Margaret Maina on education, equal opportunities and female leadership in WASH

The purpose of ROCKBlue’s WULUW Initiative is to increase female leadership in urban water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and help women in working in utilities in Africa and across the globe. As part of the WULUW initiative, ROCKBlue had the privilege of interviewing the Managing Director of Limuru Water and Sewerage Company in Kenya. Margaret has a history of working not only in urban WASH but also in the environmental services industry. She is skilled in, water quality and utility management, sustainable development, environmental awareness and proposal writing. She has a Bachelor of philosophy in Applied Biology from the Technical University of Kenya.

Could you describe your education and/or training; and how it advanced your career?

I started my career as a young woman. After completing secondary high school, I went to the Kenya Water Institute. I started from the lowest level – a diploma. At the Kenya Water Institute, I was trained in all the aspects of water including water quality and surveying but also water law and hydrology. Then, I obtained a sponsorship from Norway Government through the Ministry of Water to study in the Kenya Polytechnic in Science Laboratory Technology. This turned out to be an important steppingstone in my career.

I was first employed by the Ministry of Water in the Department for Water Quality and Pollution Control. This included water quality surveillance in treatment systems, monitoring water sources and pollution control in parts of the country. From there I was seconded to the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation working as a lab technologist.

From there I went for a Master’s degree in public health at the Kenyatta University where I specialized in epidemiology and disease control. And then in 2006, I was appointed as the Managing Director for the Limuru Water and Sewerage Company.  I have been working in the sector for 30 years now and it has been quite a journey. While that time, I also passed a Bachelor of philosophy in Technology and Applied Biology.

Were there many women studying water topics at that time?

 

 

I have been very lonely at times. In elementary schools, girls do not take science subjects because they feel it is the domain of the young boys and that it is difficult to do maths, physics, chemistry and biology. This is what we want to demystify with the help of women in leadership positions. We must start with the basics with those at a young age. We want young girls to understand, from their secondary schools, that doing science related courses is just like doing the arts-based courses and that the science based courses are not difficult. We just want to make it clear that girls are sufficiently capable of taking the same science subjects as boys.

The Water ministry is highly technical and you find very few women on the technical side. The work is more physically demanding during construction training since you have to learn how you to lay pipelines in the field, dig and excavate trenches and even pipe joining, as well as masonry.

 

Do I understand that from your experience, it’s not only your initial diploma that is important, but also to have the opportunity all along your career to go back to university? Not to rely only on your initial education, but to search for new opportunities to upgrade your education?

For me, education has been important because by the time I finished high school my parents could not afford to take me to an advanced level which would have afforded me an automatic entry to university. So, I took a longer route where you have to go through a diploma, just to get to the level that you want to be.

In fact, I’m still learning today. I’m doing another course through the BIWAC program 2019 (SWAP –bfz). It’s a partnership project between the Training and Development Centre of the Bavarian Employers Association.

Over time I’ve gone through the system. As a woman we have to go the extra mile in improving the system so that women are on a par with men. For example, in formal employment, often women were only employed on a short-term contract basis while men received permanent positions. Discrimination was prevalent. Women would not receive the same benefits as a man. Even in health care, women would not be given health care cards. They had to be given through their husband. But, with the time and an effort by women willing to change the system, at least women are moving towards getting equal pay for equal jobs. It has been my drive to go that extra mile and learn more because I realized, for us to receive the same opportunities as men, women must be ahead of them academically.

What are your thoughts on women in leadership positions in the WASH sector?

It has been interesting because if I talk at the management level, especially for women in water leadership, right now out of 62 water utilities in Kenya we only have about six women as Managing Directors. When it comes to management not much has changed. Women are given the softer jobs of HR and the best you can go is finance. Yet we have many female engineers and we want them to be bold enough to fight for their rightful positions … because they can.

In Kenya we have affirmative action, where for all advertised jobs a third must be given to women. Personally, I would not want to be given a job just because I’m a woman. I want to be given a job because I’m capable of it. But culturally we have been trained that women should be subordinate to men. We need to remove that thought from our young women. We need to tell them that all of us have an equal chance in society, irrespective of gender.

 

 

Your thoughs on mentorship?

Mentorship – we want to create more of it. We have been setting up our own paths. We have been getting together to discuss our own issues and to mentor each other. This fills a critical vacuum.

We need women in leadership to bring more young women to these careers, because there exist intricate issues that you can’t discuss with men. In fact, there is no reason why we can’t have men behind us, men who come to us and ask us for advice on how to do and who to deal with issues.

Can you give examples of intricate issues that you cannot talk with fellow men?

One is the issue of waste from sanitary towels incoming in wastewater treatment systems, blocking the sewers in dump sites. For men this subject is taboo, they can’t or won’t discuss it and therefore it will never get to the boardrooms to find ways to reduce this waste and to deal with it.

For instance, when women dispose of sanitary pads in the septic tank, they clog the system. We need to be thinking about how we can have reusable or biodegradable pads or ways to collect and properly dispose of pads. Those are the areas you can talk straight with women but men do not even understand what it is about because they have never seen these pads even in their homes as they are hidden. Men don’t want to talk about it openly though they have to deal with the waste which ends up in the wastewater treatment plants, as they are disposed of through manholes and inspection chambers. With a woman, I’ll just talk straight. Stating, “this is what you’re supposed to do”. We can share with other women that the pads are having a negative impact on our sewers and treatment plants. Again, that is an issue men don’t readily understand.

Did you have a role model that guided you? And if so, what was their advice that helps you the most?

I have a friend who was also a Managing Director. She is the person who mentored me on how to deal with  things such as Board issues; on how to navigate Board papers and learn the broader dynamics of senior management. We could discuss my concerns one-on-one. Initially, she also helped me stay grounded. And with her help, I managed to work at my company without too many problems.

Ultimately, I was elected to the Laptrust Pension board as a Trustee, to represent water companies. This is a pension scheme for local authorities and water companies that has gone through a tremendous growth during the seven years I was in the Board. When I started, the Fund value was Kshs 6 billion and by the time I left in 2015, the Fund value was Kshs 28 billion (almost 400% growth). It is one of best performing pension funds in Kenya. So that mentorship from my friend gave me that impetus and confidence that even if working with just a small Board, I can still do better in a larger Board.

Do you think that being a woman helped you in any way to achieve this success?

Yes, I learned that in the boardroom women must always try harder and take their position more seriously. I’m not sure men would require this same approach. For example, during my board tenure I decided to attend seminars and workshops to fully understand financial aspects. I also searched for training to better understand board dynamics. As a woman, you don’t want to make a mistake. You want to do it right and better. This extra effort helped. I became Chair of some of the committees. First the Audit Committee and then the Development Committee and I handled them successfully. As a woman I listen more and want to understand the issues.

Apart from your professional skills, or in addition to your professional skills, what is the added value of a woman in a water utility? How does it enrich the organization? You also explained that you have to take things more seriously and do more research. Can you give other examples?

In the area of utility operations, because of the nature of a women, we relate better to and understand more fully the customers – especially women. Remember, the majority that come to pay the water bills are women. Why? They are the ones who face the consequences of unpaid bills.

When we have our public tariff reviews, what happens is that men come and are the majority in the meetings. The role of women in these meetings appears to be to just listen. I’ve certainly encouraged women to talk in the meetings. Because, if you are convening a stakeholders’ consultation on tariffs, and the majority of attendees are men, they may not agree on the tariffs. Minimum cost of water is $4 per month (for 6,000 litres). It is expensive because by comparison it is the price of one kilogram of meat or 2 kg sugar. While the many may refuse to pay the water bill, the women will directly suffer the consequences of water being shut off.

So, we must talk to the women. They are the ones who should have the final say. We are trying to show them that they must share their voices especially in regard to water – clean water. Because they are the ones who suffer the consequences of poor hygiene and they carry the burden from water-borne diseases.

What have been the most significant challenges and obstacle on your journey?

We live in a deeply traditional society. We have a saying in Kenya that behind every successful man there is a woman. But when it is the other way around, it becomes difficult because our society is male dominated.

For example, if you are in a meeting with maybe 10 percent women all the talking is done by the men. By the time you are given an opportunity to talk, the men have exhausted what they wanted to say. That has been a challenge because many women shy away from speaking up and calling out discrimination.

We see this with employment as well. Traditionally, when considering qualifications, men believe women are less qualified. And even if women are well qualified, men feel that they are not capable of succeeding in their jobs. The work environment is also unique for women. Work areas are not always female friendly. For example, at most water facilities, they don’t even have an ablution block for women.

Getting young girls to start working in the sector has been a challenge. The environment is not female friendly. We have to help men understand that when a young women is given a task; she is just as capable of doing it well. This is an area requiring capacity building for women.

 

Can you give a personal example of these obstacles and how you dealt with them?

I will use a water conference to demonstrate that women are not taken seriously. Let’s say we went as a group to a workshop or conference and checked in at the hotel. You are not given a room key. When you ask, “what is happening?” they would only then acknowledge that your name is on the list. Our culture does not allow a women to just walk into a hotel on her own. She must be accompanied. I found this a bit challenging at the beginning. To be in front of all those people at a reception area and not given the same courtesy as the men. I went there on my own accord as a professional. Not as a spouse or something else. Many do not think that a woman could be in management. They think you are just accompanying a man – say as a personal assistant or a secretary.

The woman will keep quiet and the man gets the recognition that he has made a positive contribution. It is something I frequently see in management even before becoming a Managing Director. We would be in a meeting and I could see everybody asking questions. But for the women, instead of asking them directly, they would ask the men to ask for them. Women just pass notes or send SMS messages and stay silent while the men converse. Maybe it’s the woman’s fear of asking a stupid question. This is a step that a woman has to take until she has confidence vocalizing what she is thinking about.

I’ve developed my own thick skin and now practicing what I’m preaching with Friends of the Ngong River in Kenya. For example, I raised this issue, protecting the Ngong River, in a conference attended by our Minister. Nobody knew who I was. I just spoke up and declared that “I am a friend of the Ngong River”. The Minister responded by saying “this is one of my MD’s and I’ll look into that”.

I started my advocacy to protect and clean the Ngong River last year. It is a river in Nairobi that is highly polluted. People are dumping their garbage and factories are also discharging polluted effluent into the river so it is technically dead. For me, because of my interest in water quality and pollution control, when I passed by the river, I was compelled to voice my concerns. I tried to write, to talk the authorities. Nobody saw what was happening. I felt guilty as a professional. I always say that if a doctor meets somebody who has an accident the doctor must stop and administer first aid. Or if it’s a journalist seeing a fight, he is compelled to write about it. So why are professionals, seeing our river suffering, not doing anything about it? I started sharing about the plight of the Ngong River through LinkedIn. That is where I got the friends, whom I now call the Friends of Ngong river. And, I’ve been unashamedly talking about it. The good thing is now, when I asked that question at the conference during Sanitation Week in Kenya (in October), attended by the Minister, things changed. I spoke up in the traditional form of a woman, but I introduced myself as a Friend of the Ngong River. I asked, if Ngong River was a patient, which doctor would she go to for her ailment? And then, with the whole ministry present, they said “we have got something to think about”. I’m happy that something is happening.

How have male colleagues supported you and in which way?

I do have male colleagues who have supported me in this journey starting from my college days when I was just 19. There were workshops on carpentry and pipework and we were 40 girls out of 200 students. The men helped us in how to handle the machines. They became my friends and my “brothers”.

Another example is in water quality. I was doing feasibility studies, visiting rivers and doing gauging. My colleagues were men. We worked together and they were the ones who walked me through this new area. I do have more men friends, and male colleagues who are understanding and highly supportive and I do enjoy their support in the board of directors. We work together as colleagues and friends, without looking at what is below our head and neck. We are all equal. So, this is what I tell young women. We are girls and a boys. We go to school and are examined on the same capabilities.