Entrepreneurs nurturing STEM-skilled women

Most girls struggle to to catch up with boys in science subjects in secondary schools. Kenyan women entrepreneurs are investing in gender responsive initiatives to boost employability of girls in STEM.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In the wake of the government encouraging girls to enroll for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, successful Kenyan women entrepreneurs are investing in gender responsive initiatives to boost their employability.
The women have introduced apprenticeship and mentorship programs aimed at bridging their skills gap and removing socio-cultural barriers preventing them from accessing and retaining STEM-related jobs.
Since 2014, National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation has collaborated with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and University of Nairobi in holding annual scientific camps of excellence for mentoring girls in STEM.
In these camps, high school girls from schools around the country are not only exposed to STEM experts, but also visit industries where those skills are relevant.
STEM teachers are also trained on gender-responsive teaching,
Nevertheless, the number of girls taking up these courses are still low.


According to the 2019/2020 placement results by the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS), of the 57,687 students who enrolled for STEM courses in the year, only 37 per cent were female.
But there is hope for STEM female graduates as Mary Ngechu and Irene Wanjiku, outstanding manufacturers with a heart to nurture women, are shaping the job market landscape for women to go against the grain and hold jobs socially presumed to be masculine.
Ms Ngechu is the managing director of Line Plast Group, constituted of Plast Packaging which has been in existence for six years and 15-year-old Line Art Solutions Limited.
Plast Packaging Company manufactures plastic bottles used in packaging food and beverages, cosmetics, agro-veterinary and pharmaceutical products.
While Line Art offers product labelling services. She has also ventured into manufacturing cosmetics.
Her companies require expertise anchored on STEM education.
The manpower she needs to run her companies include engineers, technologists and technicians.
She says representation of female and male in her workforce is balanced.


She is a multiple award winner- she won three awards between 2018 and 2019. The awards she has earned out of her engendered efforts to promote inclusive growth and development.
Outstandingly, in 2017, she was recognised as the UN in Kenya Person of the Year (runners up) for her role in “Changing Lives through Promoting Skills, Decent Jobs and Enterprises in the Manufacturing Industry.”
Ms Ngechu runs the business with her husband Paul Ngechu, who is the chairperson of the Board of Directors
She runs an in-house apprenticeship program in partnership with National Industrial Training Authority, a scheme that sharpens the skills of both female and male employees.
This ensures, she always has a pool of manpower with up-to-date skills on manufacturing. And most importantly, they can work together in harmony in total disregard of their gender.
“Let our girls know that they can do it. There is nothing like a woman cannot run a machine because that's supposed to be a man's job. I totally discourage that attitude,” says Ms Ngechu during an interview in her office at Industrial Area, Nairobi.
Budding manufacturers, STEM students and incubated innovators from different institutions visit her plant to imbibe on her experience.
“Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) started the Women in Manufacturing (WiM) program to assist women manufacturers address their challenges and grow and as we are growing we will be pulling up other women. So I encourage girls to take up STEM courses,” says the entrepreneur who is a member of KAM.


STEM education is anchored in Vision 2030 as a driver to building a sustainable Kenyan economy.
This aligns with the Big Four Agenda in which manufacturing is factored as not just a means to growing the economy but creating jobs for the youth and jobless graduates.
Ms Wanjiku,is the founder and CEO of Rexe Roofing Products Limited which sells roofing products, manufactures construction materials and provides construction services.
Just like Lineplast Group, for Ms Wanjiku to run her business, she requires staff skills anchored on STEM courses.
But she does not shy away from hiring less experienced women. Instead, she offers them in-house training to prepare them to deliver well.
On a monthly basis, she contracts at least 30 workers assigning them roles in construction projects.
She takes on women technicians and assigns some supervisory roles, however, the challenge is that they quit before expiry of their contracts due to dispiriting male comments.
To eliminate the social barrier of stereotypes constructed by patriarchal attitudes, Ms Wanjiku runs regular mentorship sessions with her employees, to change the perception of the male.
At the same time, encourage the female to remain resilient and understand that they are well-capable to do the ‘men jobs.’
“I keep on talking to men to change their attitudes towards women. Without their support, empowering women to take up jobs in the construction industry would be a waste of time,” she says.
Studies show that women entrepreneurs are more likely than men to employ more women.


Thus the need to support growth and expansion of women-led businesses to create more job opportunities for women
Findings from 2019 Promoting SME Competitiveness in Kenya Targeted Solutions for Inclusive Growth survey in which 893 businesses were assessed, revealed that, 45 per cent of employees in women-led businesses were female against 24 per cent in male-led firms.
The survey was done by The International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.
Further, a 2017 Graça Machel Trust study questioned 398 female entrepreneurs in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda on gender composition of their human resource and found out that 55 of the female entrepreneurs have more than half of their staff as females.
“Therefore empowering women-owned or -led businesses can drive more diversity in the workforce,” concludes the Survey to Explore Growth Barriers Faced by Female Entrepreneurs in East Africa.
“This can ultimately lead to more balanced human resource practices that cater towards removing the obstacles towards female participation in the economy, as more women employ and inspire other women,” it adds.