Breaking the Metal Barrier: Jane Werikhe

Jane Werikhe tells us how she manages a male dominated job. Meet the Ugandan welder woman.

Halima Athumani

“Hustle until you no longer need to introduce yourself” these words motivate 43 year old Jane Werikhe, a mother of five and a former teacher.

“Women ask me how I manage a male dominated job. They say a lady is supposed to be soft and not do certain jobs, in fact in the beginning, many would discourage me, but I disproved them and perfected my skill.”

Jane runs a welding and metal fabrication unit in Kampala.

Jane- The Teacher

Jane- the teacher This is, however, not what she pursued in school. After high school, she joined the National Teachers College at Kaliro to pursue a diploma in Secondary Education on government sponsorship. In 1998 she started teaching history and religious education in a rural secondary school. Five years later she applied at Kyambogo University for higher studies. “I was earning 100,000 Ugandan Shillings (SHS- USD29) which wasn’t enough to pay the tuition.” Then, Jane applied for a scholarship at the university, which she luckily got and immediately started pursuing her Bachelors in Education. “They catered for everything and all I had to do was take my head to class and read books, I didn’t think of finding another job.” She knew that upon finishing school she would continue as a teacher. But she also realized along the way that disrespect for teachers was worsening, and it was coming right from the top leadership in the country. In 2013, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had lashed out at University teachers asking them to go back to rearing goats.

The teachers were demanding a 100 per cent pay hike and in protest had shut down the University. Teachers in Uganda make headlines either while demonstrating or going on a strike for a pay hike. Several reports on teachers’ pay, such as the 2015 Institute of Economic Affairs report, cites Uganda as being among the worst countries in paying teachers. Kenya, its East African counterpart, is among the top four well-paying countries in Africa. The study showed that the lowest paid teacher in Kenya earns more than the highest paid teacher in Uganda. But President Musevieni hasn’t been the first to react sharply to teachers’ agitations.

At the start of the first school term in 2011, then Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi issued a seven-day ultimatum to teachers warning that, “All teachers who abscond from duty shall not be allowed within the premises of schools and should also not be paid any allowances. They would be terminated and replaced.” In July the same year, the Uganda National Teachers Union, a teacher’s umbrella body called for a nation-wide teachers’ strike demanding a 100 per cent hike in the welfare increment from their current meagre salary. The government agreed to give teachers a 50 per cent pay rise in a phased manner, spread over a period of three financial years with retrospective effect from 2010. However, the increment has not been completely achieved. The teachers, however, remain hopeful that the government will include the salary increment in the 2016-17 financial year proposed budget. After 2011 it was August 2013, when President Museveni referred to goat rearing as a threat to the striking teachers. Jane laughs at the incident. “I said okay. It’s not bad to have a side income, but the President was undermining teachers. So I told myself, ‘I will not go and look for a job to teach, I am not ready to listen to some of these words’.”

The change

Around the same time Jane had her first child. And this was the turning point of her life. Jane decided to remodel their house and get a new bed for the new-born baby. She was introduced to Abbey who agreed to build her a bed. Having paid him twice, she realized Abbey turned out to be, what she calls, “a few honest Ugandans. He brought back the change. He said we had overestimated both money and material for the cushions.”

Impressed by his honesty, she convinced him to work with her as a partner; he was also skilled in metal fabrication. “He agreed but he didn’t have capital. I immediately came up with a plan and discussed with my husband about selling off my car to start up the business.” Jane’s husband, had brought her the vehicle after the birth of the baby. The car got her 8 million SHS (USD 2380). Two weeks later, Jane called Abbey and gave him 4 million SHS (USD 1190) to set up the welding and metal fabrication workshop. This was in 2010.

While Jane has not mastered the art of metal fabrication yet, she has hired six men and one lady to work at her workshop. “But I dust the metals using sand paper to smoothen the edges before I spray them depending on the clients’ color of preference. I am still learning how to weld because it requires loads of calculations.”

Welding it on Social Media

Welding or not, Jane is marketing her beds well on social media. Reluctant to come on social media platforms, she was nudged into opening an account by her sister in 2012. “In the beginning I wasn’t sure it was proper for a 37 year old to be on social networking sites,” she laughs. However, she was quick to embrace the idea of marketing herself on these sites.

“I realized I could not wait for clients to come to the workshop though we had just started. I needed a platform to sell my business and I stormed it like a mad woman in 2013,” she laughs again. “As a member of several online groups engaging in stormy discussions, I would wish people a good night and use the opportunity to tell them about my beds,” she smiles. “While some would lash out at me asking me to stop advertising my business all the time, there were others who sent messages enquiring about the cost of beds and handbag racks. By the end of the year, I started posting my phone number.”

With a growing business, Jane sells her beds at a minimum cost of 500,000 SHS (USD 148). “In a week I can sell about four beds and make good profit out of it.” Calling it her breakthrough year, in 2014 Jane says she got all the attention from local media and used it to sell her business further. “I was shocked to receive a call from an official in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, telling me I was to appear on a morning show on Women’s Day, March 8th this year.”

For Jane, it was important that she made a difference rather than crying over the state of teachers’ in the country. She adds, “My message to them was to use what you have, I don’t regret selling my car, I think I got something better out of it, now I go to Facebook to pick orders.”

Robert Bake Tumuhaise, Managing Director of World of Inspiration who, organizes monthly inspiration events for entrepreneurs and creative Ugandans has on several occasions invited Jane to share her story. “She chose a different path, for a woman to grow a metal fabrication business, it requires boldness and courage which many Ugandans lack.” Robert is also impressed by her decision to sell her car. “This is not common in Uganda; ordinarily a woman would hold on to the car and push her husband to look for money elsewhere.”

Jane clearly has no regrets selling the car. “I clearly got something better out of it. I also hope Uganda’s curriculum can be revised to holistically engage students into practical work instead of theory, especially the girl child. We live in a society where men dominate while girls and women are held back because of cultural norms. We are in the 21st Century, let us break some of these taboos that are holding us back, we all have a role to play.”

 

 

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Halima Athumani is a freelance journalist based in Kampala Uganda. For more details you can reach her at [email protected]

 

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