Kenyan women in construction: A case for more inclusion in this lucrative sector
The building and construction industry in Kenya is a lucrative male-dominated field despite advocacy for gender inclusivity in the modern world. This is not just in Kenya, but globally.
A report released in February by Dalberg in partnership with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Buildher shows that only 3 per cent of construction artisans in Kenya are women.
The report further indicates that female engineers registered by the Engineer’s Board of Kenya are at 7.3 per cent, female contractors registered in Kenya stand at 15.5 per cent and female quantity surveyors registered are at 17 per cent. Globally, only 13 per cent of all construction companies are owned by women.
This one-sided reality has given rise to people and organisations advocating for more inclusion of women in the industry. One such organisation is Buildher, an NGO whose main aim is to empower women through construction. In collaboration with its partners, the organisation held the maiden Women Fundis in Construction Conference held at the Safari Park Hotel on Friday, November 4.
DN2 Property had a sitting with the organisation’s co-founder and asked her to highlight the work the organisation does, and how it came to be.
Tatu Gatere – Buildher Co-founder and CEO
When I was 18 years, I moved to the US where I pursued a degree in Architecture Technology, and later a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture. Throughout my 10 years of study, I experienced difficulties having to work all day and then attend classes at night.
There was also the issue of racial prejudice, and just being black put me in a category of the disenfranchised. These harsh realities, all new to me, were the beginning of my journey towards women's empowerment.
During my stay in the US, I would return home every two years, and I noted an almost similar situation here, especially in access to economic opportunities. I had experienced economic disparity in black communities, and the idea of vulnerable communities stayed with me.
When I started working, I was almost in crisis. I wanted my work to have a social impact, so I went into social architecture, which is using the built environment to bridge social gaps, for instance in the design of public spaces such as parks. I relocated again to Johannesburg, South Africa, and after a year, came back to Nairobi where I was working for a commercial office.
I would work in a posh neighbourhood in Lavington, then go home at Wanyee Road, Dagoretti, in a middle-income neighbourhood - the opposite was a poor one made of iron sheets where people did not even have proper sanitation. Disgruntled as my architecture was not helping these disadvantaged communities, I left the commercial world and took up a job in Kibera, where we would design public places such as toilets, kiosks, and playgrounds.
During the construction work, we would train and employ people from the community, and even after our work was done, these people would go on to acquire work elsewhere.
We launched a training programme with the organisation I was working for, with the aim to recruit equal part men and women. However, I soon realised women and girls were reluctant to take part as they regarded the building as men’s work, which was very frustrating for me.
After three years, I resigned from my intention to go back to the commercial world. It is at this time that my co-founder, James Mitchel, approached me as he had heard of the work I was doing.
He had been involved in women training through a programme called Buildher at Buildx, our commercial sister company. He, however, wanted to create a lasting impact and had a strategy, which was strong, but lacking in all the things I had spent my time in Kibera learning that one needed to engage women in construction. I requested to change the plan and that is how we became co-founders.
We registered Buildher in October 2018 and started training in March 2019 at our centre located in Baba Dogo. Our training takes four months, with 70 per cent of the classwork being technical. The other 30 per cent is theory as well as holistic employability training. We also have four months of placement after completion.
The biggest success catalyst is the strategy on how to approach women. Society is culturally very dependent on unpaid labour from women as the primary caretakers in the family, therefore before you take them away for training, you have to bring the community as a whole into the fold, and get them to understand why it is important for these women to be empowered. We use NGOs and CBOs for this purpose, as well as mobilising women in informal settlements.
We have trained over 400 women so far, and currently have 330 women artisans actively engaged in the building and construction industry. Doing what kind of jobs?
Dn2 Property also engaged a graduate of the programme.
Harriet Mwangi – Painter and Decorator
I am 27 years, a mother, wife and proud construction worker. I hold a college certificate in Food and Beverage which I acquired in 2019.
I learnt about Buildher last year in August from an organisation called Compassion, an NGO that supported me while growing up as I am orphaned.
One of the biggest challenges for me as an artisan in construction is the mentality that people have towards women in this sector. Women in construction sites are only expected to sell food or fetch water.
For instance, during my placement with Buildher after completing my studies, I was working on a house in Ngong and the gate to the compound was open. There were some women passing by and I remember the stares and questioning glances they gave me. They could not understand why a woman donned in PPE was scaling a house doing construction work.
At another site where I was painting, the watchman at the gate denied me entry. He asked if I was there to sell food, and when I told him I was one of the painters, he would not believe me. He asked for my employer’s contact to confirm my identity, and even after this, had to follow me to the site to confirm that indeed I was doing the work I had told him I was there to do.
Such biases can be very disheartening and discouraging especially for someone new or looking to enter the industry. But my biggest joy is when I get to finish my work, and the client’s expectations are surpassed. That is very fulfilling.
We also had a chat with two women who have established businesses dealing in construction materials.
Patricia Muthoni, owner, Patini Glassmart
My interest in glass was sparked in 1994. My husband owned a glass business but also sold water pumps and paint, which I was in charge of. While working there, I became curious and pressed him to teach me how to cut glass, but he was adamant that it was a man's job.
At the time, we had two employees. I approached both of them, one was reluctant and sent me away, and the other one, Paul, was impressed by my will to learn and agreed to teach me behind my husband's back. He directed me to a shop where I got my first glass cutter.
Whenever my husband was away to get supplies, I would stay behind and learn. This went on until I was confident about my skills, and one day, I jokingly asked my husband to let me cut some glass. He just laughed but let me do it, expecting me to fail and finally stop bothering him. However, after I was done, he was very impressed with my workmanship and he started to actively engage me in the business.
Unfortunately, my husband passed away in 2008, and I took full charge of the business. It was not easy. At the beginning, I struggled to get the measurements right due to my limited education. I also struggled with getting new clients as people were reluctant to seek my services. They did not trust my skills in glass cutting and installation, just because I was female.
The other big challenge that I have faced is difficult clients who refuse to pay. One foreman robbed me of about Sh70, 000 in Karen where he had subcontracted me for a job. Despite it all, however, I have many things to be thankful for. I am a class six drop out but I was able to take my children through school, even after my husband died. I was able to buy land and build a home. I believed in myself and managed to stand against competition from my male colleagues.
Schola Musili, founder, Flair Paints
I always wanted to get into the construction industry, which is why I studied Construction Management. I was fortunate to get employed as a contractor even before I graduated with my degree from Jomo Kenyatta University in 2015. However, I was raising a special needs child who was barely a year old and required a lot of attention.
I would frequently miss work for hospital visits, which caused problems with my employer. Eventually, I decided to resign and move to self-employment as a contractor. While in the field, I realised that there was an opportunity in paint manufacturing. I conducted some research and was referred to a Mombasa-based chemical engineer to assist me. In 2018, he moved to Nairobi and we embarked on founding Flair Paints.
We started by giving out free samples, then transitioned to a profit-making enterprise. In the beginning, I struggled with starting capital, but a relative offered me manufacturing space for two years, which was a big boost. The other challenge was competition from established brands.
Juggling between motherhood and managing a budding business was quite a struggle, and exposed me to the bias that working women who are married or who have children have to contend with. A while back, the construction field was a boys’ club, but the mentality is quickly shifting. Victimisation has gone down and there is also a lot of support because we as women have proven to be a force.