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Rejected stone? Women in building sector shrink

By Philip Mwakio | August 20th 2020
Women at a construction site at Ganjoni in Mombasa. Women find the work culture in the industry unaccommodating. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

In Kenya today, the number of women involved in the construction industry remains at an all-time low compared to their male counterparts.

According to the latest statistics from the National Construction Authority (NCA), the number of registered contractors in the country as of November last year stood at 17,119, of which only 2,665 were women.

NCA further said the number of accredited artisans (construction workers and site supervisors) was 34,298, with a paltry 983 being women.

The data also showed that there were 14 registered women contractors in building works, while there were 1,514 of them in road construction.

Another 121 were doing mechanical works, with 996 involved in waterworks in building works (294), masonry workers (119), site supervisors (116), scaffolders (18), electrical workers (51), plant operators (3 ) and electrical works (51).

The construction industry largely depends on unskilled labourers who account for 42 per cent of the employed workforce.

Skilled workers account for 25 per cent, while semi-skilled ones make up 33 per cent.

Overall, according to the NCA report, women are underrepresented in all categories at 19 per cent.

The most predominant age group of construction workers is between 25 and 30 (48 per cent) followed by 30-35 years (29 per cent).

Various studies show that women mostly suffer gender bias across all the sub-sectors of the construction industry.

In a 2014 survey, NCA noted that there were 763 registered architects in the country, with only 90 being women, an 11.8 per cent representation.

And women make up a partly 15.5 per cent of the 2,645 contractors in the country, while the number of female artisans accredited by the NCA stands at 983 against a total 34,298 professionals.

Their representation in professional associations also remains skewed, with the Engineers Board of Kenya putting the number at 7.3 per cent.

Eddy Kampaka, a freelance contractor specialising in hotel construction, said there is a need for the government to introduce programmes to empower more women to take up jobs in the construction industry.

“This is a wide sector. It requires a lot of skilled manpower, and through various government initiatives to boost skills of unskilled workers, more women ought to be encouraged to take up jobs in the construction industry,’’ said Kampaka. The proprietor of Nyumba Tototo Enterprises said of the women he has employed in some of his projects, he admires their zeal and dedication to work.

“Most of them are single parents and are committed to their work,’’ he said.

David Jomeli, the technical director with the Kenya Federation of Master Builders and a member of the permanent working group of the German Industry and Commerce for Eastern Africa, said the introduction of major projects in the country such as the Standard Gauge Railway, the Mombasa port improvement, and the Mombasa-Nairobi pipeline have opened up opportunities in the industry. “The above growth coupled with the fact that the industry is largely labour-intensive has led to high demand for fundis (craftsmen) who are the main production workers in all infrastructure development,’’ said Jomeli.

He added that this, in turn, means that the industry is well placed to utilise the bulging human resource by offering the energetic youth handy and marketable practical skills that afford sustainable jobs.

In one of Mombasa’s newest projects that involves the construction of a Sh1.7 billion floating bridge across the Likoni channel, Sakawa Agencies who are listed as the sub-contractors have taken on board over a dozen women graduates to work in the project’s initial implementation phase.

More skilled

Jomeli, who is also managing director and chief executive of David J Malidadi Construction and Supplies Ltd, said construction work is becoming more skilled.

“It entails a combination of skills development, market development of business sectors and policy and advocacy support,’’ he explained.

“So far, construction projects have made efforts to bridge the supply of skills with the demand for skills in the building and construction sector through initiating and supporting the establishment of the Kenya Youth Employment Opportunities Project.’’

Jomeli said the platform brings together all the stakeholders involved in the demand and supply side of the sector, including employer associations, regulatory sector bodies and representatives from academia.

“The platform provides the ideal opportunity to address the needs of the building and construction sector for the required human resources in terms of quality and quantity of low-skilled and competent workers,” he said.

The cost of labour in construction industry in Kenya has increased significantly as the real estate sector continues to grow. High demand for artisans has seen their wages double, with those of others like electricians and plumbers tripling due to their specialised skills.

Craft skills employed depended on the work specialisation of the contracting firms, with masonry and related specialisations such as bricklayers, plasterers, tilers, floorers, steel-fixers and carpenters.

Courtesy of the labour-intensive nature of the local construction industry and further exemplifying the preference for the youth, a majority of fundis are aged between 18 and 35.

Moreover, the blue collar nature of craft jobs coupled with the belief that such skills are more effectively learnt on the job means that high levels of education are not a barrier.

This is also indicative of the low prevalence of formal training in the industry and acceptance of informal training (apprenticeship). 

Jomeli noted that the construction industry is not only the most male dominated of all the industries in the world, with over 84 per cent of its worker’s male, but it also seems to exhibit the highest degree of vertical segregation.  

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