After working as a secretary for two decades in an international School in Nakuru town, Martha Waititu finally resigned to venture into business.
Ms Waititu took the plunge 10 years ago after identifying a gap in the supply of modern hollow concrete blocks in the male-dominated industry.
“It is good to pursue your dream without letting negativity put you down. Women can venture into unique businesses like this. We are stronger than we imagine,” she says.
Before quitting her job, she had an overwhelming desire to be self-employed while doing something she was passionate about.
She saw an opportunity in the construction industry through the production of hollow concrete blocks.
With a capital of Sh2 million, she imported two hollow block-making machines from China.
Introducing the new technology was initially a challenge as many people preferred traditional blocks and bricks.
However, the new technology caught on with time, with more and more people realising that hollow blocks are cheaper and easier to use.
“Getting customers was very difficult. Convincing them to adapt to new technology took time since building stones are readily found in Nakuru County. Some were sceptical but with time they started to embrace the new technology,” says Ms Waititu.
A hollow block is a type of concrete block used for building internal and external walls.
Hollow concrete blocks are preferred in modern construction in that they save time in building walls due to their large dimensions and load-carrying capacity.
They are made using molds and a suitable additive depending on your location and your project.
Cement is used to bond components in order to produce stronger and longer-life hollow blocks.
Experts believe they help in saving on materials, hence reducing the overall construction cost.
Concrete blocks are manufactured in the required shape and sizes, and these may be solid or hollow blocks.
The most common size of concrete blocks is 39cm x 19cm x (30cm or 20 cm or 10cm) or 2-inch, 4-inch, 6-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch unit configurations.
Cement, aggregate, and water are used to prepare concrete blocks. The cement-aggregate ratio in concrete blocks is 1:6. The aggregate used is 60 per cent fine aggregate and 40 per cent coarse aggregate.
Depending on the structure, shape, size and manufacturing processes, concrete blocks are mainly classified into solid concrete blocks and hollow concrete blocks.
Raw materials headache
Ms Waititu says being a new technology in Kenya, raw materials are not readily available, and her company produces blocks by mixing quarry dust, which is the fine product of ballast, with cement.
She sells blocks per foot. For example, a 1.3-foot block goes for Sh70, while cabro paving blocks go for Sh1,000 per square metre.
When she started, it took almost three months before getting her first order.
“It was difficult to pay for labour, electricity, water and materials. At some point, I wanted to give up,” she recalls.
But eventually, a client bought 15,000 pieces, which was the turning point for the business.
With time, she took up larger orders, supplying schools, individual builders and other large contractors.
Ms Waititu says it has not been easy getting a footing in the male-dominated construction industry.
Before making a name for herself, she says, some potential clients would look down on her for simply being a woman, something she contends with even today in some quarters.
She recalls when she bid for a tender to construct new classrooms for junior high school for one of the schools in Nakuru County under the new Competency-Based Curriculum in 2021 but was overlooked for what she believes was because of her gender.
The winning contractor was, however, dropped after failing to deliver and the contract was handed over to her.
“I did the work well, which made the client confident with my work. This industry requires one to be bold, confident and deliver to prove your detractors wrong,” says Ms Waititu.
However, it is not all bad for women contractors, she says. She admits there are some contracts she has won on gender considerations.
For major contracts, she has to coordinate a large team of workers, including welders, carpenters, and masonries.
With time, Ms Waititu says she has learnt that it’s important to identify the market needs to effectively position one’s business.
When starting a business, she adds, one must also consider the source of financing, with savings the most advisable source of funds to avoid drowning in debt.
“It is important to have savings when starting a business instead of a loan because using the latter might backfire if the business does not pick up,” she explains.
One must also keep abreast with the change in trends in their line of business to continually match client needs and plan accordingly in terms of the best places to source materials.
Ms Waititu, however, admits that it has not been all smooth sailing under the current tough economic times, with demand for her products and services going down as companies and individuals cut down on non-essential spending.