When Hibaq Mohamed Elmi visits construction sites in the northern Somaliland city of Berbera, she is often mistaken for someone interested in renting or buying the new building. Nobody imagines her to be the architectural engineer on site to oversee the entire construction.

Since setting up her own construction company, called Mama, in March 2020, Hibaq has designed and built 30 private houses and offices in Berbera.

She works a 14-hour day applying for tenders, designing, and over-seeing builds. Yet every day presents challenges due to prevailing stereotypes of women’s role in society.

“I have been facing discrimination since the day I decided to study architecture,” Hibaq told Radio Ergo. “Our society doesn’t believe women can be construction engineers. Whenever they see a building designed by me, people say it must be my employees’ work and that I couldn’t have done it.”

She employs 50 men in her company, 45 as site workers and five in the office, and often has to struggle to ensure they take her instructions seriously as they are not used to being led by a woman.

Hibaq joined Berbera university in 2014 on a scholarship and graduated in architectural engineering in 2018. As a top student in the national Somaliland high school exams, people were amazed that she chose to study engineering and warned that she would surely fail. Luckily, she had some key supporters.

“There was a day I decided to change from the faculty of engineering and forget about my dream as society was not happy with my choice. I consulted the university chancellor and he advised me to continue. He told me to think of what I could be doing for society with my knowledge once I graduate,” she said.

Fighting for construction tenders is the biggest challenge, she says, as at first her bids were always overlooked for those from men. She almost gave up, feeling that clients doubted her ability, and attributes her success to her family, who supported and motivated her when she was at her lowest.

“I encounter several reasons to quit this industry every day. But I come up with as many motivating reasons to keep me going. I want to be a successful architect and I am happy that I have my own company now,” she said.

Hibaq’s exemplary work has been winning her a reputation and more clients are now seeking her services.

She is often asked by both men and the women she meets why she is not married yet. Sometimes people tell her that women belong in the house. Nevertheless, she is happy to brave the attacks in order to inspire other girls, whom she encourages to dream big.

“I am hoping to be the best architect in Berbera and construct beautiful houses,” she declared. “I want to take part in the construction of the country and achieve the highest levels in the construction industry.”