Two years ago, Anne Muthoni was a mama fua (laundry and cleaning lady) who sat outside on the pavements of estates in Langata, Nairobi, with other women, waiting for work. She was 24 at the time and had a two-year-old daughter.
Some were lucky to get picked for a day job, but most were not.
“We wouldn’t get paid much for the work,” says Muthoni of the cash that ended up in her pocket at the end of each workday, “we would get Sh200 or up to Sh500 on a lucky day.” It wasn’t much for a trained worker and single mother with a baby to feed.
Muthoni started out as a student at a city college in 2012, studying for a certificate in tour guiding and travel operations.
“I fell pregnant a few weeks into my first semester and my mum, a single mother of six who runs her own kindergarten in Kibera, Nairobi, felt it was best to pull me out of school. I left college a month before I had my baby. I didn’t sit my final exams.”
Muthoni had her daughter in October 2012 but didn’t return to school after that – she spent the next two years settling her daughter into her world. Muthoni had neither papers nor skills from which to earn an income. Her future seemed bleak.
In early 2014, a friend told Muthoni about a six-week programme offered by Woman’s Hope Kenya, a local NGO based in the Karen suburb of Nairobi. According to the organisation’s website, they offer girls aged between 15 to 20 years the opportunity to learn new skills to attract meaningful employment in the domestic labour market.
Together with 14 other women, Muthoni signed up for the programme in April 2014.
“We were taught how to cook, clean a house and wash and iron clothes.”
Consolata Waithaka, the founder of Woman’s Hope, remembers Muthoni as a woman who was looking to start a business with the skills she got.
“Most of the other girls wanted the security of employment, but Muthoni had business ideas and she was optimistic about them,” Consolata says.
Muthoni graduated then interned as a housekeeper for two months at a hotel in Karen. She loved the extensive hands-on training she got on the job, but she didn’t like the strenuous and odd working hours.
“We worked every day of the week, from as early as 6.30am to late at night. I couldn’t afford the transport to work and back home.”
Muthoni left the job certain about her skills, but uncertain about the future.
“My greatest fear was: What if I start a business and it fails? I fear failure.”
It was this fear that had her join other mama fuas sitting around Langata waiting for work. She did this for four months, until frustration took over her fear and she wisened up: She made fliers advertising her services. She called her business Sonnia’s Sparkling Cleaning Services and Housekeeping. She distributed her fliers across Langata and Ongata Rongai. It didn’t take more than a day for the calls to start pouring in – it’s fascinating that people trusted the Muthoni in the fliers, but not the Muthoni that sat outside their estate gates. What made it even more fascinating was that she could negotiate for much better rates for her services.
Her business model is simple: “A client will call and tell me what they’d like me to do. It could be general or thorough cleaning, washing and ironing clothes, cooking, buying groceries or running errands. I may go or post one of my girls. Sometimes I go with my girls, other times I don’t, it depends on the work to be done and if the client trusts my girl or not. The client pays me; I keep a fraction of it and pay my girls what we’ve agreed.”
Everyone goes home happy: Work is constant and guaranteed. Muthoni and each of her six girls make at least Sh8,000 more than what they were getting when they were sitting ducks. Actually, based on the figures she shared with me, they each earn more than the average entry-level live-in domestic worker earns per month.
Muthoni loves her work, never mind that the average Kenyan imagines it is a job for the lower class. “I do it happily and without a fuss. I know my business will grow. Our clientele is mostly the middle-class, they love the convenience of our services. We have the Langata and Ongata Rongai market, I’m now targeting Karen,” she says of her plan.
Consolata underscores this, “Muthoni will get a mentor and further training to grow her business. We are in partnership with companies that finance our girls’ businesses with assets, not cash. We want Muthoni to get washing machines. We also want her to take in more trained girls from our programme.”