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Achieving woman: She leads, she mentors

Achieving Woman
 Engineer Florah Kamanja [Courtesy, Files Standard]

Engineer Florah Kamanja is one of the most fascinating women I have come across. She talks about beauty and skincare just as easily as she talks about how to operate a nuclear power plant, without missing a beat.

Florah, who has a red belt in Taekwondo is one of the few female engineers in Kenya, who make up 14 per cent of the total number of engineers in the country.

She is KenGen’s Capital and Energy Planning Manager, a mechanical engineer with a Masters in Nuclear Power Plant Engineering and an MBA in Financial Management. She is also a council member of the Institution of Engineers of Kenya (IEK) and is chair of the Women Engineers Committee in IEK.

We are in her spacious corner office at KenGen where she tells me her story. Straight ahead of me is a newspaper cutout of her in the newspaper in 2014, with then President Uhuru Kenyatta and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, during the commissioning of one of KenGen’s geothermal power plants.

 She was then the Operations Manager at Olkaria IV Power plant and was explaining to the presidents how a power plant works [Courtesy, Files Standard]

She was then the Operations Manager at Olkaria IV Power plant and was explaining to the presidents how a power plant works. That was one of her most memorable moments, among many, and her dad was beside himself with pride and joy.

“Apparently, he kept that newspaper with him, and he was showing his friends like, ‘This is my daughter with two presidents!’” she says.

Despite her parents being uneducated themselves, living in the remotest parts of Meru County, they valued education and went to great lengths to ensure their children were educated.

As a young girl, she always set her sights high and looked up to her elder brother who was pursuing engineering.

She always knew she wanted to pursue either medicine or engineering, but when she missed the cutoff points for medicine by a single point, she settled on Mechanical Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

It was the least popular course for women in the university at the time, so she was one of only two ladies in a class of 45. It was daunting, but the seniors at the university and her elder brother encouraged her to keep at it.

Upon completion, KenGen advertised for several positions. She applied and got the job, slowly rising up the ranks from graduate trainee engineer and started supervising a station. She then went to South Korea in 2014 for her Masters in Nuclear Power Plant Engineering and was posted to another station when she returned as a supervisor as well.

“The plant had mainly older men, so as a young girl, you have to forge good working relationships and rapport. As a woman engineer, you’re given the soft work. You’re given a book and told, ‘Madam, when we measure, your work is to record.’

Those are the things that as a woman you have to be conscious about and speak out and say, ‘No I think I can do it, let me try tightening this bolt.’ because that’s how you learn. Otherwise if you’re just there taking the readings, you’ll never learn.”

All this was shop floor work at the power plants – operations, maintenance and such. When a management role at the head office arose where they wanted senior engineers, she applied and got the job in the Capital Planning section.

Her boss was later promoted, making the general manager position vacant. She had worked so hard that even though she was a senior engineer, two rungs below general manager, when the qualifications were announced it turned out that she had all of them.

“I told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter whether I skip some levels. I think I qualify for this job,” she says. “I am dedicated. When I’m given an assignment, I give it my all. 

She got the job. Her role now is to plan power projects for KenGen, identifying and packaging projects that KenGen needs to undertake. These are projects worth tens of billions of shillings, so it is grueling work from start to finish but she meets them all head on.

Outside of that, her main passion is mentorship. She wants to see the number of successful women engineers grow.

Florah is an official at KenGen’s Pink Energy Forum, aimed at driving the inclusivity agenda for women, providing a conducive working environment for women, and mentoring and empowering women to develop their potential to be confident.

“As the chairperson of the Women Engineers Committee, I also launched the She for She Mentorship Program. We pair a seasoned engineer with a young engineer who’s just graduated or still in school, to guide them based on our experience as they grow in their career,” says Florah.

The program also helps women acquire soft skills like management and leadership.

“There is a serious need for women engineers to be appointed to leadership positions, even public and government leadership positions. If I ask you, how many women engineers do you know in leadership positions? I can only name a few of them, less than five.

So how are you going to grow this number if we don’t have women engineers up there that our young ones can emulate? Just the fact that there are women engineers at the top is inspiration for them to take engineering courses or other STEM - related courses. So I think it’s an area that really the government needs to work on.”

World Engineering Day fell on the same week as International Women’s Day, which was yesterday, and one of the messages engineers wanted to send on that day, is basically what Florah’s mentorship is about, with her own life as an example: “If you want to change the world for the better, become an engineer”.


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