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Tiles company founder recounts tough path for women entrepreneurs

Winnie Ngumi
Space and Style CEO Winnie Ngumi during interview at her manufacturing plant in Juja on December 23, 2019. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE 
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The new Space and Style factory stands out like a bright blue citadel rising from the peach grasslands of Juja.

Until one year ago, when construction work on the factory started, the 10-acre property was part of the vast, largely unoccupied plains snoozing on the foothills of Ol Donyo Sabuk mountain, also known as Kilimambogo, which rises gently to the east.

Hyenas occasionally roamed the land with abandon and only the very courageous of herders grazed their cattle and goats there. Indeed, when the factory’s perimeter wall was completed, herders would routinely secure their flock behind it and pay for the service by providing the workers with free milk before setting off again at dawn.

Although the factory that manufactures about six home-building products has created more than 100 direct jobs, getting to its gates requires Safari Rally driving skills.

The Juja-Gatundu road that passes by the premises can pass for a study in lunar topography — it is that bad. The first shock, just off the Thika superhighway, is the chocolate-coloured mud sludge near the railway crossing, which notifies the visitor that one is well on his way to the factory. It is reminiscent of the footbaths that were common in colonial coffee estates.

The rest of the road is simply a nightmare and some sections are so bad that drivers have to give way to oncoming traffic. One stuck vehicle is enough to choke the life out of this important corridor connecting Juja to Mombasa Road.

Sadly, there is no indication that the Kiambu County government has any intention of doing something about the road soon despite the increase in economic activity in the area.

About half-a-kilometre from the factory is a well-made junction, complete with a culvert to allow for drainage.

“Our trucks used to tip over there while bringing raw materials to the factory,” says Ms Winnie Ngumi, who captains the Space and Style ship, a responsibility she has been discharging since she co-founded the company 18 years ago as a young architecture graduate from the nearby Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

Making that section of the road passable saved her the heartache of spending money on vehicle repairs and damage to raw materials every time a truck driving in to make a delivery tipped over or got stuck. On many rainy days, deliveries to and from the factory were also delayed when the road became impassable.

The firm shouldered the cost of repairing the section and today, there are as many vehicles trucking in raw materials as there are driving out with finished products, including the Asili brand of roofing tiles, which has been certified as a “Brand Kenya” product, allowing the company to export it to the East Africa Community duty-free.

“We have the capacity to provide roofing materials for half of the homes in East and Central Africa,” says Ms Ngumi.

However, the factory has not been operating at its full capacity — it routinely does about 22 percent — due to various constraints, including the fact that it lacks expansion capital.

As a woman CEO, Ms Ngumi constantly faces hurdles every time she seeks loans from banks and financial institutions, a challenge that affects the company’s ability to raise working capital even though Space and Style is one of the companies that made it to the Business Daily Top100 SMEs in 2019.

Only companies with revenues between Sh50 million and Sh1 billion are considered for this recognition and they must be audited for at least three years before they can make it to the honours list.

Only 18 percent of the eventual winners were in the manufacturing sector, and Space and Style was one of them. Notably, of the 100 firms, only 12 percent had female CEOs, meaning that women CEOs are a minority in the highly-competitive entrepreneurship arena.

It is also significant that 17.4 percent said working capital challenges was the second biggest hurdle they had to face after competition, including unfair competition from low-quality products, according to the survey conducted by KPMG.

Another 3.5 percent identified the high cost of expansion capital as a major bottleneck to their businesses.

“We still struggle to get credit,” says Ms Ngumi, a multiple-award-winning entrepreneur and business leader, who also chairs the board of the alumnus of the Centre for Corporate Governance, an institution that trains business leaders and public officers in ethics and governance. “Banks need to trust business people more.”

Ironically, it has been much easier for the company to secure credit lines outside Kenya, including from AHI, the New Zealand firm that manufactures the Decra tiles, which Space and Style exclusively distributes in Kenya.

Her tribulations with local banks exemplify the challenges that women in entrepreneurship have to endure in their endeavours to scale up their businesses. Such challenges notwithstanding, the factory is capable of manufacturing 3.9 million roofing tiles per year, which means it can create an additional 200 jobs were the plant to run at full capacity.

Incidentally, when Space and Style was born, it did not begin its life as a manufacturing company. Rather, it was a local distributor of Decra roofing tiles, which are imported from New Zealand. At the time, Ms Ngumi was the company’s sole employee, operating from a small office on Lusaka Road.

Ironically, although it was a Kenyan company, its first order to supply roofing materials came from Entebbe, Uganda.

A keen supporter of the Architectural Association of Kenya, Ms Ngumi used this platform to network with her professional colleagues and to educate them about Decra tiles. From these interactions, she landed her first major Kenyan order — to provide roofing materials for Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in South B, Nairobi, which had been gutted by a fire during a protest a year earlier.

Soon, word spread that Space and Style was supplying fire-resistant roofing tiles. When Sun N Sand Beach Resort was destroyed in a fire incident, Space and Style was contracted to supply roofing materials to rebuild the popular hospitality establishment in the Coast.

Over the years, the firm built a sizeable customer base and with the coming of devolution, it has put up administration blocs for various counties as well as classrooms, including a nursery school in Kibera slums.

The school was built using the firm’s Frametech Eco-Building technology, which also offers a viable solution to the affordable homes programme the government adopted under the Big Four agenda.

Soon, orders started flowing in and with time, Space and Style encountered what would later turn out to be a good problem — although it kept stocks in its warehouse, many walk-in retail customers wanted tiles in specific colours as well as tile profiles, and not necessarily those that were in stock.

At the time, it would take an average of three to four months to supply such orders since they had to be communicated with the manufacturer in New Zealand, who would then ship the finished products to the Mombasa port, from where they would be trucked to the firm’s warehouse to await collection or delivery to the site.

It dawned on Ms Ngumi that often, there was a mismatch between her inventory and what her customers wanted. She also wanted to reduce the time it took between the placing of an order and the supply of the roofing materials.

That was when the idea of manufacturing tiles locally started taking shape in her mind, but it would not become a reality until 2018 when Space and Style started building its new factory in Juja from where it embarked on operations in early 2019.

Today, the factory can manufacture a wide range of building materials, including Frametech steel structures that can be used to make roof battens and trusses, wall frames, which can then be cladded with boards to make walls. This is besides being the sole supplier of Decra and Fortiza tiles and other related products such as gutters, water management systems and asphalt shingles.

“In all, Space and Style has more than 10 product lines,” says Ms Ngumi, who is keen to see more women and youth go into manufacturing.

As the company continues to grow, it has had to venture into related fields, such as fabricating roofing trusses, supplying plumbing systems and laminate flooring materials as well as offering installation services.

The latter made it necessary for the company to start training artisans. Again, this was the child of necessity. In the period between 2010 and 2015, many counterfeit products passed themselves off as Decra tiles. Customers would call Space and Style to complain every time they had a problem with the counterfeit products.

To respond to this challenge, the company started training artisans to install its products at construction sites. Today, it has trained more than 2,000 such artisans operating in such diverse towns as Garissa, Eldoret, Nyeri, Kisumu, Kisii and of course Nairobi, among others. The first cohort was trained in 2012 and over the years, some have branched out to start their building outfits.

Now, the company hopes to partner with training institutions, including universities like JKUAT, to accredit the artisans. This will give the tile maker a stronger presence locally, which it needs as it sets its eyes on venturing into Tanzania and Uganda this year.

“We have also received enquiries from Egypt,” says Ms Ngumi, who is open to the possibility of doing business in Cairo under the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa rules, which offer concessions on tariffs for products made in Kenya.

However, she is still worried that overregulation and harassment of business owners still hold back entrepreneurs who are already grappling with other challenges that reduce their competitiveness, such as steep interest on loans, high costs of electricity and insecurity, which makes their businesses vulnerable to theft, not only of finished products but also of critical tools and accessories like computers and even data.

The one major hurdle that Ms Ngumi advocates should be addressed urgently is Kenya’s building code, which was developed in 1968.

freedom to experiment. Although the work of reviewing the code started 11 years ago, it is yet to be concluded and, today, the outdated code stands in the way of modernising the way homes are built in Kenya.

Were this to be done, companies like Space and Style can contribute to one of the government’s Big Four agenda of building affordable homes while professionals like architects can have the freedom to experiment with more materials besides brick and wood. It would also ease approval of building and construction by county officials.

“We can achieve Sh25,000 per square metre, down from Sh55,000,” says Ms Ngumi, meaning that the cost of building a home could come down by more than half were the sector to benefit from reforms in the legal regime.

She also challenges Kenyan consumers to buy locally-manufactured goods as one way of spurring industrialisation.

“Kenyans should have faith in products made in Kenya,” says Ms Ngumi, who is also chair of the Building, Mining and Construction Sector of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers.

“That faith disappeared. It needs to come back. We need Kenyans to know that we manufacture good things.”

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