08/27/2012 02:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Meet the Woman Who Turned Nairobi's Construction Industry on its Head


"You can either accept reality as it is or create it as you wish it to be." -- Michael Hyatt

Seven years ago, Rose Karanja's reality was bleak. One of a small minority of girls in Kenya to complete high school, she renounced college ambitions to care for her orphaned brother and sister when the grandmother who had been supporting them passed away. Ms. Karanja sold her schoolbooks and never looked back.

There was no work for a bright, articulate young woman in the neighborhood where Ms. Karanja had grown up. Undeterred, she packed up her meager belongings and found a home for her new family in Ongata Rongai, a teeming slum just south of Nairobi with a burgeoning construction industry. There she joined hundreds of other destitute women who trudged back and forth under the hot sun, selling drinks and snacks to the workers who were breaking up rocks and laying bricks to build the homes of Kenya's emerging middle class.

That's when Ms. Karanja decided to recreate her reality as she wished it to be. Faced with the impossibility of attending college, she turned the rows of dusty construction plots and concrete bricks into her lecture halls. She began to observe how the houses were built, how foundations were dug and concrete bricks aligned to create sturdy walls, how sheet metal was trimmed for roofs. She watched how the construction managers directed the process, producing blueprints, leasing equipment and negotiating with buyers.

The building industry was a male-dominated affair, and Ms. Karanja's initial forays into the more lucrative construction materials supply business were met with skepticism. Undeterred, she began marketing wheelbarrows of sand dug up from riverbeds. Later she progressed to hiring the unemployed men of her neighborhood to crush rocks into gravel, which she sold to her contacts in the construction sites. She used these small jobs as opportunities to network and establish trust among the construction managers.

After five years of steadily building up her construction materials supply business, Ms. Karanja had a lucky break. She secured a contract to build two houses from the ground up. In addition to sourcing materials, she would be responsible for hiring an engineer to design the homes and labor to build them, and overseeing the construction work. There was only one problem: nobody was willing to lend a woman with no track record of managing construction jobs the capital needed to get the project off the ground.

Still undaunted, Ms. Karanja turned to Zidisha Microfinance, a novel crowdfunding website that had helped several of her neighbors launch small businesses by linking them to the international peer-to-peer lending market. She paid fifty cents to access Zidisha from a local telecenter, and managed to raise the $359 needed to hire construction workers from individual web users in Belgium, Cambodia, Colorado, and Texas. Determined to prove her worth, Ms. Karanja completed the two houses and repaid her loan in record time. Her efforts to shatter gender stereotypes resonated with lenders worldwide, and her second round of Zidisha financing, for $1,050, was oversubscribed.

Today Ms. Karanja is well known in Ongata Rongai, and construction managers nod respectfully as she passes by. She spends her time supervising workers, negotiating business deals, and saving for the day when she will return to school and earn a degree in Civil Engineering -- which, she says, will better prepare her to achieve her ultimate dream of having her own construction company.

Ms. Karanja's sense of responsibility, self-discipline and ambition are something we see over and over among the entrepreneurs who join Zidisha. People like her aren't well served by the traditional microfinance model of group loan products, forced savings, required meetings and loan officers knocking at their doors every week to collect repayments. Their loans don't need to be managed by expensive bureaucracies at a cost of 30 percent or more in interest and fees. They participate responsibly in our lending community without hand-holding or coercion, and achieve extraordinary things with a small amount of investment capital offered at fair market cost. Given half a chance, they will transform their reality and serve as an inspiration for all of us.

You may read Ms. Karanja's story in her own words at her Zidisha Microfinance profile page.