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Construction industry is not for the fainthearted

…as a female engineer refuses to be intimidated by industry bullies

SENIYA BANDA writes:

THE construction industry is considered as a male domain and this is reflected in the number of companies owned by men, taking up all the major jobs. However, some women are determined to venture into the lions’ den and ruffle the weathers by setting up construction companies and offering fierce competition.

Melitec is one such company, founded by a youth armed only with her big ideas and a qualification in electrical engineering.

Changing the narrative and making sure she empowers other youths, especially the girl-child, is what drives Melissa Hangoma.

This is her story:

“I sold scones to raise money for school but still missed the whole of Grade 11 due to financial constraints and almost got expelled from school but today, I am a qualified electrical engineer, running my own company in an industry dominated by men, says Melissa. 

Ms. Hangoma, 27, of Old Kanyama Township in Lusaka, says she has seen life at its worst from being thrown out of the house in the middle of the night under a heavy downpour to almost getting ejected out of school for missing almost the whole year by uncompromising school authorities but says God is always faithful to those who trust Him. 

Ms Hangoma, the only daughter of a woman she barely remembers as she died when she was only four years old while she has never seen her father as he refused to take responsibility after her mother got pregnant, says she has seen the ugly face of poverty.

She says had it not been for her aunt who kept her faith when life seemed hopeless, she would have wasted her life into early marriage or would have veered into illicit behaviour just to make ends meet. 

“There was nothing rosy about my life. Raised by an aunt who was also struggling, life was unbearable but the worst came when I qualified to Grade 10 and got admission at one of the schools in Kafue. I had to leave my aunt behind and had to look for a house for rent. There was literally no money. One of my uncles helped me with school fees for Grade 10 but I never set foot into class the whole year in Grade 11. 

“Even when I was in school in Grade 10 in 2012, there were nights when I went to bed without food. I did not want to bother other people I was renting the apartment with and so, I never asked for food from anyone. Staying alone at such a tender age with poverty hitting me hard, I would have been forced into prostitution but God kept me faithful.

“I had no money to pay for either rentals or tuition. I could not return to school in 2013. I went back to Kanyama where I started baking and selling scones to raise money for school but this was not enough. For almost a year, I sold scones and when I returned to school in Grade 11 term 3, my first headache was the school authorities who told me matter-of-factly that I would not get back into school because I was not serious. 

“The head teacher even went to an extent of telling me that there was no space for girls who ran away from school to sleep around with men and only retuned when they felt like. She even asked if I had not been married during the time I was away from school. The world was crumbling around me,” recounts Ms. Hangoma. 

She said things got worse when she got to where she rented an apartment as her land lady told her she could not get in because she had arrears. 

In January 2014, she went back to the school with her aunt who begged the head teacher to allow her to continue with school despite her absence the previous year to which the head teacher reluctantly agreed. 

When she went back to the apartment, she recounts, the land lady said she would not move in her room but allowed her to stay with her. 

“But she was a single mother who was also struggling to raise her children. Life for her was hard and bringing me in worsened it. Then, a certain lady from church offered to get me. She had a stable job. The challenge was that where she was staying was far from where my school was but I accepted. Even there, things were not easy for me. I literally became a maid. I used to go to school in the afternoon and that meant doing all the house chores including preparing lunch for the family. 

“Also, I had to come back early from school to go and prepare supper. This meant that I was always late for school, and then had to dodge from school to go and prepare meals in the evening before the owner of the house knocks off. 

“Being away from school for a year and dodging classes from time to time, I did not perform as expected in Grade 12 but managed to get a full certificate. I thanked the woman who kept me in Kafue and left for Kanyama to join my aunt. A certain private school offered me a job but I did not last because the owner of the school wanted to start sleeping with me,” she recounted. 

She said in 2016, she obtained a certificate in psychosocial counselling and worked as a volunteer at Kanyama clinic but that was not sustainable as she was not getting anything and she stopped. She then got a bursary to study a craft certificate in electrical engineering at the Thorn Park Construction Training Centre where she also did photovoltaic solar installation and graduated in 2018. 

Today, Ms. Hangoma owns her own company which was only registered on June 18, 2020, called Melitec Electrical and Construction Limited but says the only challenge she has to land bigger contracts is lack of equipment as she is forced to subcontract other people. 

“I have just registered my company”

Melitec Electrical and Construction Limited is an engineering company registered in 2020. It is a Zambian company registered with all the relevant institutions such as PACRA.

This started when I wanted to be a doctor. I used to admire whenever I saw doctors wearing those white gowns and the like.

I understood that for one to identify what to do, you need to identify your purpose of life.

The reason I wanted to be a doctor was because I wanted to do what everyone was doing.

So after I completed school from Lusaka Trades. I got a bursary to study electrical engineering. I was self-inspired and liked fixing things.

When I graduated I told myself that I was not going to work but instead create opportunities for my fellow youths, especially the girl-child.

Q: Tell us more about how you were selling scones to raise money to go to school.

ANSWER: Ok. When I was growing up as a double orphan, I grew up feeling pity for myself. So I realised that I needed to come out of this comfort zone and take care of myself. I swallowed all my pride and started selling scones to cover costs for my secondary school.

Q: What led to you coming up with this company?

A: Culturally, women are supposed to be in the kitchen all the time. But I believe that women are movers and shakers, narrative breakers and dreamers. They are not supposed to be in the kitchen all the time. I am in a male-dominated industry and I think that I found space for me to come up with this company. But we have had challenges especially that we are female in the industry. There is intimidation and everyone looks down on you. For instance, they don’t think you can do the winding, plumbing, wiring. I am working with females.

Q: How did you find capital to start your company?

A:  I was using cash raised from projects to register with PACRA and other legal obligations. Whenever I had money, I paid the people I was working with.

Q: What other restrictions are you facing?

A:  Females are not normally respected especially on site. They won’t give you the same respect given to men. When it comes to payments, you find that women are given in instalments. For men they will pay them all at once.

Q: How many people are you working with?

A:  I have 33 youths, 11 males and 22 females.

Q: Have you ever thought of giving up?

A: I don’t give up easily. I am determined and focused. I know that despite the difficulties, I will over come. So I soldier on.

Q: How is the support from other women?

A: There is not much support from among women. There is a lot of jealousy and people don’t want you to do better than them. But we keep pushing and I am working with females and I am learning from them and they are also learning from me.

Q: Does being young hinder you in your work?

A: I am a type of person who knows how to relate to different age groups and of course I have to treat them with respect.

Q:  As Melitec – what do you do?

A:  We are a construction company. We do roads, NCC certified, we can construct houses, electrical,  installation of electrical pumps, geysers, CCTV, wiring, air condition for butcheries and mortuaries. We also do solar pumps and tiling.

Q: How has been your experience with access to finance?

A:  Getting a loan is not a solution. Getting a loan means working for just that loan. So we find others means to get the financing we need. Now we are looking forward to the CDF. We are seeing people applying and we are also interested.  Given a chance, we can do a lot.

Q: Do you have challenges of getting contracts?

A:  This depends on qualification. With the new dawn administration, there is no corruption. So if you are qualified, then you can be considered.

Q: How are you performing as women compared to men?

A: We are doing so well because we are trustworthy and  make sure to deliver on time.

Q: So are we going to see more women getting on board?

A:  Yes there are a lot of women and the only thing they are lacking is someone to help them pull through.  But as Melitec we are willing to help other women in the sector.

Q: What are some of the success stories you have recorded?

A: I managed to get females on board. I don’t like to see a girl-child struggling and I really feel so bad. I am glad that I am able to assist and to get youths on board.

Q: What is your advice to those graduating from school?

A:  Here in Zambia people love white-collar jobs. They feel construction is dirty work. I want to advise them to identify their purpose in life so that they know what route to take. What is important is what you get out of it. They should work on their dreams.  Identify what you are capable of doing. Don’t do something because someone is doing it.

Q: Typical day?

A:  I always plan. I am always on site. I sleep late and wake up early.

Q:  How do you combine your social life and being a CEO?

A:  I am a productive person not busy because I want to achieve that which I plan for.  My social life involves going to church, and that is just one day.

Q:  Which people or who do you look up to in the construction sector?

A:  First and foremost, the government for providing CDF because everyone that is their target and probably they would not give us free money and we have to work for it.

Q:  What is lacking in terms of government support?

A:  Government should ensure they consider companies led by women.  When we apply for contracts, they consider men first. The Vice President being female should come on board to support us. The government cannot employ all youths and we are helping them by engaging youths. Females have to come first. Females need a little push.

Q:  What support do you need?

A:  Equipment and machinery.

Q:  How affordable is it to venture into construction?

A:  It depends on what one wants to do. Some construction companies just offer one service and venture into construction of houses. It is not for the fainthearted. Us we do almost everything. It is not affordable. You need to be creative, determined and focused.  Businesses fail because people don’t know what they want to focus on.  Let’s keep supporting each other and especially women. 

This article is supported with the WAN IFRA Women In News (WIN) Social Impact Reporting Initiative (SIRI).
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Women In News

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