Sometimes, women have to work twice as hard to achieve the best!

Outspoken and charismatic, Fresh Life Operator Mary Mutiso is a remarkable woman. Her story illustrates the difficulties women can face in achieving entrepreneurial success in a male-dominated environment.

Born in Makueni County in the south of Kenya, Mary got married as soon as she completed her secondary education, and she and her husband Mutiso had three children. Hoping to provide a decent life for their new family, Mary and her husband moved to Nairobi’s Mukuru Kwa Reuben 18 years ago in pursuit of better jobs. “Normally, in the village, a woman would provide for her family through farming, but here in the city it was different. There are no farms, so I had to look for casual jobs to earn an income,” she says.

However, finding casual jobs was not easy! She recalls that most of them were manual labor – the sort of work for which employers preferred to hire men. Discouraged by the lack of opportunity elsewhere, Mary decided to set up her own grocery shop; she anticipated that from selling tomatoes, cabbages, spinach, kale, and other vegetables, she would earn some income to help supplement her husband’s earnings.

“In Mukuru one has to keep learning various trades so as to tap into opportunities for small-scale entrepreneurship,” Mary says. While running her grocery shop, Mary also learnt how to mend broken shoes. Having built a consistent customer base she expanded her services by selling meat soup – a delicacy that is a favorite among Kenyans.

“I was the only woman cobbler in my neighborhood. My competitors were male, and many customers would go to the men. When they came to my shop, it was just to confirm that I would really mend shoes,” she recalls. Mary worked hard to assure her customers that she was good at mending shoes. With savings from her small businesses, Mary opened Pewa Pub in 2010, which she concurrently runs with her other businesses.

“It has taken a lot of hard work to make this business thrive!” Mary says. Her biggest challenge was the lack of toilets at the pub, which meant she frequently lost customers when they left to use toilets elsewhere. Mary’s solution was to put up pit latrines, but she did not have enough space for the facility. Fresh Life Toilets could not have come at a better time! She was among the first Fresh Life Operators to join the network by installing three facilities.

Mary Mutiso
Mary Mutiso offers Fresh Life Toilets to the customers of Pewa Pub.

Today, Mary is a proud entrepreneur; Pewa Pub is now a popular hotspot in Mukuru Kwa Reuben’s Bins area. Not just for the good time that its revelers enjoy but also for the clean toilets offered to neighboring residents. Serving at least a hundred and fifty customers every day at her Fresh Life Toilets, Mary says her business is doing very well. “Seeing my customers happy and consistently coming to seek my services motivates me to work hard,” Mary beams.

Last year, Mary added Sanergy-developed squat supports to her Fresh Life Toilets. This innovation has been well received by her customers, particularly children and the elderly.

“With the squat supports, cases of improper toilet use have significantly reduced, especially among children. Also, when people with injuries visit the toilet, the squat supports have been very helpful to them,” she says.

As a chairlady in several self-help women groups in Mukuru’s Bins area, Mary also mentors young women on how to be successful entrepreneurs. “I frequently employ young people at my pub, where I guide them on best customer service practices,” she says.

To attract more customers, Mary is now saving up to refurbish her pub and give it a face-lift. Her dream is to open up more pubs in other locations and provide employment to young people in the informal settlements. At Sanergy, we celebrate Mary’s strength and spirit; her story is a testament to the world of possibilities that open up when women are given the right tools and opportunity to chase their dreams.

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to urgent action for accelerating gender parity.

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