Five years ago Irene Wanjiku quit her job at a construction firm to start her own business.
Six years earlier, she had joined the company as a receptionist. As she worked her way up in the company, she noticed that though construction in Kenya was changing, there remained only two main options for roofing: clay tiles or metal sheets.
So, after meeting representatives from global roofing and waterproofing materials manufacturer IKO at an exhibition in Nairobi, Wanjiku convinced them to give her distribution rights for East Africa – despite having no previous experience in distribution.
Armed with this agreement and US$21,000, Wanjiku started Rexe Roofing Products.
Wanjiku began by visiting construction sites in the mornings with brochures and samples of roofing shingles. In the evenings she would send off emails to developers, architects and contractors.
“Everywhere I went the first question I was asked was, ‘Where else have you done this?’ I did not have enough capital to bring in the first shipment and people were scared because I was asking them to give me money upfront. I would ask someone to give me $8,000 and they would look at me bewildered,” Wanjiku remembers.
Eventually, by collecting smaller amounts from individual homeowners, Wanjiku was able to raise about $40,000 – enough to buy her first container of roofing shingles.
“I am really pleased that some people would look at me and say, ‘You don’t look like you could con us’. I had to make sacrifices because there were times the only food I had was bread and a client has just given me $9,000 and I couldn’t touch even a penny. I would go change the money to euros and send it to the manufacturer. It was the only way to grow the business because I know of many people who take money from clients and disappear.”
Wanjiku landed her first corporate client in early 2012: a leading architect in Kenya ordered roofing materials for 100 house units.
She has filled orders for the Acacia Mall in Kampala, The Hub Karen mall in Nairobi, and the Mount Kenya Holiday Homes and Golf Resort.
In August this year, Rexe Roofing will open its own manufacturing plant. Located outside Nairobi, the factory will produce affordable roofing materials.
“What we are selling now is very high-end,” explains Wanjiku. “If you want to roof a three-bedroom bungalow it would cost about $10,000, which is unaffordable for most people. So we want to introduce a new business line making a different product for the mass market.”
Lessons for growth
When faced with logistical challenges such as delayed imports, Wanjiku says she would present her client with all of the documentation and give them updates on progress. Honesty, she says, made it possible to maintain the trust of her clients.
“When people asked me to show them what other projects I had done I had to tell them the truth: ‘Yours will be my first.’ Of course some people disappeared and didn’t want to talk to me again. But others admired the fact that I was a young woman alone at a construction site and trying to do business.”
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry presented its own challenges. “Some clients would insist that my boss come to the next meeting. They would suggest I should go up the roof to make demonstrations. I think they wanted to make me feel out of place, like I didn’t belong in a construction site.”
When asked about the reasons behind her success, Wanjiku says, “I am glad I was bold. Even in uncertain times, I always looked at things positively, expecting that everything would fall into place. The downside of thinking that way is that sometimes you take on more than you can handle, but I am happy living with the consequences of too much rather than too little.”