In 2018, Tuta Mionki became the second woman to be crowned Motor Sports Personality of the Year in Kenya. She tells us about how she got into motorsports, the practical problems confronting female drivers, and her work to encourage more women to join the sport.
WHEEL SISTERS: Tuta, please introduce yourself.
Tuta: My name is Tuta Mionki. I live in Nairobi, Kenya. I was previously (2019) a co-driver for Eric Bengi and was set to join a new team in 2020 but, due to COVID, we did not run the championship for 2020. I participate in the Kenya National Rally Championship. I have in the past taken part in the Pearl of Africa Uganda Rally and the Gomez Zambia International Rally, both part of the Africa Rally Championship, as well as a rally in Rwanda, Rally de Milles Collines.
WHEEL SISTERS: Tuta, you are a well-known rally co-driver in Kenya and have aroused a lot of media interest. How did you get introduced to motorsport? Can you tell us your career path?
Tuta: I was introduced to motorsport as a spectator as a child when Kenya had a round in the WRC (we are now back on the calendar after an 18-year hiatus). As an adult I later started following motorsport as a spectator, watching each round of our championships in the different parts of our country. A family friend had just started rallying and I spoke to him and he guided me. He directed me to the Abdul Sidi Rally Academy where I learnt the co-driver/navigation trade. During this training, I was introduced to my first driver Victor Okundi who was transitioning from the co-driver seat to the driver’s seat and patiently taught me more in the car. That was in early 2012 in a 2wd car and I have continued to learn and grow with every race, winning my first championship in 2015.
WHEEL SISTERS: What does the motorsport landscape in Kenya look like? What are the most common disciplines? Motocross? Rally? Circuit races?
Tuta: It’s quite an established environment and one of the most organised within the region and with a lot of history. The Safari Rally, for example, was part of the World Rally Championship for many years until we fell off the calendar in 2002. This created a rich environment that encouraged the development not only of driving talent but technical and event organisation resources. We were happy to be readmitted to the 2020 WRC calendar after the 18-year gap. Unfortunately, that was affected by the COVID situation and we are now looking at a 2021 return.
We have Rallying, Karting, AutoCross, Motorcross, Rally Raid and Enduro.
WHEEL SISTERS: How difficult is it to be a woman in motorsport in Kenya? Which prejudices do you have to deal with?
Tuta: I feel like the women who came before us paved the way for us and it’s probably a bit easier now. However, there are things that are done where you notice that there was no consideration given to women. For example, not having washroom facilities at various sections. When it comes to merchandise, whether from sponsors or event organisers, there is often no thought given to the female competitors, who end up with male and sometimes oversized clothing.
Another area is sponsorship. There are very few female crews that receive sponsorship.
WHEEL SISTERS: Have you experienced any sexism when racing, if so, how do you deal with it? Does it bother you?
Tuta: A few snide remarks here and there, especially initially, but once you prove yourself in the car, you are somewhat accepted as an equal. Unfortunately, like in most other areas of life, it feels like a woman has to work many more times harder than a man, but I must say that I believe that the great women who came before us paved the way for us and we probably found a more accepting environment. Another challenge is having to endure “male talk” that comes with the territory which is not always friendly to the female ear.
I mostly ignore things and do not let them bother me, but when something is extreme and needs to be checked, then I speak up to ensure that it does not happen to the women who come after me.
WHEEL SISTERS: You hold the Kenya Motor Sports Federation Awards for the best co-driver of the season 2015 (division 3) and 2016 (2-wheel-drive). Furthermore, you made history in 2018 by becoming the first woman to win the Kenya Motor Sport Federation Motor Sports Personality of the Year. What do these awards mean to you?
Tuta: They are special to me not just because they are a great reminder of the achievements but above all because they are a testament of what we can achieve when we put our minds to it and more importantly that gender is not a factor in this heavily male-dominated sport. Hopefully young girls can look at this and be hopeful that they too can achieve this and so much more.
(Nb. I am the second woman to win the Kenya Motorsport Federation Motor Sports Personality of the Year. The first woman won it in 1984 and I won it 34 years later.)
WHEEL SISTERS: Empowering women in the male dominated world of motorsport is a big part of your life. Can you tell us a bit about your initiatives?
Tuta: We realized that the number of women in motorsport is steadily declining. A couple of other female drivers and I formed Women in Motorsport Kenya to try and understand why this was the case as well as look for a remedy. One of the biggest issues is lack of sponsorship and a lack of targeted sustainable programmes for girls. We met and one of several initiatives was to introduce a programme that would recruit girls into karting, help them grow, and encourage some to transition to other forms of motorsport, for example, AutoCross and Rally.
WHEEL SISTERS: In your opinion: What should be the next targets and projects to get more women into motorsport?
Tuta: We are planning on targeting karting as an entry since it allows for the youngest entry age into motorsport in Kenya. We know that we need a lot of partnerships and funding or sponsorship to make it happen. Unfortunately, our plans have been temporarily put on hold due to the COVID situation, but we hope to pick up as soon as possible. We are determined to get it going.
WHEEL SISTERS: Are there particular challenges for women who want to get into motorsport in Kenya?
Tuta: The greatest challenge is financial. We have seen just one or two teams get sponsorship in the last five years. Unfortunately, when an economy is suffering, it seems that women are most affected. We also have at most two girls in Karting and AutoCross competing in any given season, and that’s why we must make an effort to sell and make the sport attractive to our gender, and work to recruit, retain and form the right partnerships to enable us to do that. It’s still highly regarded as a male sport and we would like to normalise female participation.
WHEEL SISTERS: What is important for girls who want to become rally co-drivers in Kenya? What tips do you have for beginners?
Tuta: Rallying is an expensive sport and one of the cheaper ways to get into it is as a co-driver. If anyone is interested in the sport, they should go for it. Talk to a woman in the sport to help you find your way. The Women in Motorsport Kenya (we can be found at the federation and through social media) will be of great help.
I would also encourage girls not to be afraid to be in a space dominated by men or feel that they can only co-drive for an all-female crew. They are some men who are open to having a female co-driver, if you master the skill and do a proper job, your gender will not be an obstacle.
Finally, Abdul Sidi, a former co-driver, has made it his mission to give back to the sport by training those interested in joining. Abdul Sidi can be found on Facebook as Abdul Sidi Rally Academy.
WHEEL SISTERS: Who are the people around you? Who gives you support?
Tuta: My family is my greatest support. I also have a group of great friends who cheer me on and some who were involved in helping me purchase my initial rally gear.
WHEEL SISTERS: You are a human resources consultant and rally is your hobby. How do you manage the balance between your job and the rally races?
Tuta: Rallying in Kenya is an amateur sport so one basically needs to keep a day job. I have had to learn how to plan well since time is the greatest constraint. We get a rally calendar before the beginning of every season which helps me to plan better.
WHEEL SISTERS: Which rally do you love the most and why?
Tuta: I love the Safari Rally which is a three-day event. I have not experienced it as part of the WRC yet but it has mostly run as part of the African Rally Championship. Being a long rally, it challenges my physical and mental strength. It also gives us an opportunity to compete against the best in the continent.
WHEEL SISTERS: Who’s your motorsport hero or role model?
Tuta: Michelle Mouton, she basically showed us that gender is a non-issue when she competed and won at the highest level of the sport – she is still very involved in motorsport. Patrick Njiru, a former Kenyan rally driver, was the first driver I got to know when I was introduced to the sport as a child. I also look up to Lewis Hamilton for his winning mentality and longevity in F1.
WHEEL SISTERS: What does motorsport give you personally? How does it make you feel? What aspects of it do you love the most?
Tuta: It helps me find a balance in life; it gives me space to have fun as I interact with people with a similar interest and learn from them. It helps me focus on my overall health. The fun aspect rates highly for me. It helps me recharge and start a fresh new week reenergised – and it always gives me something to look forward to.
WHEEL SISTERS: What are your sporting goals in the upcoming months or years?
Tuta: We are hopeful that we can get racing again in 2021 after missing out the 2020 season, which was cancelled courtesy of COVID-19. I am looking forward to racing in a new team, to the WRC Safari Rally in 2021.
I hope to participate in a complete season of the African Rally Championship as well as more local championships and hopefully win some more championships along the way.