One day in 2011, Tuta Mionki woke up with the awareness that that would be the day she would finally resign from her job in HR. She had had a successful career working for companies such as Kenya Airways, BAT, ZTE and Java House among others, rising to managerial positions.
The thought of opening a HR consultancy had been on her mind for months. That morning, she decided to take the plunge and launch Echelon Human Capital.
However, Tita is more famously known as Kenya’s top female rally navigator.
In one corner of Tuta’s living room is a table that resembles a shelf in a trophy shop. She and her driver, Eric Bengi, recently bagged the first position at the Aberdare Raia Rally. Earlier this month, they were top at the Guru-Nanak Rally. She holds the Kenya Motor Sports Federation Awards for the best co-driver of the season 2015 (division 3) and 2016 (2-wheel-drive).
“Way back when Kenya was part of the World Rally Championships my father’s passion for the sport transferred to us,’ she says. “One of my childhood memories is fighting with my siblings over who would fill the rally timesheets that used to be printed in the newspaper,” she laughs.
Following Kenya’s loss of status as a World Rally Championships competitor, Tuta’s zeal, like most Kenyans, dissipated and she moved on to concentrate on school. But the fascination with the sport never left her. “In 2007, a group of friends and I decided we would spectate rallying events around the country.”
The shift from spectating to participating came when one of her childhood friends started competing. “Before, competing had seemed like something foreign. But cheering for someone I knew personally changed that. I thought, if he can do this, I can do this.”
A navigator’s job is to be the drivers ‘eyes’. A day before the race, Tuta goes out to recce the route and take notes so that on the day of the race, the driver knows what to expect. “Even though the driver can see the road, it helps if they concentrate on the driving,” she explains.
“We are connected through an intercom on the helmet. I tell them details such as where the corners are, what the angle is, where there’s a ditch and so on. Every little detail makes all the difference because races are won and lost by seconds. Both of you have to trust each other completely – there’s no time to doubt myself or for them to doubt what I have said.”
To get started, she was directed to the Abdul Sidi Rallying Academy where she learnt the basics. She had to use her own money to participate. “I had to get a rally suit, helmet, head and neck support and shoes. That’s around Sh250 to 300, 000. You will (also) have to spend your own money to participate in the race events – from entry fees to nights out of town to the support crew. That’s why most of us have other jobs.”
She and her driver are among the lucky few who have corporate sponsors. “Kenya is a long way from being a huge sports’ market and we haven’t really sold the idea to corporates to show the returns of sports sponsorship,” she says. “I was watching a Kenyan show in which a character who plays the president says he is going to give the less important politicians ‘irrelevant dockets like gender and sports’. As a woman in sport, I feel that this is the sentiment in real life – women and sports are not taken seriously.”
Motorsports remains a predominantly male. In 2012, there were about 15 women involved in rallying events, but that that number has decreased.
“Now we have two to three women in an event and there is only one all-female crew,” she says.
“In the beginning, some men would decline my request to navigate them because I am a woman. Then there are logistical issues such as pit stops that don’t have bathrooms – the men can do their business in the bush but I have had to run into villages to ask people whether I can use their loo.”
With eight rallying events in towns across Kenya, and a myriad of other club events, Tuta’s passion takes up a lot of time.
“Having sponsors has given us the leeway to enjoy our thing without financial constraints,” she says, “but even without sponsors, motorsports people will tell you that it’s like a drug – we joke that if we didn’t rally we’d probably find another vice.”
She maintains that the time investment is also one of the reasons why many in the sport are their own bosses. “I have a friend who was denied leave to race. He went anyway. He got fired. He took that opportunity to start a thriving business as a cargo transporter.”
In spite of how much she loves this sport, she says she has to hold on to her consultancy. In spite of this, she says that of late, she is finding herself reading up and signing up more for courses on sports management than she does for HR.