How 1 woman broke the mold in Ongata Rongai’s male-dominated construction industry

Zidisha Microloan’s Alex Villec reports from Nairobi, Kenya. In this piece, he shares a wonderful story about an orphan, left with her two siblings, who defied expectations by becoming one of the only female business owners in Ongata Rongai’s construction industry.

“You can still dream”, Rose told me as I confessed my boyhood aspirations to become an architect. Our conversation about excavation and pouring concrete had turned to adversity and the nature of success, topics to which Rose Karanja is no stranger. Today, she operates a first-rate construction company bearing the mark of grit and expertise, although her well-entrenched reputation was anything but a guarantee.

When her mother passed away, the 21-year-old high school graduate deferred dreams of her own to put family first. Rose became the sole provider for her younger brother and sister, then 8 and 15, mindful that circumstances demanded a fresh start. The trio would find a new beginning in Ongata Rongai, a melting pot 20km south of Nairobi with encouraging business prospects.

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From the beginning, Rose was drawn to Rongai’s fledgling construction sector. She provided food and drinks for building crews around town, deftly developing a rapport among key industry players. Balancing professional ambitions with a steadfast commitment to her younger siblings proved difficult, but not impossible. Rose Kanjara’s formative years left her with a firm grasp on what it means to persist, to carry on when the going gets tough.

As she learned the ropes and soaked up technical jargon, building sites became her second home. From within the male-dominated profession, Rose patiently laid the groundwork vital to launching her own venture five years down the road. With time, she quietly gained a toehold as a low-profile sand and ballast supplier. Earning modest profit, Rose saved enough to hire a ten-man crew and make crucial capital investments to bid for contracts in earnest.

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Two years later, the financing fell through on her first large-scale project. Rose turned to Zidisha Microfinance’s international person-to-person microlending platform, where she managed to raise just over $350 in time to retain her workforce and salvage the job. As she elaborated on the experience, what troubled her most was the prospect of letting down a client. Underneath the dollars and cents, she insisted, success in the marketplace stems from trust and respect. Good businesses are built upon good relationships, a maxim she adheres to religiously.

Still, construction was uncharted territory dominated by stiff-necked men, reluctant to cede market share to the ambitious newcomer. Despite being well-connected, Rose raised eyebrows at every turn. Leading suppliers challenged her resolve and recommended more socially acceptable career paths. In the tussle for major contracts, competitors were forthright in their opposition. They appealed to the status quo while turning a blind eye to her indisputable credentials.

Nowadays, the landscape looks different. Her proven track record speaks for itself, disarming those who once resisted her headfirst foray into construction. Passing through town, burly men atop massive lorries wave and honk as they speed by. Heading toward a current build site, she points out previous projects alongside reliable supply outlets. At one point, we brush soldiers with a middle-aged man who greets us with courtesy and professionalism. “He’s a competitor,” she explains as we walk away, unable to conceal the faintest of smiles.

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Around a bend, six truckloads of large stone signal our arrival, where the workers pause to wave. Rose inspects the craftsmanship, walking me through the logic of each phase in detail. After a round of handshakes, she picks up a shovel to chip in while I explore the job site. Five years ago she served bread and coffee to crews just like this — now she’s the one in charge, commanding their sincere respect.

On the way back to town, we touched on her plans for the future. Once Rose obtains a civil engineering degree, she intends to scale her business and capture a wider clientele. A loyal network, buttressed by good faith and a second loan from Zidisha, is how she plans to get there. Rose Karanja is unafraid to fail, and at age 28, finds herself bound by nothing. She tirelessly chipped away at the conventional wisdom, opening windows when doors were closed.

From Rongai to Lagos, an emergent class of entrepreneurs is itching to write their own story. With even a modicum of hope, there’s a good chance it will look something like Rose’s.

To learn more about Rose’s story and her future plans, check out her Zidisha Microfinance Profile.

Alex Villec works with Zidisha Microfinance, the world’s first person-to-person microlending service to bypass local intermediaries and allow individuals worldwide to interact directly with individual microfinance borrowers in developing countries.