hour a day. After Kibaki came to power in 2003, Macharia started providing each community with its own radio station and round-the-clock programing.
“The radios have played a crucial role in spreading information among the older generation,” he says.
These community radios have split the advertising market into niches, giving the national broadcasters a run for their money and offering marketers more targeted advert channels. And with 12 vernacular radios, the cumulative ad revenue is huge.
Former president Daniel arap Moi banned ethnic-based radio stations, except for KBC, for promoting ethnicity. Macharia has a different take on this.
“Anybody who says vernacular radio fuels ethnicity is foolish. Go to the UK, Russia or Canada and you will find radios broadcast in local languages. These are languages people understand. How do you get your grandmother to understand politics in Swahili and English? Even economic matters, they will understand better in their mother tongue. You can promote ethnicity in any language. Ethnicity is created and developed by politicians,” he says.
“Take the case of Rwanda—the radio that caused genocide was government-owned. If there is no private radio, the government can tell people to do anything. Our work is to entertain, educate and inform.”
Macharia’s love affair with the airwaves has not only helped increase radio listenership in the country, especially among the illiterate and semi-literate, it has also created 1,200 jobs.
While Macharia may find it hard to find political support for vernacular radio stations, Philip Ochieng, a leading columnist in the Sunday Nation newspaper vindicated him in a recent article.
“I know at least one Kenyan entrepreneur—SK Macharia of Royal Media Services—who seems to recognize the importance of tapping talent and expertise from all of Kenya’s ethnic communities and paying them well. In this way, SK understands capitalism much more than all our barons in the private sector and, especially, in the parastatal corporations. The talents help him to make money. But, in the process, he builds a company in which all communities invest at least some goodwill and trust. SK Macharia fights tribalism in this country much more tangibly than all our teachers, politicians and priests together,” he wrote on April 24.
In the radio world, RMS is the undisputed king—a broadcasting phenomenon renowned for a daring spirit, deft marketing and spectacular ad revenues. The company takes in more advertising revenue through its ubiquitous radio channels than any other group in Kenya, according to industry figures.
With transitional elections in March 2013, Macharia says RMS is sprucing up its news coverage and presentation, which blends a western style with an African human-interest angle. The imitation is sometimes comic—imagine a business reporter trying to copy Richard Quest of CNN or a weekend news anchor mimicking Zeinab Badawi of BBC.
“We hire the best presenters and anchors. If you are in broadcasting and you are top in the industry, we are ready to pay the price. You cannot maintain high quality unless you pay well and make them happy,” he says.
“For me to compete and beat NTV, KBC and KTN, I have to get the best raw material. If the competition works hard, I must work harder.”
Royal Media Service wants to continue leading the pack—it is one of the few media houses in sub-Saharan Africa to acquire a Ksh300 million ($3.5 million) chopper for news coverage.
Yet, barely a decade ago, Macharia was a non-starter. The airwaves had already been liberalized in the early 1990s, when he entered into radio. In the television market, KTN was market leader, followed by KBC and NTV. In just eight years, RMS has not only outrun its competitors locally but has a growing across the continent.
It hasn’t been an easy rise for Macharia. He tells the story of his life with a grin, relishing its effect on the listener. The FORBES AFRICA team arrived one chilly Tuesday in June only for him to turn us away, with a sad smile, in favor of a meeting with Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga.
Macharia’s story starts in Ndakaini, a poor, central Kenyan village where he was born in 1944. When he was 10, he was separated from his parents due to a state of emergency and forced to herd cattle with nomads in Arusha, Tanzania. After things calmed, he trekked home to trace his parents. It was a life of struggle for Macharia’s family who worked on European settler farms for a pittance to feed and educate a family of five. Many times, he dropped out of school because of the lack of funds.
He did not attend high school and became an untrained primary school teacher, earning ten and a half US cents. Despite being an average student, his thirst for knowledge was insatiable. After teaching for some time, he decided to go to the US. Through the help of a clever travel agent, Macharia used a fake plane ticket to get a visa at the US embassy in Nairobi. He missed a government-organized airlift. Alongside other Africans and Indians he traveled by bus—through the thick forests of Uganda and the plains of Sudan to the scorching deserts of Libya—ending up in Benghazi, 50 days later, from where they took a ship to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
“There was no bridge across the Nile, so passengers crossed the river on rafts—three logs tied together which floated and followed the current. Depending on how the log moved with the current, some people would find themselves far downstream.”
They then took a boat to Dover, where the group caught a train to London, from where he flew to New York. But he had underestimated the distance to the Seattle Technical College, where he was to study. So he took another bus.
“I did not have money to fly. I wandered around and ended up in a police station. The police had two choices: to incur the expense of shipping me back to Kenya or arrange for my transport to Seattle. They put me on a bus and we travelled for 10 days.”
Unbeknown to Macharia, the couple assigned to host him had divorced. He stayed at the bus station for nearly two weeks until the wife rescued him.
“I was given little food and had no heating—it was winter. Luckily the local priest learnt of my plight and took me to his house. I was later taken in by a volunteer family who did not have children,” he says.
Macharia cleaned supermarkets at night and worked manual jobs at manufacturing companies to make an extra penny.
After completing high school, he enrolled at the Seattle Pacific University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. He enrolled in the University of Washington for a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. Macharia returned to Kenya in 1969 with two undergraduate degrees, a Master’s and a Certified Public Accountant qualification to boot. Then he started toying with business ideas from establishing a toilet paper manufacturer to a pulp-producing factory and later a credit card financing outfit. The turning point came in 1992, when Macharia experienced a nasty discrimination by KBC and started plotting to run private radio and TV stations. He was among the young crop of politicians fighting the Moi regime and supported opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga at the time, in Kenya’s first multiparty elections.
“I was his political and economic adviser. There was only KBC and KTN [owned by President Moi and other ruling party Kanu men] at the time. I paid for Jaramogi’s campaign commercials, but they were not aired on KBC and they did not refund me the money. And we believed Jaramogi would win. When he lost, it was a calamity for me. He lost the elections because KBC did not air his commercials and I told myself nobody would ever do that to me.”
So he naively applied to KBC, instead of to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, for a TV license.
“The KBC MD called me back and laughed at me. I went to his office and he laughed at me again with his legs on top of the desk.”
He re-applied for the license, this time to the office of the president, but his request was rejected. He knew he was paying the price for backing an opposition candidate.
“I replied and gave them seven days to give me the license or I [would] sue,” he says.
They did not. So he went to court in 1993 and fought it out until 1996, when he got the license. He started Citizen Radio late in 1998. The government closed it down in January 2000 because the radio station was critical of it.
“We were telling a little more truth than the government was willing to acknowledge. We stayed for a year fighting the closure and reopened in 2000. In April 2001, it was closed again and our equipment was vandalized to ensure the station does not restart. We went back to court and reopened in November through a court order,” says Macharia.
The suffering has made Macharia a strong advocate of democracy and media freedom. He says democracy cannot work without press freedom.
“The media in Kenya is now fully protected by the new constitution. Now, we can play a major role in democratization. Everyone is born alone, with his or her little brain. You are supposed to be free to use it to do better for yourself, your family and your country.”
Macharia says success in media business comes from out-of-the-box thinking and having the best people. More importantly, he adds, being able to pick yourself up after falling and moving on. In short, turning any failure into success.
But age is catching up and Macharia plans to make the company public to spread its ownership and secure its future after he bows out. He is not a believer in perpetuating family business.
“Africans are not like Indians who hand over their businesses to their sons and daughters. I have two sons who run their own businesses and my daughter works with me here at Royal Media. For a huge organization like this, the easier way is to go public,” he says.
Some say he has used his political networks to have his way in business, but he retorts that he doesn’t have better connections than most people. Even then, it bothers him that African leaders still look down on African entrepreneurs.
“It’s sad that after independence, most African governments still treat us as second-class citizens. If a sweeper comes from the UK and uses a telephone booth to call a minister and speaks the Queen’s English, the minister will be waiting for him at the door. For a black man, it will take 10 years,” he says.