Kenya’s informal sector not only drives the economy, but it also provides livelihood to millions of families in the country. In this International Women’s Month, we celebrate the sterling performance and resilience of women who work in this sector.
Compiled by: Esther Kiragu, Henry Kahara and Esther Akello.
Many women would probably cringe at the thought of venturing into a male-dominated industry such as the construction industry. But Florence Warakira is quite at home. Born in Uganda but raised in Kenya, Florence lost her dad at a young age and watched her mother struggle to raise her and her siblings.
“Feeding us was a huge burden not to mention schooling. And it got worse for us when she died. I was only 13 years old,” she narrates the circumstances she grew up in.
Orphaned, Florence moved from one relative to another working as a domestic worker just to get by. “At times there would be no pay forthcoming but I soldiered on because at least I was guaranteed of a roof over my head and some food,” she says.
Without any education as she has never stepped into a classroom, Florence learnt Kiswahili and Luganda from conversations in the streets. She was all the same determined to make the best of her circumstances. And when she got married to George Warakira, a Kenyan who works in the construction industry, she was keen to learn his trade.
“Whenever my husband got a job at a construction site, I would tag along. He began assigning me simple tasks such as passing him a tool and so I got to know the name of the tool and what it was used for. With a keen interest, I learnt the trade within a short period of time,” she explains.
Today Florence earns a living in the construction industry but it has not been a walk in the park. She has to contend with curious stares from the public whenever they see her at construction sites climbing up the ladder as she could be working on the roof of a building, carving stones or even plastering buildings as many people dub this as a man’s job.
So does she feel any less of a woman? “No I don’t, I just choose to see this as a respectable job as any other. A lot of people think of construction work as backbreaking hence expect women who are in it to have quite the muscles, but I am petite and I still get the work done. I guess I wear my strength within and I am not afraid of the stares or talks behind my back. I believe that if you choose to care too much about what people say behind your back, you will never make any progress in life,” she says exuding much wisdom.
Florence says working in the construction industry has not only enabled her support her family by putting food on the table and educating her two children, but allowed her to do small scale farming at her rural home in Uganda.
“If something happened to my husband – God forbid it, I am confident that my children and I will not go hungry,” she says, adding that she believes while a man is the provider of the family, a woman ought to have her money as well, as this could come very handy especially on a rainy day.
Twenty-eight-year-old Emily Awino is a victim of circumstances, at its worst. Growing up in Seme, Kisumu County, she lost her mother when she was just 10 years old. Her father remarried but life under her stepmother proved to be hell. The then standard five pupil together with her four brothers opted to move to their grandmother’s house in search of a better life. However, life had other plans as within that same year, her grandmother died, forcing Emily to drop out of school.
Confounded about what to do, she did what she considered to be her best option at the time. At the tender age of 15, Emily agreed to cohabit with a man six years her senior, as his wife. Things were looking up as the couple lived together peacefully and after four years, conceived their first-born daughter Esther Achieng’. Four years later, they welcomed their second-born Christine Adhiambo. Shortly thereafter, trouble knocked on paradise’s door.
“My husband started coming home late, drunk and strung out on marijuana. Soon he stopped providing for us and any talk regarding the same would lead to a brawl,” says Emily.
The brawls escalated from mere aggression to verbal and physical abuse so much so that according to Emily, her neighbours stopped coming to her rescue saying the couple were wont to fight hence ‘normal’.
The last straw, however, came when one day Emily woke up in a hospital with no recollection of how she got there. “All I know is that we were caught up in one of our usual brawls. Thereafter, I was in hospital with 12 stitches on my scalp. I don’t remember exactly what I had been hit with. My neighbour rushed me to hospital. After that, I realised that I had to put my children first and for me to do that, I had to be alive. So I walked out of my nine-year marriage,” she narrates.
To survive, Emily started working as a casual labourer. “I started washing clothes, ironing or cleaning houses for my neighbours and anyone else who was interested. Luckily, the women I worked for were generous and would also give me flour, cooking oil, and clothes for my children. However, there were days when no work was forthcoming. Those days were hard,” she says.
When an opportunity opened up for Emily to work as a domestic worker in Nairobi, she grabbed it, leaving her children with her neighbour who was also a long-term friend. She sends money to her neighbour on a monthly basis to cater for her children’s upkeep.
“This work has been a blessing because I have assurance that my children have food to eat and they can go to school. I miss them because I don’t get to see them as often as I want but it is a price I’m willing to pay,” explains Emily.
According to Emily, while she does not mind being a domestic worker, she wishes to start a small business in the future. But even before she begins, she has a word of advice for other women.
“When looking for something your hands can do, remember that no work is too small or too dirty. Additionally, be respectful to your employer. You never know what tomorrow may bring. In 2016, I became so ill I had to be operated on and my employer footed the medical bill. No one in my family could afford to pay it. So do your work with pride and God will do the rest,” she concludes.
“When I dropped out of high school at the of age 16, I had no idea what the future held for me. Life looked grim and considering I was struggling with academics and my parents were struggling to pay my school fees and those of my siblings, I saw it wise to give my siblings a chance to pursue education while I tried my luck on other things,” says Rose Malonza as she starts off this interview.
Rose, a green grocer in Westlands, Nairobi, says that the move saw her look for a job as a domestic worker, which she did for 10 years. But the desire to have freedom and live her own life saw her abandon the job and venture into business.
Rose started by selling tea to construction workers in Westlands. Her business didn’t last long because construction workers would leave once the building was over and she would struggle to get another site.
“At that time, I was badly off financially and I needed money to settle my bills,” recalls the mother of three.
But Rose is not the kind to sit down and lament about her troubles. With help of a friend and with Ksh1,000 as capital, she secured a space for selling fruits in Westlands.
Today, her business has grown immensely. So much so that she has employed someone to help her run it. Rose, 35, notes that her business thrives because she injects passion, hard work and patience in it.
“I wake up at 5am so as to be at the market by 6am. I buy fruits and open my business at around 7:30am. Orders start trickling in at around 10am and peaks at around lunch time,” she says.
Most of her clients are drawn from offices around where the business is set up and passers-by who stop by for a quick snack. “Once you build a relationship and trust with your customers, they will look for you. In business, you need God’s favour and great customer care skills,” she says adding that she sells more than 50 bowls of fruit pudding daily, each going for Ksh100.
Rose urges women and young people who are the most affected by unemployment to stop being choosy when they are searching for employment. “I am working towards getting a permanent structure that will help me serve my clients in a good and decent environment,” she concludes.
Caroline Njeri Wanjiru is a tout working with the Super Metro Sacco, which plies the Nairobi – Kikuyu route among other routes. She is among the handful of women who work in this sector and the passion she has for her job is stirring. Carol, as she is referred to, ventured into this male-dominated job in 2014 after her efforts in small business bore no fruits.
“I used to work as a green grocer in Kinoo in Kiambu County but I wasn’t getting much from the business. I had a friend, a lady, who was working as a tout and according to her, the job was well paying,” says Carol.
With the testimonial from her friend, Carol got interested in the job and dropped her application letter at the Super Metro offices. She was called for an interview, which she passed. This marked her foray into the matatu industry. With zero experience, it is understandable that Carol would find the job taxing and challenging at the beginning.
“Some commuters are very cunning as they board a matatu and they don’t want to pay. Then there are those who want to pay less than the set amount,” says carol.
But it didn’t take long before she learnt how to deal with such cases. “I always request my customers to respect my job the same way they respect theirs; respect is key in this profession,” she insists.
Caroline notes that her job is very demanding as she is supposed to be ready by 5am and close at 8pm. But she isn’t complaining as it helps her to settle her bills, which include looking after her son and elderly mum.
Carol is looking forward to owning her fleet of buses and she gets encouragement from the many women who own matatus, yet they started as touts.
“There are many opportunities for women in this sector as many matatu owners prefer their matatus to be managed by women,” she notes.
Carol adds that a tout is equivalent to a manager as she manages the bus by making sure they have hit the set target on top of paying the driver and catering for other expenses. She urges ladies not to fear working in the informal sector since there are many opportunities.
She acknowledges that working as a tout is fulfilling, as rarely will one miss their salary as far as they are working. “I get around Ksh1,000 to 2,000 daily depending on how business was and that is enough for my upkeep,” she says enthusiastically.
Published March 2017