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With a look of intense focus, 22-year-old Sharon Okiya scoops a dollop of plaster onto her scraper and applies it smoothly over the rough cement wall of an unfinished apartment building outside Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. She’s been working here for several weeks, the latest in a series of construction jobs that now provide her with the kind of steady income that is unattainable to many Kenyan women. 

She enjoys the physical nature of the work and draws satisfaction from knowing that her interior finishes will one day be admired by the building’s future occupants. The work has also allowed her to save. She’s made some small investments and recently bought a cow for her parents in the rural village where she grew up. 

Okiya is a 2022 graduate from Buildher, a non-profit social enterprise that uses an innovative, holistic approach to help get more women into Kenya’s booming but overwhelmingly male-dominated construction industry. 

Throughout East Africa, gender segregation in work leaves most women with low-paying jobs and a higher share of the unpaid care work required in the home. Getting more women into lucrative but traditionally male-dominated industries could have a major impact not only on their lives, but also on their families, communities and society. Women still account for just 3% of the workforce in Kenya’s construction industry, which was worth CAD6.9 billion in 2019. The obstacles to addressing the imbalance are considerable.

Dalberg Research in Kenya has teamed up with Buildher to identify valuable lessons from the innovative training model that could help drive women’s empowerment in construction and other sectors throughout the region. The research is supported by the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women – East Africa initiative, which seeks to combat gender inequality in the world of work. 

“We partnered with Buildher primarily because they do some fantastic work in equipping young women to enter, succeed and grow within the construction sector,” said Murugi Kagotho, research manager at Dalberg. “We want to assess its effectiveness and to see what successful aspects of the Buildher training model we can identify and scale up.”

Okiya, who has faced many of the challenges of being a woman in Kenya’s construction industry, says her time at Buildher prepared her both technically and mentally for the rigours of the job and to deal with the doubts of her employers.  

“Buildher made me feel like I’m a strong lady,” she says. “The supervisors don’t accept women easily here, but you just have to show them what you can do.” 

A complete training program for women construction workers

A few miles from Okiya’s construction site, a new cohort of Buildher women busy themselves in everything from carpentry training to wellness classes. A group of students delves into the topic of self-awareness during a soft-skills session in a downstairs classroom. Dance music blares through the ceiling from a physical fitness class in progress on the floor above.

Over the beat of the music, the soft-skills teacher asks the women what positive adjectives they would use to describe themselves. They begin listing words in their exercise books. “I am bold,” writes one. “I am determined,” writes another. 

Buildher’s approach uses everything from yoga classes to money-management sessions to prepare women technically, physically and emotionally for the challenges they’ll face. But its courses were not always this diverse. Instead, the program has adapted in response to the feedback it has received from graduates and employers alike. 

When employers reported back that the early Buildher graduates lacked stamina, the academy introduced physical fitness classes. When it emerged that the women’s transitions into work often caused friction with their spouses or parents, and that this was causing some to quit, Buildher increased their outreach efforts in the community to persuade families of the benefits of women joining the workforce. And when a combination of harassment at work and low self-esteem was impacting the women’s ability to obtain and keep jobs, Buildher introduced mental health coaching and “Wellness Wednesdays.” 

A woman builder in a hardhat applies plaster to a wall.
IDRC/Tommy Trenchard
Grace Maina graduated in 2021 from Buildher, a social enterprise that equips Kenyan women with technical construction skills and the ability to overcome workplace challenges.

Building confidence to face opposition and adversity

Buildher’s lead mental health officer, Taruri Gatere, believes that many women in male-dominated industries, particularly those from marginalized or under-resourced communities, are hampered by a lack of self-confidence that makes it harder for them to find and hold down jobs.

“There’s a lot of harassment and stereotyping [in the workplace] and if they’re not equipped with the skills to deal with that it can be very detrimental to their careers,” says Gatere.

As Rahab Kiarie, 33, who graduated from Buildher in 2021 explains, “At first people underestimated us, but now they respect us.” In a cramped series of corrugated zinc buildings in the informal settlement of Kariobangi North, she and five other Buildher graduates ranging in age from mid-20s to early 50s are putting their carpentry skills to use making coffins. They’re the first women ever to work for their company and the first female coffin makers anyone in the area can recall.

“Buildher taught me how to work with wood. But it also taught me how to face my stress, how to manage my anger, how to know myself,” Kiarie says.

When she has enough capital saved up, she plans to open her own coffin business. “Whether it’s raining or the sun’s shining, people will always need caskets,” she adds. 

Until she heard from a friend about Buildher, 52-year-old Jane Kiiyo lived a precarious existence as a door-to-door newspaper salesperson and had never considered looking for a job in woodwork or construction. “I thought it was man’s work,” she confides.

Two years later, she is earning between 1,200 and 1,600 Kenyan shillings (CAD8.40 and 11.20) a day making coffins, saving money and educating her grandchildren. She’s even managed to buy a TV and a gas cooker for the family home. 

Testing the model using scientific methods

The research team is using scientific methods to understand how effective the Buildher model is and what strategies work best to address the barriers at home, in the workplace and in the job market that prevent women from participating effectively in the sector. The team is comparing survey results from Buildher students with results from men and women students training for similar professions in other Nairobi institutions. Interviews and small group discussions are shedding light on the behavioral and attitudinal motivations specific to Buildher graduates, employers, male colleagues and community members. 

In the coming months, Dalberg will share its results with industry stakeholders, such as employers, industry associations, the National Construction Authority and relevant government ministries.

The research team hopes that some of the insights they gain from studying Buildher’s work could be applied to any number of other industries in which women remain underrepresented. Even among the program’s graduates, many have already found that their training has helped them find work outside of construction. 

Remote video URL

Watch a video with Buildher participants and GrOW East Africa partners from research organizations and governments in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda working to enhance women’s employment opportunities through skills building and work readiness. 

Early findings are already shaping policy

Already, the findings from the early stages of the research are beginning to shape policy. They have highlighted the lack of gender-specific facilities and equipment on construction site (from women’s toilets to the right-sized overalls), the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace and women’s lack of access to training.

In 2023, both Dalberg and Buildher are engaging in the development of a new Kenyan building code to ensure it takes gender into account. Among the issues they are raising are the need to impose a minimum percentage of women to be hired on construction projects, the obligation for employers to provide facilities and equipment suitable to women, and the need to build systems that enable women to safely report incidences of sexual harassment. 

Buildher’s CEO, Tatu Gatere, believes the culture around women in construction is finally beginning to change. Her goal is to raise the percentage of women in Kenya’s construction industry from 3% to 10% over the next decade. 

In December 2022, Kenyan President William Ruto announced to a crowd at the ground-breaking ceremony for a new social housing project, “The construction industry has for too long been colonized by men, but it has to change, starting with this project … the contractor has been asked to give opportunities to women who are artisans, electricians and plumbers so that we begin to see that what men can do, women can do better.” 

Meanwhile every Buildher graduate who successfully enters the industry acts as an unofficial ambassador for women in male-dominated sectors, chipping away at misconceptions about their ability to perform the work and becoming role models for other women. 

“It’s on us to raise awareness now,” says Caroline Jonathan, a 30-year-old Buildher trainee. “It’s our duty. Right now my niece knows I’m training to be a carpenter and she’s so excited. She’s going to grow up knowing that she can do anything she wants to. If it’s something you’re passionate about, you just have to do it.” 

Top image: IDRC/Tommy Trenchard