Women's History Month: the environmental architect working towards a more sustainable future for Kenya

Meet postgraduate student, Sheila Atieno Ojwang

“I feel more than empowered and I owe this to those who have been at the forefront of the fight against gender discrimination and inequities in legal, civil, and human rights.”

Shelia headshot

A panellist at our International Women's Day event this Wednesday, Sheila Atieno Ojwang is a Kenyan Environmental Architectural Designer currently studying for a Master of Philosophy in Architecture and Urban Studies at Wolfson. Shelia is a member of the pioneer cohort of MasterCard Foundation scholars at Oxbridge: a programme that supports young people to drive socio-economic change and promote structures for justice and inclusion in Africa.

Sheila certainly plays a critical role in the politics and academic discourses of College life. As well as representing Cambridge University on the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Council, Sheila is Green Officer for WCSA (Wolfson College Student’s Association) and has served as the Social Chair of the African Society of Cambridge University (ASCU). Here, Shelia talks about the motivations behind her research focus on sustainability, the challenges of assuming positions of leaderships, and the debt she feels to those fighting for gender equality in Kenya.

How would you describe your current field of study? What motivates you?

My research focuses on both the suitability of Life Cycle Assessment tools for Kenyan construction and the Life Cycle Assessment of residential buildings in Kenya, in effort to identify sustainable benchmarks for the region. My motivation to pursue a master’s degree was fuelled by the lack of technical architectural research and advocacy in Kenya on environmental development.

How does Wolfson fit into this academic journey?

At Wolfson, I found a thriving and diverse community of staff, alumni and students invested in climate change mitigation. The College’s focus on being a hub for environmental initiatives and sustainability events at the University of Cambridge exposes me to experts in varied disciplines and industry-leading organizations and valuable networks. Meeting like-minded individuals interested in positive social impact and global development has enriched my research as I now approach it from an interdisciplinary context.

What is your favourite thing about your current work?

Under my role as the WCSA Green Officer, and convener for the Wolfson Sustainability and Conservation hub, I have gained media, communications, organisational and logistics skills that will be valuable in my journey as a sustainability consultant and an environmental design advocate.

Through the hub, I have been exposed to an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability, not only in my architectural background, but also in legal sustainability, waste management, art, and plant-based solutions. As a result of the thought-provoking discussions, I feel better equipped to engage in diverse conversations with the global society on natural systems to mitigate climate change.

Have you experienced specific challenges in your various positions of leadership?

Balancing dedicating my full attention to both the leadership positions that I have taken up and my academics at the University of Cambridge has been challenging. It is a daily undertaking of being honest with myself about how much I can take on and learning how to prioritize my responsibilities.

I am invested in the roles I am in as they are geared towards global causes for which I am passionate. In addition to growing as a leader and grasping the concept of delegation, I have learnt to view these extracurricular activities as a supplement and complement to my academics. The time I take to engage with the opportunities that come with leadership are moments for me to step away from my studies, socialise and rejuvenate.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you? What are the challenges you have experienced as a woman in your field of study?  

If I am being completely honest, I have not faced any barriers in my career as a woman. In fact, I feel more than welcome and I owe this to those who have been at the forefront of the fight against gender discrimination and inequities in legal, civil, and human rights, and those who lost their freedom or lives while doing so.

In Kenya, I owe this to organizations such as Women in Real Estate (WIRE) which has created an exciting space for women in the built environment to be mentors and embrace leadership. While 50% of architecture students in Kenya are women, only an average of 20% of registered architects are women.

Having served as the Mentorship Lead for the WIRE Youth Board, I am conscious that the education environment does not adequately prepare women for barriers in the quest for equality and equity in the work environment. I dedicate this International Women’s day to these efforts, in addition to encouraging registered female architects to achieve upper management levels by becoming partners and owning architectural firms.

 Are there any words of wisdom that have helped you throughout your academic journey?

“A woman is never old when it comes to the dance she knows” is an African proverb that I always fall back on. My interpretation of the proverb is not rooted in the connection, or lack thereof, between one’s passion and age, but in the grace that is womanhood. Often, in leading my life with ambition, pride, and logic, it reminds me to consider coupling these hard qualities with the soft touch of elegance, intuition, spontaneity, and the beauty of embracing my emotions.

Which women have been sources of personal and creative inspiration to you throughout your academic journey?

The women in my family – my mother Elsa Ojwang and my three sisters Yvonne, Stacy, and Lydia Ojwang – are a huge inspiration to me. It has been amazing to watch them grow, and I silently learn from their journeys, both personal and professional. They provide vital moral and financial support in my journey, aside from being the best dance partners. Amazingly, with their varied personalities, I have learnt essential social skills that impact my daily interactions.

Creatively, I look up to Tosin Oshinowo. She is a Nigerian Architect and the founder of cmDesign Atelier. My flamboyant architectural style is very different from her minimalistic and modern approach, but I look up to her navigation of the architectural space as a woman and a young person in the modern age.

In addition to being an architect, she is a creative entrepreneur, author, photographer, mother, and public speaker. In my own ambitions of wearing several hats as an environmental architect, sustainability consultant, environmental design advocate and entrepreneur, I admire her successful dynamism while still staying true to her design aesthetics and principles.

Discover More

Sheila Atieno Ojwang will be speaking at the 2023 Women of Wolfson Panel Discussion on Wednesday 8th March at 6pm, alongside five other inspirational female panelists. See here for more information about the event and other ways to get involved.

This article is part of the 2023 Women's History Month series: