Lucy Muchemi: What plumbing has taught me about resilience

 Lucy Muchemi. [File, Standard]

Nothing in her demeanor suggests that Lucy Muchemi is an accomplished plumber who literally gets into the trenches with pipes, wrenches, and glue.

She is soft-spoken and with an easy smile, hardly the attributes found in the macho men we call fundis.

The only items that give her away include a safety helmet, steel cap boots, and a yellow jacket that she dons when working on a construction site. Ms Muchemi is the chief executive of Mavens Plumbers but prefers to be known as a plumber.

She is among the few women who have dared to get into the sector that has long been associated with people who could not find anything else to do with their lives after failing to secure a place in a university. 

Her trajectory from an office assistant to a successful entrepreneur who has established a thriving plumbing business underscores the transformative influence of vocational education, mentorship, and unwavering perseverance.

Besides her day job, Muchemi is a mentor at Swisscontact PropelA Dual Apprenticeship programme that is revolutionising skills development and empowering individuals to excel in trades such as plumbing and electrical work.

In the role that she took on in 2021, Muchemi ensures that the plumbing curriculum in the country’s vocational schools aligns with current industry demands.

At the end of the mentorship and training at Don Bosco, apprentices are certified as professionals in the trade by the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA).

Currently, there are two cohorts undergoing a two-year plumbing training course at the school, the first set to graduate in November 2024 and the second one a year later. 

“The apprentices should be ‘built’ in a certain way including the right ethics away from what they are used to out there,” says Muchemi.

In her school days, Muchemi wanted to be a civil engineer, a desire she fulfilled by enrolling at Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology in 2001. But she had underestimated what the course entailed.

 Lucy Muchemi (right) training apprentices. [File, Standard]

“I never fully understood what the course was all about. I was the only woman in a class of about 20 students. Of course, I struggled and failed in several assessment tests,” she says during our interview at the Don Bosco Boys Training Institute near Karen shopping centre where several of her workers are among the more than 40 undergoing the plumbing course. 

She started reading more and more away from the classes and asked the subject-savvy fellows to clarify what she did not fully understand. Her diligence paid off and she got her diploma in 2003.

Three years later, Muchemi landed her first job at Pioneer Plumbers mainly because she had been trained on the use of specialised surveying equipment such as the theodolite, a skill that the employer needed.

Softer’ duties

Here, she developed a love for plumbing including the terminology for various fittings such as tees, elbows, nipples, and unions.

“Still, I found myself being assigned ‘softer’ duties such as documenting site reports and discussing them with foremen and contractors. But I hated office jobs,” she says.

In 2012, Muchemi and a friend opened a plumbing business hoping to cash in on her training and experience.

Although the business gave her some returns in addition to her modest capital investment of about Sh100,000, things quickly went south and it was wound up three years later.

Her experience handed her the first lesson in business management.

“The business failed miserably because my partner and I were two people with different visions. I was the one procuring the business, financed it but the partner seemed to be only in need of cash for personal projects.

“I strongly advise anyone getting into a partnership to know the other person very well and share the same vision.” 

Undeterred, Muchemi opened yet another plumbing business, Mavens Plumbers in 2017 while still under employment at another firm, Trident Plumbers. “I was so good at plumbing that the employer was hesitant to let me go, even offering me some space in the firm to set up my private business.” 

Tired of hopping between two different assignments, she resigned in September 2020 to take care of her business on a full-time basis.

It has been a resilient journey for Muchemi who has had to contend with stereotypes associated with such ‘lowly’ jobs as plumbing.

In addition, being a woman in the profession has had its fair share of awkward moments “since men would not know what to do with me on site”.

She recalls many times going to sites and trying to reason with experts, who are mostly men, on why a matter should be handled in a certain way only to be met with pessimism.

They will doubt whether she would have any meaningful contribution to the matter at hand. Some have given her a contemptuous look insinuating that she might as well not be in their presence.

For her, it is an ‘interview’ at every new site.

 Lucy Muchemi. [File, Standard]

“I have done ground and home piping. I have installed facilities on walls. I have fixed toilets. I can hold my own in meetings of experts in the construction industry. “Unfortunately, some still hold me in contempt because I am just a plumber and a woman at that. That mindset must change,” Muchemi says.  

Such contempt may go further and border on unwanted advances from men who would insidiously prefer that she lowers her moral guard in order to receive business favours, a line she has vowed never to cross.

“I have lost business because I would not bend my moral standards,” she says. “On the other hand, I have received business because of who I am and for projecting a professional front.

“Never compromise your standards as a woman since those who value your services will deal with you for who you are.” Due to such contempt, plumbers are at the lowest ranks among construction workers, since “society has painted anything below university level as unimportant”.

To her, there seems to be little value put to the skill that should earn one Sh1,500 a day in contrast to the Sh800 most earn in a day.

Unfortunately, she says most young people in plumbing and such-like vocations cannot express themselves well, a matter that affects their negotiating power. Most, she adds, cannot put matters agreed upon in writing and sometimes end up losing money for lack of proper quotation.

“They are good at what they do but lack social skills and financial knowledge. Vocational training such as that offered at Don Bosco will equip them to handle such matters professionally,” Muchemi says.

Is there more that authorities can do to uplift such trades? Muchemi says the government has neglected these trades by not offering proper training facilities and equipment.

In addition, some of the curriculum offered in vocational training schools as well as the exams administered are still based on old technology, for example, when galvanised iron pipes were in vogue within the industry. “These institutions do not have the current industrial knowledge as they still do things using outdated technology while the industry has moved on,” she says.

Despite the setbacks, Muchemi’s journey shows the possibilities that emerge when women are empowered with skills to promote their economic empowerment, particularly in traditionally male-dominated technical fields.