Construction is not your everyday piece of cake. It is a field that many consider dirty and tiring.
Moreover, construction may seem like an odd job choice for women… But not for Eunice Muhuri, Zenah Ali Abdala and Christine Namunyak.
These three women are among a growing number who have taken the construction bull by the horns.
They have broken the glass ceiling and established their own successful construction companies that are now raking in tender after another.
In November last year, Eunice, Zenah and Namunyak were among those honoured at the Woman Contractor of the Year awards held at the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi.
Eunice and Zenah were the first and second runners-up while Namunyak bagged the Best Road Works Contractor award.
How have they made it in a male-dominated field like construction, you may ask?
Well, Saturday Magazine sat down with them and today, we bring you their inspiring stories.
“Although I may have wished to be the top woman contractor in the country, taking home the first runners-up position in last year’s Woman Contractor of the Year awards was a crowning moment for me.
And while I may bask in the glory of my victory thus far, it has not been an easy journey. Nonetheless, I have no regrets.
“From an early age I was fascinated by technical things and well developed structures and tall, storeyed buildings.
I dreamed of constructing an architectural masterpiece. After my A-levels at Alliance Girls High School, I joined the University of Nairobi where I studied civil engineering. After graduation, I was employed as a project manager at Naciti Engineers Limited.
“After working for seven years, I felt confident enough to venture out on my own.
I had gained enough experience and learned the ropes. I was overwhelmed by the conviction that my time had arrived. After admiring other contractors’ works, I’d finally have my own space to set up my own masterpieces.
“This moment came in early 2000, when I quit my job and started Eunitech Contractors Limited.
While it was a great thrill to own my own company and be my own boss, I quickly found the going very rough. Clients were hard to come by.
Many of the property developers offering construction tenders that I approached were reluctant to offer me contracts simply because I was a woman.
Back then, it was a common social perception that women (couldn’t do certain jobs), and construction ranked high in this pile. In the same vein, getting a loan from the bank was next to impossible. Even if you presented a contract, no lender would offer you an overdraft regardless of how loyal a customer you were.
“Nevertheless, I stuck to my guns. Whenever I won a contract, I’d immediately engage in the tedious task of convincing the client to pay a deposit in order to get me going.
Consequently, many clients shied away. After eight years of struggle, in 2008, lady luck finally smiled on me.
“I had just secured a Sh200 million contract to construct Apple Wood Park which is situated along Wood Avenue in Nairobi and was wondering where I’d get some capital to lay the groundwork.
Luckily, one of my friends introduced me to Vision Capital, a newly-founded micro-finance lender. Although I didn’t have any tangible security, the financier agreed to lend me Sh3 million.
This was the first loan I’d ever applied for and successfully received. However, the capital could only yield minor groundworks.
Fortunately, my client agreed to meet me halfway and extended a Sh6 million deposit. Interestingly, he pledged to work hand in hand with me until I completed the project.
“From that point on, I have not looked back. I changed banks and moved to a lender who has proven willing to make funds available whenever I need to execute a financially demanding project.
Currently, I have successfully constructed seven big projects which include Jitegemee Flats, Emperor Centre and Apple Park.
Nonetheless, my company is rated as a Class Three contractor and can only handle projects with a maximum worth of Sh300 million.
I am aiming to improve this standardisation by climbing to Class One over the next five years. I want to start handling construction projects worth billions.
I want to venture into road construction and have already begun pitching for tenders. It may seem like a hard nut to crack, but from my experience, I believe nothing is impossible for a smart entrepreneur.
“I have learned that my ambitions and dreams shouldn’t be pulled down simply because of a social perception or because some people out there aren’t convinced that I can make it.
I have learned to learn from my mistakes, to stand up when I fall, and tread carefully while building lasting and beneficial business relationships. I have learned the virtue of a good working relationship with my bank, from which I’ve gained a stable financial umbrella for any rainy day!”
WHERE THE JOURNEY BEGAN
“I began my journey to becoming a contractor at the Ministry of Health where I was working as a clerical officer.
Although I was a casual civil servant, I was fortunate to be included in the first group that got trained during a three-year-course in medical engineering in 1987.
In 1990, immediately after the training, I was seconded to DANIDA where I was charged with the maintenance and repair of medical cold rooms where human vaccines are stored, in Nyeri, Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu. I also began to install solar refrigerators in Taita Taveta, Lamu and Tana River. My desire to be a self-employed contractor germinated from these experiences and blossomed steadily.
Oftentimes, I wondered how it would feel executing my own company’s construction duties. By 2010 my will to start my own construction firm was ripe enough and I decided to take the plunge.
I started Zueda Zee Enterprises Limited.
“Just like any other entrepreneur, starting up was not a stroll in the park. I had gotten used to the comfort of a monthly salary.
Now, though, I had to rely on my own new venture to foot my bills, yet all I had was the company registration certificate.
Getting the start-up capital was a big challenge. I had to join merry-go-rounds and start saving monthly.
Things were so rough that sometimes I wondered if I’d ever break through. But I consoled myself that the hurdles I was facing were just teething problems. Little did I know that I was yet to confront my biggest challenge yet!
“My biggest challenge could have easily turned out to be my runaway success.
I had just been awarded a contract to construct a vented drift in Kilifi County in 2011. Full of enthusiasm at the growth prospects the contract presented, I mobilised construction equipment, and bought and transported ballast, hardcore and river sand to the site.
As I was about to start excavation works, the local community descended on the site with placards and twigs.
They demanded that I stop the construction immediately. Apparently, they wanted a bridge constructed at the site instead of a vented drift.
Despite our efforts to reconcile the community with the advantages the new project presented, they remained adamantly against it. Eventually, the government resolved to do away with the project altogether.
Although I’d spent Sh1.2 million on the equipment and materials, I was only paid Sh600, 000 as per the measured works.
The contract was worth Sh2.9 million and I had taken an overdraft of Sh1.5 million from my bank. It was a big blow paying the overdraft, especially because it took a whole year to receive the Sh600,000 payment.
“This did not injure my ambitions, though. I picked myself up and began to look for more contracts.
Over the past four years, I have managed to construct school buildings, a three-storey office block, laboratories, asphalt concrete projects and road maintenance at the coast. Nonetheless, these milestones are only the small print in my company’s book of achievements. The best is yet to come.
“Unlike earlier on when the construction industry was reserved for a particular group of contractors, the formation of groups like Kenya Rural Roads Authority (KeRRA) and Kenya National Highways Authority has really opened opportunities up to everyone. It is much easier for women to get a piece of the construction tender pie, especially now that we have the under the 30 per cent public procurement for women and youths policy.”
“There is nothing that a woman cannot achieve if they really put their mind to it! Before I started Namunyak General Contractors Limited six years ago, I owned a small second-hand clothes kiosk in Narok town.
However, it refused to pick up as many people preferred to buy new clothes.
In addition, the market was saturated. After a few months of losses, I folded the struggling business and opened a small retail kiosk. From onset, though, my die seemed cast. My customers began to take things on credit. My credit book grew daily with many of my debtors quickly turning into defaulters.
Three months into the business, I ran out of operating capital and closed shop.
“I did not give up; in 2006, I began selling charcoal on retail and wholesale basis.
I hoped this was a sustainable enterprise since there was a lot of demand and little supply.
However, before I could count my first profits, I ran into trouble with the law. I couldn’t get a permit. Sourcing and transporting charcoal became a huge gamble since I didn’t have a clear operating permit.
To avoid falling into trouble with the law, I stopped the business and decided to contest for the Narok Town Ward councillor seat in the 2007 general elections.
Once again, my dream was shattered. I emerged a distant third with a dismal 1,350 votes.
“Hoping to recover the costs of the elections, I decided to delve back into business. Having failed three times, I was keen to choose the right venture.
After deep thought and consultations, I decided to register a construction company. However, I had no knowledge of how to carry out constructions, the fundamentals that are involved in construction of roads, or how to run the construction machinery. But I was determined to succeed.
I enrolled for a six-month course on road construction and machinery at Kisii Training School where I learned how to operate a caterpillar, an excavator and the metrics involved in construction and repair of roads and dams.
After graduating in mid-2008, I took a loan of Sh5 million and started Namunyak General Contractors.
“In the first few months, I was turned away from construction contracts. I feared that like my previous businesses, this one would fail too.
But a year later, in 2009, I got my first Sh1.9 million contract to construct a dam. It was the break I’d been waiting for.
I spread my tentacles to Eldoret and Kericho where I constructed minor roads and dams. It was not until 2012 that I scooped my biggest contract so far from KeRRA. It was for the construction of the Ngorengore–Mulot–Sogoo road in Narok. Last year, I also bagged my second biggest contract to construct roads within Narok County from the Narok County government.
This year, I am looking forward to striking more deals. Granted, being a woman contractor in a community considered rigid towards women empowerment is challenging.
“It is disheartening when some people lack faith that I can adequately perform because I am a woman. But I have learned to fight and earn and earn my place, regardless of such social stereotypes.
If there’s a construction tender on the table, I will come out and fight for it just as any other man will. If I’d agreed