At 22, Judy Ndungu is fascinated by fixing cars.
"I want to understand how the engine works; practically open it up and see how it works, how to do wheel balancing, change the engine oil or brake pads. I enjoy rolling up my sleeves and lying under a vehicle to understand what the problem is," says the engineer technologist.
“But what you do closely resembles what a mechanic does, what's the difference?” I enquire.
“My work entails observing the set standards in repairing and servicing cars unlike in the 'jua kali' sector,” she explains to me.
Since her high school days, Judy desired to study for a mechanical course so she was overjoyed when she was admitted at the Technical University of Kenya to pursue her Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical Engineering. She had qualified after scoring As in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics.
"I wanted to do something that was 'hands on'," says Judy who is currently attached at Subaru Kenya. Initially, her mother was concerned about her choice of career and would call her every day to find out if she was fine. "She was afraid something bad would happen to me but today she is supportive of my work," says Judy, the second born of three siblings.
Mechanical engineering has different fields, which include design, assembly line and service advisory.
"Unfortunately, we have a limited number of assembly plants locally like Toyota and VW. If we had a manufacturing plant, we would have more openings but for now I'm okay being in the automotive sector," she says.
"My goal, however, is to gain experience in the various fields and see what the future holds," says Judy.
She, however, says as a girl some clients may undermine her but she has learnt to ignore any negative comments and ensure that she always does a satisfactory job. Her advice to women is that they should not shy away from blue-collar jobs as they give one exposure to face different challenges.
"When you become a problem-solver in these technical fields, it puts you at par with the men since you can also solve the challenges just like them," says Judy.
LUCITTA MUTHONI, UBER DRIVER
After completing her college studies, Lucitta Muthoni, 28, worked at the front office of a law firm until she felt the need to follow a passion she had had since her younger days.
"I had always been passionate about driving and I felt that my job was not giving me the satisfaction I craved," says Lucitta. So three years ago and with a two-year-old child at the time, she took the plunge and left formal employment to become an Uber driver.
"The first month was very challenging because I did not understand how to use Google maps, which are very essential as a driver, especially when you are driving in an unfamiliar area," explains Lucitta.
"I kept asking my clients for directions and this really affected my ratings. Usually, when a client requests for an Uber, they expect that the driver understands the route and will take them to their destination using the shortest route with the least traffic. Unfortunately, I did not know how to read the Google maps and could not tell which routes did not have traffic," she narrates.
To succeed in the Uber business, Lucitta learnt fast that she had to understand her clients and the routes. "By the second month, I had become a pro," she laughs.
"Instead of asking my clients for directions to where they were going and irritating them, I could now engage them in conversation as I followed the Google maps without getting lost," says Lucitta. At the time she and other drivers joined Uber, it was very profitable as they were few in the market. She leased a car for a year but bought her own in the second year. "I would give myself a daily target of around 8,000 to 10,000 (Kshs), which was not hard to achieve. The beauty of being self-employed is that you are not restricted to a fixed monthly salary but are able to earn as much as you are willing to work for," she says. However, to succeed in this business, one has to not only set daily targets but also be extremely disciplined, says Lucitta. "Make sure you say a prayer every day and work hard."
"Working as an Uber driver has taught me how to be a disciplined and regular saver as we had various 'chamas' consisting of other drivers. We recently purchased a parcel of land valued at about Sh4.6million, something I would never have managed with my previous salary," says Lucitta, who is in various chamas, where she contributes between 1,000 a day and 2,000 a week.
"These chamas have helped me to be financially disciplined and we also have accessibility to loan facilities," she says.
"As an Uber driver, I have to wake up early to catch the early clients and this makes one ambitious and focused. As a woman though, you might come across a male clients who behaves badly. Let him understand that that’s your office and he should respect your work. Do not entertain them," advises Lucitta.
Working in a male-dominated field is not easy but with time the men also realise you are competent and confident, she says.
"It can be risky because we are never sure of the intentions of our clients but God has protected me. My business helps to put food on the table and raise my child," she says.
EUNICE CHEROP, SHOE SHINER
Eunice Cherop was only 20 when she decided to become a shoe-shiner in August 2015.
"As a young single mum, I needed to increase my income to enable me to take care of my little girl.
I was working as a shop attendant and it wasn't bringing in enough money," explains Eunice.
Her day starts early as she has to be at her work station by 6am to ensure she gets as many clients as possible. On average, Eunice polishes about 20 pairs of shoes with a pair being charged at between Sh30 and Sh40.
"Business is usually at its peak during the morning hours. On rainy days, however, the clients could even double," she says. Like in every other business venture, Eunice faces challenges.
"We have to call out to potential customers as they walk past and offer to polish their shoes, which some do not always take kindly. Sometimes we encounter very rude people and some even insult us," explains Eunice.
Together with her colleagues, they have learnt to turn a deaf ear to mean comments and always hope the next person will be nice.
"There are also those that look down on me based on my job. I remember a man who was interested in dating me, but he cut off all communication when I told him I was a shoe-shiner. At times I wonder if any man will ever date me with this job," ponders Eunice.
"Some days are bad, some days are good. But I'm glad my work helps me to pay my rent, foot my bills and raise my daughter," she says. In future I would want to go back to school as I was not able to proceed beyond Form Four.
Her advice to women is to do what is available and not to be too choosy. "Chase your dreams and work diligently," she advises.
Mildred Olango, 35, says she landed in civil engineering by pure accident.
"I had been admitted at the University of Nairobi to pursue a BSc General, which I badly wanted to change and do another course, but I wasn't sure which one to take," explains the civil engineer.
She remembers on the day she was to change her course and on the line she noticed two ladies; one who wanted to do civil engineering while the other one wanted out.
Interestingly, Mildred decided to copy the lady who chose civil engineering and that was how her love affair with a course she has come to love started.
She had an uncle who was a civil engineer who was instrumental in helping shape her career from the onset. "He explained to me that experience is everything in civil engineering and I started getting exposed to construction sites as early as in my first year," explains Mildred, who graduated in 2008.
"As a civil engineer, the core work is to construct roads, which entails being out there in the field," she says.
"When I got my first posting, I remember I had to change my entire wardrobe and buy trousers, which are ideal for the field as I had worn skirts all my campus life," explains the licensed highway engineer.
Mildred explains that it takes a minimum of three years to get certified as an engineer and could take as many as 50 years! In the first five years of her career, Mildred was predominantly in the field.
Today her current job is more of a coordinative role, which involves a lot of documentation processes and ensuring that the set standards are adhered to. She spends about half of her time in the office and the other half in the field.
The mother of two travels a lot but emphasises on the need to strike a healthy balance between work and family.
"I take my leave days and weekends very seriously.
I switch off my phone and intentionally spend quality time with my kids. I take this time to catch up with their school work.
I look into their innocent eyes and ask where mummy can help. It is good to put food on the table but we still need our family," she stresses.
"For me, family comes first in the 'busyness' of life. It is important to bond with your children and we cannot start bonding with them when they are 18. It has to be when they are still young.
Make time for them and they will also make time for you when you are old," advises Mildred, who was widowed a few years ago. I currently work as a senior engineer with Kenya National Highways Authority in the Road Asset and Corridor Management Directorate.
I’ve had the privilege of spearheading the authority’s ISO 9001:2008 certification, part of the team that has worked on the improvement of Mombasa International Airport Access road, and currently part of it’s maintenance team.
I’m also part of the team developing the performance based contracting method for road maintenance and the development of a road maintenance cost estimation system. I’m also mentoring young upcoming engineers in the field. Project formulation, design, construction and management is a very fulfilling carrier.
However, mentorship is at another level and having the privilege to do both is a special blessings. I thank my employer for granting me space to achieve both.