Wangeci Kariuki shares her devotion for community-based work, her passion for women’s health issues, and why she believes life’s experiences are a preparation for greater things to come with ESTHER KIRAGU.
Married and a mother to two girls – four and two years respectively, Wangeci Kariuki is not your everyday chief executive officer (CEO). She is very bubbly, easy-going and has a heart of gold. The energetic CEO of Rukiya Dash Company loves people so much that she has spent her life cultivating a devoted agenda of impacting others positively. When I refer to her as a CEO, she chuckles. “I think that is a big title for high flying individuals running enormous businesses, mine is a small venture,” she says modestly.
Wangeci grew up and schooled in both Nairobi and Nyeri where her family had homes. “I am blessed to come from a middle class family where I had a good upbringing and decent education. I really didn’t lack much in life, ” she says.
Raised by generous parents and later getting married to a man with a big heart, she naturally loved people and was moved by the sight of anyone suffering. From an early age Wangeci knew that she was cut out for community work since she always felt the need to help, even when she didn’t have much to offer.
She attended the Catholic University of East Africa where she studied for a Bachelors of Arts degree in Social sciences. During school holidays she did several voluntary jobs, one which was at the Aga Khan Hospital. It was while volunteering there that she identified her passion for health issues and love for the vulnerable members of the community.
EXPERIENCE AT HUMANITARIAN JOBS…
After graduating, she worked at Kibera Integrated Community Self Help Programme (KICOSHEP), an organisation that helps create HIV and AIDS, as well as health related issues, awareness to help prevent the spread of the disease. “I met people suffering from HIV and AIDS and saw their pain and agony,” says Wangeci. Her work entailed giving home-based care services to the HIV and AIDS patients and working with women and youth in the sprawling Kibera slums, a difficult job, but one that gave her a different perspective of life. She came to appreciate that she was blessed and had a mandate to make a positive impact on others.
The job gave her exposure and paved the way for her move to Action Aid International Kenya, an international anti-poverty agency that works closely with poor communities to alleviate poverty. Wangeci worked with poor communities to help improve their living standards. “I realised how much poverty glared on people’s faces, confirming to me that no matter how little effort I made it would have a big impact, even if on just one person,” says Wangeci. Three years later, Wangeci made another move to KENWA (Kenya Network of Women with Aids), a grassroots community-based organisation created, and run by women living with HIV and AIDS, to fight stigma and address misconceptions about the disease. She worked as a programme manager.
ENCOUNTERING HUMAN SUFFERING…
“Nothing prepared me for what I encountered at KENWA. Things were quite challenging and in the initial months I contemplated quitting severally. I often cried out in my heart and felt my input wasn’t enough to alleviate human suffering. I witnessed people die of HIV and AIDS-related complications, which was traumatising for me. An unforgettable case I encountered was one of a teenage girl from Korogocho who had been raped three times. The girl had conceived from the second rape and contracted an STI from the third rape,” explains an emotional Wangeci.
She was saddened by how an individual could deliberately contribute to the suffering of another. To Wangeci, the greatest tragedy was when on conversing with the girl, she realised that rape was such a common occurrence in the slums at the time, so much that the girl didn’t even think there was anything unique about her case.
“It made me feel helpless and wonder how much impact the humanitarian sector could have on such a rotten society. I resolved that even if I touched only one life, I would be satisfied,” says Wangeci on her determination to succeed despite the odds.
Wangeci feels it would have been easier to throw in the towel and probably go work in a corporate job but chose to stay on, feeling challenged to do her bit. Her three years experience at KENWA led her to Family Health International (FHI), an American NGO based in Kenya, as a programmes manager based in Nakuru and continued working with communities.
Here, she came up with community-based programmes, monitored the programmes, as well as allocated grants to fund community based health projects working with USAID funding. Her greatest sense of satisfaction came from interacting with communities, designing programmes for them, as well as seeking their input on the kind of programmes that worked best for them.
A BUSINESS IDEA IS PLANTED…
FHI was her last place of employment before venturing into her own business. Wangeci says that she didn’t leave FHI with the thought of pursuing a business. “My husband worked and lived in Nairobi and since I worked in Nakuru, I had to constantly travel back and forth, which was strenuous. Being pregnant at the time with my second child, I knew that the constant travel would have a strain on me. I also wanted my children to grow up in an environment where both parents were present and therefore quitting my job and relocating to Nairobi felt like the right move,” explains Wangeci.
While pregnant, her doctor kept asking her if she was doing Kegel exercises. “I found the exercises difficult and so opted not to do them,” shares Wangeci. Kegels are pelvic floor exercise aimed at restoring and increasing the tone of the pelvic floor muscles by regular clenching and unclenching of them. This helps to strengthen the pelvic floor and vaginal wall. Wangeci’s doctor emphasised the importance of these exercises in easing the delivery process. Realising their importance, she sought to find out if there was an easier way of doing the exercises. She came across some manual devices on the Internet that are used to do the Kegel exercises but since she didn’t love exercising, she hoped to find an electronic device hence furthered her Internet search.
“At last, I came across a medical device recommended for strengthening pelvic floor muscles, checked around in local pharmacies for its availability but to my dismay no one seemed to have the slightest idea about it. The device was from the UK, and since I have a sister who lives there,I asked her to try get one for me, which she did. The device’s manual stated that it should be used six weeks after delivery,” explains Wangeci. After the six-week period she began using the device and liked the results, especially since her body healed quickly.
She also realised that some of the problems she had encountered during her first delivery, such as urge incontinence, were not present this time round. Urge incontinence is a condition where the need to relieve oneself gets so strong that one may soil themselves if they don’t get to a toilet quickly. This means that one has no control over their bladder, a condition quite common among women who have given birth.
“Rarely does one think of it as a condition and most women accept it as a small price to pay for giving birth. I knew the Kegel exercises had worked for me since I was now doing them in a more purposeful way and therefore sought to help other women as well,” says Wangeci.
She traced the manufacturer of the device in the UK, ordered for a number of them, registered her company and stocked the devices. “It was amazing how smooth things went. I believe God dropped this opportunity for me, since normally the distributorship of any item of trade involves several conditions. In my case it was amazing that I was simply told to have the devices not only for Kenya but also for five other countries – Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Today we are doing business in these five countries,” states Wangeci proudly.
Wangeci began the sale of the devices by talking and selling to her friends but in the process realised that there was very little information and appreciation for pelvic floor health. She therefore began by first educating women to make them aware that Kegel exercises were not just for the tightening/toning of the vaginal muscles, but also for strengthening the pelvic floor where the biggest problem lay.
“For me, this business is not just about selling the device but having an impact on women’s sexual health. Considering my experience in community service, I saw this as an opportunity to continue with the work of educating and empowering people on health issues, in this case pelvic floor health. Women’s sexual health is often a taboo subject and most women rarely talk about their private areas and when there is a problem they suffer in silence,” explains Wangeci.
She adds: “In some cases marriages end up breaking because women are too afraid to speak and ask for help in a problem that affects their sex lives, and they may eventually be abandoned by their husbands.”
She explains that though the device is costly, it is not a luxury item but a necessary medical device. She says that if a woman has a loose vagina, both she and her husband will have problems with sex. She also warns that if a woman has a loose pelvic floor she will definitely land in a doctor’s office, if not on an operating table.
“Pelvic floor health is much more serious than people think,” says Wangeci. Wangeci has partnered with some doctors, gynaecologists and pharmacists in dissemination of pelvic floor health information, as well as stocking of the devices in hospitals and pharmacies. She also uses women’s chamas, and partners with popular sex therapist Gertrude Mungai, who has many forums where she speaks to women. In addition, she provides information on pamphlets, her website, and Facebook page to create awareness.
“I have barely scratched the surface and therefore seek to educate more women not only in urban but also in rural areas. For me information is key and I want to do this business right, through informing people first,” explains Wangeci. She says that partnerships with banks, to give loans to women who would like to buy the device but may not have the money, are on going. Wangeci admits that she would also like to expand her business by partnering with organisations and individuals who are not necessarily in need of commercial gain but concerned about promoting women’s health through information.
My husband, Peter Kariuki, is my greatest cheerleader. He encourages, supports and has given me an opportunity to explore my potential. My children are a source of joy. “When I have a rough day, I look forward to spending time with my family who are my strength,” concludes Wangeci.