Invest in Women, Accelerate Change: An interview with Priscillah Oluoch for International Women’s Day

Priscilla Oluoch, Head of Sanitation Services for Malindi Water and Sanitation Company Limited, speaking at a sanitation fee development workshop supported by WASH-FIN. Photo credit: USAID/WASH-FIN.

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, USAID’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Finance 2 (WASH-FIN 2) interviewed Priscillah Oluoch, the Head of Sanitation for Malindi Water and Sanitation Company (MAWASCO) in Kenya, to celebrate her career and share her insights into the water and sanitation sector. Priscilla, MAWASCO, and the Kilifi County government are key partners in WASH-FIN 2’s efforts to improve non-sewered sanitation services by designing and implementing new ways to finance these services. WASH-FIN 2’s predecessor program, WASH-FIN, also worked with MAWASCO to improve performance via reduction of non-revenue water through the replacement of over 9,000 customer meters and supported operating cost reduction through the installation of solar pumping modules. For more information on USAID’s work in Malindi, read the “Unlocking Climate Finance for Sanitation Through Partnership and Collaboration” blog and watch the “Making the case for solar powered water systems” webinar.

Bret McSpadden, Director of Global Learning for WASH-FIN 2, began the interview by asking Priscillah to share a bit about her background and journey in the WASH sector. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Bret McSpadden (BM): Can you share a bit about your background and journey in the WASH sector?

Priscillah Oluoch (PO): Thank you. My journey started when I joined HP Gauff Consulting Engineers in 1996, having studied water engineering at the Technical University of Kenya. I started working on the Second Mombasa and Coastal Water Supply project. It was an interesting job that required me to go to the field to take measurements, take levels, do survey work, do designs, and eventually implement the project. It was such a big job for a small girl coming from school. And I normally say that in the first month I was actually paid for crying because every other day I was crying because I didn't know what to do and I was just around men, which was very difficult. But in the end, I got some good men mentors who walked me through this journey for two years and I think the challenges that I went through hardened me to be what I am today. There were 78 of us working under the consultancy firm, but only two of us were retained to proceed to another project. So that is where the higher learning started.

I then moved to the head office of HP Gauff Consulting Engineers and was immediately posted to the El Niño project after water infrastructure throughout the country had suffered immense damage due to the El Niño rains. A group of eight of us, again me as the only lady, had to go to very difficult areas to collect data that would be used to design the required interventions. Due to insecurity, seven men were sent to the North with Meru forest left for the lady to comb, but requiring me to move with game wardens due to wild animals.

When we finished, four of us came to Malindi to manage the Malindi water utility, then called Sabaki Water Area Project. During that time, the Government was trying to commercialize the water sector and Malindi was a pilot project. After the new Water Act of 2002 came into effect, utilities had to be formed under the new dispensation then under the municipalities and the County of Malindi. So, that is how I got into Malindi Water. I’ve worked in various departments within the utility until I made it to the position I am in now as the head of the sanitation department. So, it has been a pretty interesting journey.

BM: Thank you. What originally inspired you to pursue a career in the WASH sector?

PO: I will say it was not in my dreams. I initially thought I would actually be in nursing. My father was a surveyor and he said I think you can do well in technical classes. I couldn't imagine coming from a nursing mindset to a technical field. It was not easy, but he encouraged me a lot, even with a lot of discouragement from the community. My father even stopped me from visiting one family because his friend was actually dissuading me from joining the sector, saying, “You know what, Priscillah, do you normally see meter readers walking around with spanners (wrenches)? You'll also be walking with spanners.” When I told my dad, he actually stopped me from going to that family anymore. So, he really inspired me. And when I joined the sector from my class, five ladies finished studies, but none of them pursued the engineering field. So, with the training I got, I feel honored to have worked with HP Gauff Consulting Engineers. I got very good mentors there. The late Engineer Joseph Gitau, Eng. Francis Wainana, Mr. Simon Munene, the Late Mr. Wang’ombe and others really held my hands in this.

And seeing the difference we were making kept me going. I used to attend the shutdowns in the night with this great team of mentors. After all the huge pipelines are laid, we would conduct massive shutdowns at night. After working the whole night to tie the old system to the new water systems, the cries of inadequate water supply would die instantly. This gave the whole team a lot of satisfaction, motivating us to keep pushing the project to transform more lives. This inspired me to keep working hard in this area.

BM: You shared some challenges of not having many women in the field, not having women in your program, and even discouragement from family friends. Can you talk a little bit more about the challenges you've overcome as a woman in the WASH sector and then how you've turned that into success or how you've triumphed over those challenges?

PO: I think the challenge that I just highlighted of when I got there, you know how women and young ladies are looked at when they join a job. It's seen that this one has been brought by the boss, so she'll be getting all the favors. It was very difficult to get the many men to even teach me the job. I remember when I reported the first week, I was posted to the survey section and given the theodolite, the dumpy level, a tape measure, a set of ranging rods, and given some three chain men and shown some bush and told, “Now with these tools and personnel we want a road here.” The only practice I did on that was in school when I did practical classes on surveying, so I needed somebody to take me through in the field. But it was so difficult until an older man just told me, “I'll assist you, Priscillah, to walk this journey. Please forget about the young men who are harassing you. I will help you walk around.” I think that is what inspired me to try and do my best because I used to learn during the day, then at night I go to my notes to read, so tomorrow I'll be better. And, let me tell you, that hard work eventually yielded results as I mastered the art by the day.

Later I did the pipeline setting out for a 5,000 cubic meter tank that was under construction. And I did it so well, you know, the lady with the details, marking out the inlet pipeline with blue pegs, the outlet with white pegs, the overflow with brown pegs. We then had a site meeting and visit with the bosses from Nairobi from HP Gauff and our client, National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation, and I remember the team leader asking the engineer in charge, “Who did this job?” and he pointed at me saying, “You see that young girl there, she's the one who did it.” And then he said, “Promise her, when she finishes this project, she has a job.” So, I think that hard work singled me out and I would say it's what has remained a great push for me; that even in difficult situations, I'll figure out how to go about it.

That is exactly the same energy I'm putting in sanitation. When the Managing Director just called me one morning and said, “I want to start sanitation services in the company, and I think you are best placed to support in this area. Could you figure out how this is going to be? Go think.” And he didn't give me anything to go think with, it's just go, figure out how it's going to be done. That trust and me always wanting to change things and proving that, yes, I am not limited but equal to this task, is what made us move. So, it's easy now, but I can tell you the first year in the sanitation department was not easy. A department with no resources, no money, no staff, no plans, nothing. Just a desk and someone sitting behind the computer. But we’ve improved to be where we are now with a clear plan that has helped us pool partners around the plan, each taking a chunk of the big vision.

BM: Thank you. What advice do you have for young women aspiring to enter the WASH sector and how can investing in women contribute to the sector's growth?

PO: One, I would say, package yourself correctly. Work on your personal brand because it is what will speak about you. Even when people haven't seen you, they'll know there is so and so somewhere who is doing something.

Secondly, look for good mentors. There's a good training that we attended under the World Bank, The Women in Water Leadership Circle, where I learned about getting mentors, both forward and reverse mentors. Forward mentors to pull you up and reverse mentors to keep you accountable. I'm looking at myself. How have I been able to get into this space? It's by having good mentors. I've had quite good men mentors, but also good women mentors. Dr. Barbara Kazimbaya-Senkwe (the WASH-FIN 2 Deputy Chief of Party) is one of my very good mentors. Over the 13 years that I've known her, I've always wanted to do what she's able to achieve. And I have been very vulnerable to her to learn as much as I can from her many accomplishments since she was with the World Bank when we implemented many successful projects together. Look for somebody who you can be vulnerable to. Somebody who you can point out your weaknesses to and would help you grow. When I was growing up I had very few women mentors until almost 10 years later then you find, like Doctor Barbara, Doctor Patricia Murugami, the CEO and Founder of Breakthrough Leadership Transformation Group, who has guided me in my leadership journey. These are people I can always run to when I need to be pulled up.

Reverse mentoring is good as well as you learn from one another, you motivate the one looking up to you as they keep you in check, and you desire to always fill your cup to share with the reverse mentor. That way I also keep bettering myself and have been able to mentor many young women in my department.

And then try and start building confidence. When a challenge is thrown to you, work around it, and see how you can deliver. And when you're not able to deliver, speak to somebody who has gone through a similar challenge, and definitely you will be able to go through.. So be vulnerable to the ones that already made it. Trust them. And that's how you grow.

BM: It sounds like you’ve observed a lot of positive changes in gender dynamics within the WASH sector, that there is more representation. Is there anything else that you would like to mention just about how things have changed over the course of your career?

PO: Maybe to add, I think women are also getting more visible and are forming groups such as WIWAS (Women in Water Association) to come together to be strong together. I know, for example, when we did the Women in Water Leadership Circle we started mentorship programs within utilities. We also want to form another mentorship program within our Water and Sanitation Service Providers Association, a national body for water utilities, so that we have more women coming on board. I think women are getting more deliberate and they're not shying off, they're going for it, and that is a positive trend. Actually, some years to come, it's men who will start regrouping to see how they can mentor themselves to get back to the space they initially occupied. [Laughter]. Yes, I think that's very true because many times when you take photos, you can count how many women are in that session. And most of them take active roles, not just being there passive. They're taking active roles. So, I think that's a great shift in the sector, and it should be encouraged.

BM: Great. As we celebrate International Women's Day with the theme “Invest in women; accelerate change,” what message would you like to convey to other women working in the WASH sector or looking to start a career? And I know you've touched on some of that before, so is there anything else you'd like to add?

PO: I can only encourage fellow women to continue being the steppingstone to other women. They say there's a place in heaven for women who mentor others and help them grow. I think all women should strive to occupy that seat in heaven. But I think we don't lose anything by doing good to other women. We need to ensure that they have that right enabling environment without the challenges that we underwent during our time. That they have a better way when they have challenges, then we can help them navigate around those challenges so that they are able to do well. And I would say organizations need to invest more in women. For example, the number of women who are at that childbearing age are high, and that's a time to be even more productive. For example, we've been pushing the utility to have lactation rooms. Can we have such facilities so that women are able to have work life integration and can continue working?

Also, look at embracing technology. I don't know how many webinars we have participated in and I'm still in Malindi. We should embrace technology so that we can be able to be heard even when we're physically not there. Childbearing should not stop women from furthering their studies. We have virtual classes that they can enroll in even when raising children.

So, it's just about investing in women, being innovative enough to have products that are tailored to suit women in the workplace so that many can desire to get to where we are. We are heading towards retirement. How many women are we mentoring to continue doing the good work that we are doing? I think it's a call to action for every woman who has made it to look back and see that as I'm lifting my foot here, is there another woman who is younger than me, who's stepping on where I was so that we have that kind of a good transition, and the sector will continue growing. There's still a lot that as women we can achieve. The opportunities are there for all of us. Let's continue mentoring one another, encouraging one another, and investing, even if it is not money, but even in our time to just guide other women. I think that's a good thing to celebrate, to see how many women I have mentored as Priscillah over the one year. I think that's a great achievement and I'll be happy about that.

BM: Thank you. Anything else that you would want to say to the sector at large?

PO: The sector should be more receptive to women. The sector should expose more women to the field of water and sanitation, let them lead projects, conduct workshops, etcetera. When you find a woman in a panel, in an interview, see how you can encourage that woman even when she's not ready for that job now, how she can apply for the next one. So, I think it's just about being receptive and having more women in the sector. We are not doing very badly, but we can do better.

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