‘Housewife economy’: How women’s march into the workplace has created a billion-shilling industry

Women have left behind multi-billion-shilling business opportunities as they exit their homes for offices and factories.

Household chores that were traditionally done by stay-at-home moms – who have long gone without pay for the work they do – have now turned into a source of income for thousands.

This growing trend has been eye-opening for economists who’d taken issue with the use of the gross domestic product (GDP) as a means of measuring a country’s wealth. This measure, they say, doesn’t take account the value of the work done by housewives.

Women who stay home to raise their children, and in the process clean the house, do the laundry and cook every day, get no cash for their efforts. But, as economic hardships make a two-income households all but mandatory, more and more women are having to leave their homes to take up jobs.

As for the chores that still need to get done? Well, businesses have sprouted to fill the gap, and in doing so, have provided an indication of the monetary value of stay-at-home mothers’ work.

But it’s not just households with two working parents that have procured the services of these businesses – so have young, unmarried people looking to outsource the drudgery of chores.

“I believe in creating employment. Why should I wash my clothes and deny someone else the chance to earn Sh500 – money I’d probably waste on drinks or fast food?” says Joyce Wacera, 25.

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“My Mama Nguo’s rates are reasonable, so I can afford her services once a week. If I don’t have the Sh500, then I’ll do my own washing. But I’m not a fan of doing laundry, so I try as much as possible to set aside Sh2,000 a month for my house.”

Lucy is one of the many women who wash and clean houses in Nairobi estates.

“I charge a minimum of Sh700 a day because most of my clients are not from around my home area. Business is not bad – I am busy from Monday to Saturday, and sometimes people will call me on Sundays when they have guests. I charge Sh1,000 for Sundays,” she says.

Cleaning services

For her, the ‘housewife economy’ has been a godsend.

“I’m able to raise my child and still earn a decent income. I’m a single mother and my daughter is 10. I didn’t have anyone to leave her with when she was younger, so that’s why I ended up looking around for odd jobs.”

Lucy’s neighbour got her in touch with a client in Nairobi’s South B in 2013 who was looking for a ‘daybug’ – someone who’d come for the day to help a live-in househelp wash clothes and clean the house.

“This South B client then got me in touch with her friends who were also looking for cleaning services, and now all my days are occupied.”

Lucy has also created her own brand of job opportunities in her neighbourhood of Kawangware.

She leaves her daughter with a neighbour between 3 pm, which is when her daughter gets out of school, and 7 pm, which is when she gets home. For this ‘daycare’, she pays a daily fee of Sh50.

Over the weekends, Lucy’s daughter goes to play with her classmates at yet another neighbour’s house. Lucy leaves her with Sh70 to cater for meals.

And as the attraction of the housewife economy grows, new entrants have sought to make it easier for households to reach people like Lucy by leveraging on technology. There are now apps that enable you to procure cleaning, cooking or daycare services from your phone.

The march into work to afford the costs of living has thrown open a door of opportunity for entrepreneurs, and they’re grabbing at the chance to make money from chores.

longer working days, or end up having to battle traffic for longer than they used to.

Many parents are also sympathetic to the duties househelps have to complete in a day – duties that would be difficult to do with a small child running underfoot. And then there are those parents who have a small child but don’t want – or can’t afford – to hire a househelp. Their only recourse is daycare.

Salome Njoki, 36, has made use of daycare facilities since her son was 11 months old until he was about two-and-a-half, which is when he joined a playschool. He’s now four.

“I used to have issues with househelps. They’d complain about my son being too much of handful when he was learning to walk and he’d take any and all opportunities to move,” she says, adding that she’d come home to find the house was still in a mess, food hadn’t been prepared and the clothes hadn’t been washed.

“He would also get sick quite a bit when he was younger, and I was a bit paranoid – the househelps wouldn’t always know when there was something wrong with him.”

To put her fears to rest and get her house in order, she began shopping around for a daycare facility.

The first place she found charged Sh12,000 a month but was open only during school terms. This wouldn’t work for her.

“I found another daycare that was 30 minutes away from my office in Gigiri. It cost Sh20,000 a month but had a nurse on staff. It was also open every weekday, except for public holidays. And it offered all meals, which was important for me because as a single mother, I would have struggled to pack food.”

Njoki would drop her son on her way to work at 7.30 am, and pick him up between 5 pm and 6.30 pm.

“I also settled in this particular place because I didn’t want anything that was more than 30 minutes away from my office.”

There are also daycare options that open 24 hours a day to cater to parents who have late-night functions and no one to leave their children with – or even for young parents who just want a night out.

Starting a daycare requires you to have a spacious room, a motherly touch, some knowledge on early childhood development and a love for children. They shouldn’t be confused with pre-schools though, which offer more tutorial services than daycares do.

2. Househelp bureaus

Not too long ago, if you’d just moved into your own house, you made time during the weekend (or once a month) to clean your house thoroughly. Mattresses got aired, cabinets, seats and stoves were moved around so you could clean those hard-to-reach places, and shoes got polished and laid out in the sun.

Not anymore. These days, anyone with a little cash has the luxury of being too busy to carry out such chores. The result has been, in almost every estate, groups of women waiting to be given these duties. They get paid anything from about Sh300.

If you’re looking for more long-term help, there are bureaus to help you get house managers, nannies or domestic managers. A lot of these workers have been trained on etiquette, table service, first aid and even gourmet cooking.

Faith Omondi, 30, has hired her help from a bureau that specialises in “trained nannies and housekeepers”. And what’s the difference between the two?

“A nanny has more experience with children, while a housekeeper is good with house chores. The bureau charges a minimum of Sh12,000 for a nanny, while a housekeeper starts from Sh10,000,” she says.

The final costs vary, however, depending on the level of training and experience the workers have, and the amount of work required of them. Rates can go up to Sh25,000 a month.

Faith has a two-year-old son and started out with a nanny who would come in the morning and leave by 6 pm.

“I leave work at 4.30 pm and live near my office, so this arrangement worked for me. The bureau required a Sh5,000 one-off fee, and I paid them my nanny’s salary of Sh12,000 for six months.”

To pay itself back for training the nanny and finding her a job, the bureau kept Sh5,000 from these wages, but after half a year, the entire amount went to the nanny.

Starting a bureau will require you to build up a list of trustworthy domestic workers, and to put in place contingency measures should anything go wrong in the homes they find work in. There’s a lot of competition in this space, but aggressive marketing and positive experiences that lead to word-of-mouth referrals can help you make your mark.

3. Home cleaning

Gabriel Mutambo says he and his co-founders started their company, Clean Home Kenya, after noticing that “people did not have time to clean their houses.”

They started with an investment of Sh20,000 and would sub-contract any jobs they got to people with cleaning machines. Three years down the line, however, the business has grown and now owns its own washing equipment.

Normally, when they’re doing the cleaning, the home owner must be around. They’ll clean sofas, carpets, curtains and do a general sweep of the home. Prices vary depending on the size of the home, and the level of work required.

On average, charges run from Sh20 per square metre for carpets, and Sh4,000 for a seven-seater couch.

To stand out in this space, you’d need to offer same-day services (so make sure you have cleaning and drying equipment), prices in line with your competition and offer discount vouchers where possible. Word-of-mouth referrals are also critical for growth.

4. Laundry and dhobi services

Erick Kweya operates a laundry stand in Mukuru Kayaba where he washes and irons clothes for residents of the slum. It is one of the popular laundry businesses in the area.

“Not very many people have time to iron their own clothes. In fact, many of them have not even bothered to acquire an iron box,” says Erick.

“Most people who bring their clothes here to be pressed have office jobs. They bring them very early in the morning, and want them ironed urgently.”

He charges Sh20 to iron a shirt and Sh50 for a coat.

Kisafi is another company that offers laundry, home cleaning, gas delivery and water supply services. It does this through an app that’s free to download on the Google Play store.

“The basic idea was to simplify and automate the process we went through to find trusted help for home care. We offer convenience for the end-user and give local service providers the opportunity to increase their income,” the founders told Hustle.

To further ease the burden for busy people, Kisafi offers to come to your house, pick the clothes you need to be washed, and then bring them back ironed and folded.

To build up a client base for a laundry business, start by selling your services to neighbours and friends.

5. Baby food

We all want to give our babies the best building blocks for their bodies, which has led to a boom in baby food options, from cereals and milk formulas to packaged purées of fruit and vegetables. And with mothers having to go back to work after three-month maternity leave, it can be difficult to naturally provide children with the nutrients they need.

This is where brands have come in with fortified options aimed at boosting immunity. In Kenya, Nestlé – which makes Cerelac (dried baby cereal) and Nido (milk formula) – held the top spot in baby food sales as at last year, with a 34 per cent value share, according to Euromonitor International.

But it is not just multinational companies that are thriving in this business – smaller players like Stawi Foods, have dug in for a share of the market. One of Stawi’s products is Nurture Junior, a pre-cooked and fortified porridge flour.

And then there are people like Ruth Kamindo, 44, who are also angling for a slice.

Ruth had her daughter last March and says the stress of weaning her child got her thinking of a business idea.

“I realised it must be tough for mums to come home from work to start cooking for the babies they’re weaning – it’s not something many of us are comfortable leaving to the household,” she says.

“So, I got to thinking: why not prepare a big batch of food for my daughter and sell the extra portion to my friends and neighbours?”

Ruth prepares a meal with onions fried in butter and adds a variety of recommended vegetables and starches, such as pumpkin, peas, carrots and beetroot, as well as fruits like bananas.

“I offer moms two portions a day for lunch and dinner and include a protein. I don’t use any spices, all the flavours are natural and good for babies.”

Ruth charges a weekly rate of Sh3,500, an amount she says is fair as it’s what she would spend buying ingredients and preparing food for her daughter.

You can start a baby food business, as long as you have the right ingredients, obtain a food handler’s permit and learn the rules governing the sub-sector.

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