Wanjiru Mureithi, 44, overcame a personal tragedy to become a certified wine educator. She opens up about her journey of rediscovery.
Wanjiru has run two ultra marathons in Durban, South Africa: the 90km Comrades Marathon in under 12 hours and the 56km Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in Cape Town twice.
And last Christmas, she was one of 20 cyclists with Baisikeli Adventures, who took a 620-kilometre six-day trip from Nairobi to Mombasa.
Running marathons and cycling is central to Wanjiru’s lifestyle as an entrepreneur because her value system is informed by the values of these extreme sports. “Run your own race at your own pace,” she says emphatically.
“And find motivation along the way. I have never quit a race I started. This builds resilience. People believe they can do something when they see you do it.”
Wanjiru is a licensed and certified wine educator. She consults under her brand, Winenjiru Limited.
She is a certified, Level Two and Three with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. She reveals that she is saving up to travel to the UK to get Level Four certification.
She is currently the only certified Level Three educator in Kenya. Wanjiru is also the representative of Wines of South Africa in Kenya.
She has been organising annual events to showcase South African wines to decision-makers in the industry — distributors, hotel, food and beverage managers and sommeliers — since she launched her business in 2014.
“I’d lived in South Africa since 2002,” she says. “I returned to Kenya in December 2012, but the selection of wines here wasn’t like what we had in South Africa. Whenever I visited South Africa, I’d come back with about 20 bottles to sell to my friends.
I wanted to become a wine importer but it was a capital-intensive venture. Becoming an educator was less capital-intensive. It also develops the wine industry in a different way. My model is business to business matching,” she says.
After completing high school, Wanjiru worked as an administrator at her father’s medical practice.
He had no idea how to run a business, so they both learnt the ropes together. She saw a different side of him — one she had not seen when he was employed or at home with his four children in Kirinyaga.
Wanjiru balanced the books, manned the reception, and was soon doing preliminary patient testing.
After two years, she left for the University of Nairobi for her first degree in business. The teaching style at the university — dictation of notes, dull lectures in a class of 200, no challenge to her thinking — left Wanjiru feeling cheated.
“AIESEC is what kept me in school, to be honest. In the two years I was active, I travelled to Germany, Uganda, the United States. We’d get funding just from writing proposals. I learnt that all you have to do is knock on a door and ask, you never know who’ll open it.”
She majored in marketing in her third year, graduated in December 1999, and through AIESEC, got a job in Canada.
“I relocated to Nova Scotia on January 1, 2001. It was a small town that never got any sunshine. I worked in the department of education with a programme that helped entrepreneurs develop business plans from their ideas,” she says.
“I once met this Indian woman who lived on a boat. She wanted to make carvings out of fish and shark bones. There are no bad ideas for a business. Businesses don’t fail because the idea is bad, they fail because of other things.”
Wanjiru had just been promoted to assistant director when a South African firm that had nipped into their offices offered her a hefty package to set up a similar programme for a youth project in Johannesburg.
It had a big budget to match its big agenda and big ideas. That was in September 2002.
Once again she had her ducks in a row. Wanjiru built a new, comfortable life in Johannesburg, invested in property, completed her executive MBA, got married, then divorced.
The trajectory of her life took a different tangent on May 11, 2012, when she lost her daughter suddenly.
“Muthoni was a year and four months. The nanny I had was new and a bit young, but she’d sing songs and play with Muthoni. I remember she called me and said, ‘please come home, something has happened.’ I drove home blindly. When I got there, Muthoni wasn’t breathing and the nanny had changed her clothes, so I didn’t know whether there had been any vomit. Or whether she had choked,” she exhales.
“I just wanted to get her to a hospital as fast as I could. But when we got there …”
I ask her to show me Muthoni’s photos and she does. “This was her first and only Christmas. I like these shots because they were so candid. She didn’t look like me or her father, she looked like her cousins, my nieces and nephews," she says, showing me a professional photo shoot she had with Muthoni when the baby was only five days old.
“Do you recognise the girl in that photo?” I ask.
Wanjiru rubs her eyes. “I was just getting my audacity back. Going through a divorce is like dying. So I died twice. I’m still healing — Muthoni’s death is no longer a bleeding wound but a scar I can touch. My audacity is also coming back,” she says.
She buried Muthoni at the Lang’ata Cemetery and returned to Johannesburg a pale shadow of herself. She stopped praying and questioned God.
Life lost its colour and purpose. Running ultra marathons became her coping mechanism.
She handed in her resignation on the 10th anniversary of her relocation to South Africa and returned to Nairobi in December 2012 to start afresh.
During a class she organised for a new wine importer, Wanjiru taught about wine grapes and estates, vintage wine, how to scrutinise wine for appearance, smell it for intensity and aroma, and taste it for its flavour and finish.
She also suggested food pairings and later did a blind tasting. “I want to expand beyond wine to educating and consulting for food and other beverages. Wine is a lifestyle; the hospitality industry needs to know how to consciously create an integrated experience from wine. We already have Blankets and Wine. We can have coffee and wine. Art and wine,” she says.