Unwelcome remarks fire Wanjiku's engine to spur construction business

Beautiful pictures of roofing shingles adorn the walls that make up the space occupied by Rexe Roofing Products Limited in Nairobi's Kilimani.

Lavish are the forest green, dual black, dual brown, aged redwood, riviera red and earth-tone cedar hued shingles that any home owner or property entrepreneur would love to have as their roofing material.

Irene Wanjiku, 35, is the face behind these products. She is a never-say-never woman who believes in the power of self-drive, positivity and versatility; the virtues that emboldened her to resign from her job at 26 years to start the company, now in its ninth year of operations.

Previously, she worked at a construction company and had risen from managing front office duties, to marketing and logistics manager, a position she opted out from, to become her own boss.

Identified gap

Having been in the industry for six years, Ms Wanjiku had identified a gap in supply of quality roofing materials.

Clients pestered her with inquiries of environment-friendly roofing products but she wouldn’t meet their needs for there were none to sell.

She did an online search on environmental friendly shingles, which led her to Canada. She reached out to manufacturers there, and got into an agreement of supplying the shingles.

The shingles are assembled in Belgium with raw materials imported from Canada. They are friendly to the environment as they are coated with naturally-mined granules as opposed to poisonous lead lining.

When Ms Wanjiku resigned to bridge this gap, her focus was on when she would start importing the shingles and not whether she would get clients.

In her mind, she pictured homes and commercial buildings with her roofing materials despite the market being dominated by other established brands.

This unflinching conviction gave her the energy and motivation to make repeated trips to construction sites in search for clients.

“Every day, I made sure I visited at least 15 construction sites in Nairobi and its environs,” she says.

“Sometimes, the men at the sites would make remarks like ‘why wear a dress to a construction site?’ while others would actually tell me to come back when I am properly dressed,” she says with triumphant chuckle.

Sexist remarks

The sexist remarks became the coal that fired her engine to become more aggressive in finding clients in the same places they did not want to see her.

“I was daring since I only had brochures and a piece of the shingle’s sample. It was a new company and some told me they only did business with established companies. I never got discouraged because failure was never an option to me,” she notes.

“Some people thought I was a con-woman since I would ask for a deposit beforehand, but I made sure I gave them the information they needed to prove my credibility,” she adds.

Almost a decade later, Ms Wanjiku is celebrating a 60 per cent commercial and 40 per cent private property clientele using either Rexe own manufactured, or her imported products.

She has transformed the company from a distributor of the roofing shingles, to a provider of construction services and manufacturer of construction materials, that now competes favourably with ‘giants ‘in the business.

Apart from selling the shingles, Rexe also trades in water proofing products. She has established a plant under the brand, producing nails, steel and water harvesting products.

She has 28 permanent employees and contracts at least 30 workers per month to serve in construction projects.

Her greatest success are the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Estate in Nanyuki, Cedar Mall (Nanyuki) and The Hub Karen (Nairobi) where her company supplied the roofing materials.

Male counterparts

Her challenge remains how to absorb more women into her business. She says the women she has employed give up midway due to stigma from male counterparts.

“I have had women supervisors leave because the men they supervise are more interested on why they are in the construction sites, than taking their instructions,” she notes.

“I keep talking to men to change their attitudes towards women. Without their support, empowering women to take up jobs in this industry would be a waste of time.”

The company was in 2015, the overall winner of Keroche Foundation's Entrepreneur Awards, having proven excellence in being a steadfast young female entrepreneur.

In 2014, Rexe was 1st runners up in Environment Sustainability Award category under the Construction Excellence Award granted by Top Rank Limited.

The awards recognise companies that have demonstrated sterling performance in local construction industry.

A major challenge to achieving her dream of seeing all roofs in Kenya covered with her roofing products, is the presence of cheap imported products.

Underprivileged Kenyans

She says the poor quality products risk the sustainability of her company.

Her appeal to the government is to enforce austere regulations to protect local manufacturers who are offering young and underprivileged Kenyans jobs.

Ms Wanjiku looks up to phenomenal entrepreneurs including Tabitha Karanja the founder and CEO of Keroche Breweries, the first large brewery owned by a non-multinational company in Kenya.

Flora Mutahi, the chairperson of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and founder of Melvin Marsh International Limited, manufacturers of Melvin's Tea also inspires her.

Going forward, the raring businesswoman wants to actualise the Toyota slogan: The roof in front you is a Rexe roof.

“I haven’t made it! Life and business is a continuous journey of self-improvement and overcoming challenges every day, and until the gap between the rich and the poor is eradicated, we can’t afford to rest or think we have made it,” she concludes.