There’s a myriad of talented African women practicing architecture, but a lack of publicity and exposure presents difficulties in highlighting their work. The underrepresentation of women in architecture is an industry-wide issue not only in Africa, but in western societies like the United States and Europe as well. Statistics from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) note that only 17 percent of registered architects (as of 2020) are women. In 2018, a report published by the Architects’ Council in Europe found that women comprised 39 percent of professionals across 26 European countries. In Africa, statistics are hard to come across, but the few that are available suggests that the representation of women in the field is even lower.
In efforts to unearth more African women in architecture, Rwandan architect and illustrator Isaro Lise Katangulia created a social media brand that highlights the achievements of these lesser-celebrated women. “African Female Architects,” found on both Twitter and Instagram, showcases the numerous contributions that women like Linda Mvusi, Mariam Kamara, and more have made to the built environment.
Katangulia, who works with Zimbabwean-owned, Kigali Heights-based firm Vavaki Architects– known for the mixed-use Kigali Heights development project– has been practicing architecture since 2016. After studying at China’s Southeast University for four years, Katangulia returned to Rwanda and landed a job with Vavaki Architects following a two-year internship. As she gained working experience, she noticed that she was often the only woman on the team and found it challenging to connect with other practicing women that looked like her.
“When I came back to Rwanda, my main assignments were on small-scale projects, focusing on things like bathrooms, and it almost made me want to give up architecture,” Katangulia explains. “It’s very rare to see another woman in the field and I got to a point where I considered opening my own practice but became hesitant because I questioned my own capability. So I started researching African women in architecture, hoping to find at least three that I could relate to.”
Of the 143 professionally registered architects in Rwanda, just 16 are women (as of May 2021), cites the Rwanda Institute of Architects. Ghana reports a mere 216 registered female architects out of its total of 1,440, while Uganda counts 57 architects out of 243 total architects.
Given the statistics, it becomes evident why it was difficult to form relationships with African women architects. Paired with factors like a lack of online presence for some along with geographical barriers, Katangulia’s desire to connect became even more arduous. Despite this, she dedicated her spare time to researching women practicing around the continent and started a catalog of her findings. This would form the foundation for “African Female Architects.”
In January 2021, “African Female Architects” made its online debut, offering short biographies, headshots, and project photos for Nigerian architect Olajumoke Olufunmilola Adenowo, Egyptian architect Shahira Fahmy, Tanzanian architect Victoria Marwa Heilman, and a series of South African architects.
Since then, Katangulia has profiled dozens of other women, while achieving her original purpose– to connect with women like herself. She also wanted to disprove the idea that African architects could only be successful if they employ Western methods of training. Though finding the existence of some of these women hasn’t always been easy, the community she is building has created space for the networking, collaboration of ideas, and exchange of information that she hoped for. It’s also giving her some much-needed motivation to continue thriving as an African female architect.
“The response to ‘African Female Architects’ has been very positive and has generated great feedback” she explains. “It has also allowed me to speak with architects that I didn’t think I could get access to. It’s definitely bigger than I thought it would be and there is still a lot of work planned down the pipeline.”
At some point in the near future, Katangulia plans to create a website for her brand that will house a database of Africa’s practicing women architects. “The work done by these women is very impressive and to see that such works are being produced is a great tool to help others like me with their own practices.” she says. “It’s important for people to know that we have high-end designers in Africa and for people to know how to get in contact with them.”
She also plans to create printed materials and exhibitions that can be utilized in schools like the University of Rwanda’s recently built School of Architecture and Built Environment. To make all of this happen, Katangulia will need assistance and will create a team for “African Female Architects” that invites other architects, designers, and editors to contribute. “I am the mind behind this project, but having others around the continent reaching in will allow it to grow into something even greater.”
But the task doesn’t solely rest on the shoulders of Katangulia or any other individual. She advocates for educational institutions and professional firms to play a bigger role in increasing the number of women in architecture, overall. “I think institutions need to come together to push for a network that better reaches aspiring women architects,” she says. “Architecture is about experiences and individual backgrounds coming together to respond to the needs of society. Women have different approaches to design that can be brought to the table.”
Katangulia points to the work that architect Pascale Sablan has been doing with her organization “Beyond the Built Environment.” “[Sablan] founded that organization to address the disparities in architecture and her platform supports developing architects. I want ‘African Female Architects’ to be able to do the same one day,” Katangulia explains. She is hopeful that shadowing women like Sablan and curving those methods to suit her own brand will give it a greater purpose.
Aside from providing visibility and motivation, the goal for “African Female Architects” is to encourage more collaboration with and among African professionals. Katangulia looks forward to a time when it's not uncommon to see multiple women in the field influencing what’s being built. These changes do take time, however, Katangulia can already see some changes taking place. “The current architecture class in Kigali has nine women, while the previous only had two,” she explains. “More African women are joining the field, so there is hope but we need to come together to achieve more than we can on our own. We have talents, we have aspirations. It’s up to us to be open to change, to welcome new things, and to learn about the surrounding environment.”