Equity Bank’s James Mwangi Journey From Rags To Riche

Posted on August 22, 2013 at 6:01 am

James Mwangi the CEO of Equity Bank has won the world’s most coveted awards in the business world among them being the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year Award and Forbes person of the year (2012). His rise to the top is fascinating and an inspiring account of triumph against severe odds.

Dr. James Mwangi is the Managing Director and Chief Executive of Equity Bank since 2004.

The story of James Mwangi and Equity Bank from a young boy selling charcoal on the slopes of the Aberdares to becoming the most successful banker in modern Africa is so incredible that it almost belongs in the realms of fiction.

He spoke to Craig Rix and below is an excerpt of that interview.

Where did Mwangi go for his early school?
James Mwangi attended the Nyagatugu primary school in Kangema village. But money was short and the family teamed up to supplement their income by engaging in ‘small business’. While this may have been humbling for the boy, he was nevertheless absorbing invaluable business lessons that would stand him in good stead in his future.

He obtained outstanding results at the end of his primary schooling and this provided a government scholarship to attend the Ichagaki Secondary School. Here he was introduced, for the first time, to accountancy and commerce.

How was his childhood?
He was the sixth of seven children. “My widowed mother had to find ways and means to feed and raise us in a deeply rural setting.”
There was no time for childish games. James, like the rest of his siblings, had to put in his share of chores – tending to the livestock, making charcoal, selling fruits and other produce for small margins.

James Mwangi, CEO Equity Bank

What were his mother’s opinion on education?
Although the family was poor, my mother ensured that we were disciplined and she laid out a set of values which became anchors in our lives. There was one point on which she was not prepared to back down or compromise one iota – that was education. She decided that her children, all her children, would be educated – no matter what it took,”

At a time when girls were not allowed to attend school how did the society react to his mother’s decision to take her daughters to school?
When she insisted that her daughters also attend school, a shudder of apprehension went through the village of Kangema, their home.
“Girls who go to school ended up as prostitutes!” her neighbours warned. “Maybe so,” she quipped, “but they will be educated prostitutes and will be able to negotiate better terms.” People smiled at her sense of humour but there was a lot of shaking of heads. Her daughters went to school, and were among the first African-trained teachers from the region.

What role did Mwangi’s mother have in his children?
“When I had my own four sons, their granny supervised their education and kept them away from harmful teenage activities going around. When they got their school reports, they went first to their granny, rather than me, their father. She passed on a wealth of wisdom through storytelling and, in many ways, moulded my family.”

Mwangi’s children have attended the famous Ivy League institutions in the US – Yale, Cornell and Brown – and Carnegie Mellon. “When she had placed the last one in university in the US,” he said, “she rested.”

Where did Mwangi learn his business skills?
James Mwangi attended Nyagatugu Primary School in Kangema village. But money was short and the family teamed up to supplement their income by engaging in ‘small business’. While this may have been humbling for the boy, he was nevertheless absorbing invaluable business lessons that would stand him in good stead for his future.

He was learning, without consciously doing so, the basics of business – what people needed, what they were prepared to pay, how to add value to mundane articles, how to negotiate, how to make a sale and turn a profit. With no role models to emulate, he and his family were, in effect, discovering the basics of business all by themselves, based on observation of what worked and what didn’t.

How did he find himself at equity?
At the age of 28, although he didn’t know it himself, Mwangi was primed, in terms of character, values and down-to-earth business savvy for the major role he was about to play in One of these mutual societies, which had remained standing but was severely battered, was the Equity Building Society.

In 1993, the chairman, Peter Munga, and the CEO, John Mwangi, turned to James Mwangi. The building society had been making losses of Ksh 5 million every year and was now facing a cumulative loss of Ksh 33 million, the staff had not been paid salaries, morale was at rock bottom and membership was dwindling by the hour.”

But rather than throw in the towel, Mwangi wondered if he could intervene and “reinvent the organisation, transform it completely.”

How big was Equity Building Society  then?
At the time, Equity had 27 employees, 27,000 customers, five branches and stood at number 66 out of 66 in the financial sector rankings.
“I accepted the challenge because I could see clearly how important a properly functioning society was to the mass of the people. It was their only avenue out of poverty. I felt I had to do something – somehow square the circle.”

What challenges did he face?
He had no resources, no money, no way of raising capital. A banking licence, which might have provided some leeway, was not forthcoming. Public confidence in indigenous organisations was at rock bottom.

“How could I entice people to come to Equity? What could I provide that was needed but not available? I decided to look inside the organisation. If I could change the culture internally, I would have, in effect, succeeded in reinventing Equity.”

What steps did he take to revive equity?
Mwangi set about retraining the staff. He introduced a concept which at the time was practically unknown – customer care. “Put the customer and his or her needs first – he is the most important person in the world. Treat people with dignity and respect. Serve to the best of your ability.”

He encouraged his staff to use their own networks – as he did his – to persuade people to join the society. “I told them, ‘trust me’. They believed me because I believed it myself. If you expect anyone else to follow you, you must have absolute confidence in yourself.”

When did he see the first signs of success?
The first sign of success, he said, was a complete change in the attitude of the staff. They were now motivated, they had a direction to follow and what they were doing was bearing fruit. “We were able to give them their first raise in eight years. I also persuaded them to use 25% of their salaries to buy shares in the company. Now they were involved. It was as much their company as anybody else’s. They knew that if they succeeded, they had a lot to gain.”

The word began to spread – Equity was different; Equity could be trusted.

Who are his role models?
“Nelson Mandela. The way he has changed people’s lives inspires me every day. That is what drives me – the feeling that I am changing lives for the better, being an agent of social-economic transformation in Africa.”

Among his business gurus he counts Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, Bill Gates (who he says showed him how to think more broadly about society), Bill and Melinda Gates for their contribution to the disadvantaged in Africa, and Steve Jobs for his technological genius.

What makes him most happy?
“Whenever I can bring a smile to someone’s face, I am amply rewarded.”


1. The continents look entirely different than you think they do.

The map you’re used to is more Western-focused and stretches out the size of continents near the poles. Africa and South America are actually way bigger. Here’s a more accurate representation of the world, according to the The Gall-Peters Projection map, created in 1885.


Image: WikiCommons H/T: BuzzFeed

2. If you believe that you’re truly one in a million, there are still approximately 7,184 more people just like you.


You aren’t that special! There are over 7 billion people on the planet right now. Each and every one of them should be treated with respect.

3. There are castles and even lighthouses that are less expensive than NYC apartments.


With New York City rent rising over an average $3,000 a month even in Brooklyn this year, it’s becoming more and more appealing to perhaps move somewhere else. If you’re one of the lucky ones who has a bit of money to burn, might as well spend it on a real-life castle or lighthouse, right?

Image: Monlin

4. The United States hasn’t even made it into the Top 50 list of longest-lasting empires.


The United States has only been around for a blip in history. Institutions like Bank of America aren’t even 100 years old. This doesn’t necessarily discount their trustworthiness, but just make sure to remember that not all pillars of authority are eternal.

5. 10 percent of the entire world population is still illiterate.


Unfortunately certain countries are also skewing the data upwards on this statistic. Nations such as Afghanistan only have a 28 percent literacy rate for the total population.

6. You thoroughly enjoy celebrating some pretty dark holidays.


Labor Day was created as a bandaid to coverup multiple massacres of American workers. Columbus Day is named after a brutal tyrant whose history is largely a fraud. Thanksgiving is a sham celebration of Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together. Really, just don’t celebrate anything.

7. A whole ecosystem lives in your belly button.


Scientists found 2,368 different species of bacteria living in belly buttons after swabbing the navels of just 60 people. In that study, 1,458 might have been entirely new to the scientific record. Aladdin could have showed Jasmine a “whole new world” just by looking toward their stomachs.

8. You can’t see as many colors as a chicken. You’ll also never see all the beautiful colors of a rainbow.


Everyday you are missing out on aspects of the universe simply because our bodies cannot process their wonders. How can we be supreme rulers of the world and have full domain over all other living beings when chickens can see more colors than we can? We need to rethink our place. Also rainbows are actually made up of more than 1 million colors, many of which we can’t see either. We are missing out!

9. We haven’t figured out the secret to immortality, but this jellyfish has.


The Turritopsis nutricula can live forever by reverting back to its early stage of life after becoming sexually mature. Although immortality may not be a real possibility for humans just yet, it is good to know that the basic idea isn’t just science fiction.

10. Americans spend 38 hours a year stuck in traffic.


Almost an entire work week of just being stuck! Washingtonians have it worst with an average of 67 hours a year, which is time they probably wish they could have back.


Walking with God leads to receiving his intimate counsel, and counseling leads to deep restoration. As we learn to walk with God and hear his voice, he is able to bring up issues in our hearts that need speaking to. Some of those wounds were enough to break our hearts, create a rift in the soul, and so we need his healing as well. This is something Jesus walks us into—sometimes through the help of another person who can listen and pray with us, sometimes with God alone. As David said in Psalm 23, he leads us away, to a quiet place, to restore the soul. Our first choice is to go with him there—to slow down, unplug, accept the invitation to come aside. You won’t find healing in the midst of the Matrix. We need time in the presence of God. This often comes on the heels of God’s raising some issue in our hearts or after we’ve just relived an event that takes us straight to that broken place, or waking as I did to a raw emotion.

Teach me your way, O LORD,
and I will walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever. (Ps. 86:11-12)

When we are in the presence of God, removed from distractions, we are able to hear him more clearly, and a secure environment has been established for the young and broken places in our hearts to surface.



Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary

5:21-24 Enoch was the seventh from Adam. Godliness is walking with God: which shows reconciliation to God, for two cannot walk together except they be agreed, Am 3:3. It includes all the parts of a godly, righteous, and sober life. To walk with God, is to set God always before us, to act as always under his eye. It is constantly to care, in all things to please God, and in nothing to offend him. It is to be followers of him as dear children. The Holy Spirit, instead of saying, Enoch lived, says, Enoch walked with God. This was his constant care and work; while others lived to themselves and the world, he lived to God. It was the joy of his life. Enoch was removed to a better world. As he did not live like the rest of mankind, so he did not leave the world by death as they did. He was not found, because God had translated him, Heb 11:5. He had lived but 365 years, which, as men’s ages were then, was but the midst of a man’s days. God often takes those soonest whom he loves best; the time they lose on earth, is gained in heaven, to their unspeakable advantage. See how Enoch’s removal is expressed: he was not, for God took him. He was not any longer in this world; he was changed, as the saints shall be, who are alive at Christ’s second coming. Those who begin to walk with God when young, may expect to walk with him long, comfortably, and usefully. The true christian’s steady walk in holiness, through many a year, till God takes him, will best recommend that religion which many oppose and many abuse. And walking with God well agrees with the cares, comforts, and duties of life.