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In Kenya, Survey of Female Farmers Uncovers Challenges

September 9, 2011

  • Rare survey seeks Kenyan women’s input and data to inform agricultural policy.
  • Female farmers have limited access to water, energy and finance; few women own property they can use as collateral for loans.
  • As agriculture becomes ‘feminized’ and men abandon farms to work in cities, policies must change to meet women’s needs, say experts.

September 9, 2011—Shelmith Wanjiru Kuria leans against the rustic wood fence bordering her farm in the Kenyan highlands, majestic Mount Kenya a picturesque backdrop. The area has some of Kenya's most productive farmland, and some of its hardest working female farmers, says Shelmith, 34.

“Women are now dominating farming,” she says. She guesses 80% of farmers in her community are female. “Men here are supported by the women. The woman provides everything, even for the man. There's nothing she can do about it.”

The widowed mother of two was one of many female farmers participating in a gender-disaggregated agricultural survey targeting 2,500 households and 5,000 individuals in eight regions of the Kenya.  The survey was conducted by Egerton University's Tegemeo Institute between April and June 2011, and sponsored by the World Bank and the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture. 

The resulting snapshot of farmers’ productivity and overall welfare is expected to influence agricultural, gender, and food security policy as Kenya moves to cope with drought and rising food prices that have driven millions of people to seek food assistance this year.

It will likely also confirm perceptions that more women than ever before are farming as men seek other jobs and migrate to cities and towns, says Beatrice Mwaura, gender officer in the Ministry of Agriculture.

“We need concrete data to inform issues of food security, marketing, access to services and resources," says Mwaura.

"Agriculture is the backbone of the economy, and there is an awakening among leaders that gender issues could really matter after all. Anybody who doesn’t think it matters is being left behind.”

Most Interviews Are with Women

The survey was designed to capture input from both husband and wife in a household, to ensure it collected data from “people who really farm,” says World Bank Senior Gender Specialist Asa Britta Torkelsson.

“Conventional surveys usually target the head of the household and hence miss out on one side of the story,” says Torkelsson. That fact has contributed to under-reporting of women’s views and involvement in agriculture,  she says.

The survey also collected data on farmers’ access to water, energy and finance – three areas where women face extra burdens and challenges. Women are typically responsible for collecting water and fuel. In addition, few women own property they can use as collateral for loans, she adds.

While full results are not yet available, enumerators who conducted the survey in Central Province say most of their interviews were with women heading households abandoned by men.

Enumerators also note that most farmers have small farms and grow crops for their own consumption, commonly selling them only to raise money to pay a medical bill or other expense.

Even in agriculturally productive regions, farmers have problems getting their produce to relatively nearby markets, let alone to areas of the country with food shortages. Most don't own a truck, car, or even a bicycle. Female farmers, by custom, mainly walk or use public transportation when available.

As a result, brokers and hawkers with trucks, motorcycles and bicycles commonly transport produce to market, reaping most of the trading benefits. But the brokers won't travel dirt roads that are washed out by rain, and produce often rots in the fields, farmers say.

Costly Inputs, Slim Profit Margins

In addition, high fertilizer costs and low prices from brokers result in slim profit margins, they add.

Jane Wambul says yields on her 4-acre farm are decreasing because she can't afford to buy the recommended amount of fertilizer. She says the price for fertilizer has risen from 300 shillings (about $3.25) for a 250 kg bag in 2005, to about 4,000 shillings (about $43) today. Government-subsidized fertilizer, at 2,500 ($26.90) a bag, is rarely available, she says.

Neighbor Veronica Wariumu, 62, supports eight people, including four grandchildren, on her 5-acre farm near Kirimangai, west of the Aberdare mountain range. But the family is often short of food. There isn’t enough money to open a bank account. Though power lines pass over their house, they can't afford to connect to the grid.

"Life is worsening as years go by, because inputs are costly and prices in shops are very high. On the other hand, prices for what we produce are very low,” says Veronica Warimu, 62.

Lure of the City

Veronica’s daughter, Josphine Musa, 27, a single mother of two young children, works with her mother on the farm but says she’d rather be in business – any business—than farming.

"Men get most of the opportunities," says Josphine, who completed three years of secondary school. "There is a bias toward men when it comes to a job."

Farming has lost its luster for increasing numbers of young men, who have left for the cities while  women “eke out a living” in rural areas, says Professor Wangari Mwai, who speaks frequently on gender issues.  Just as agriculture has become feminized, policies and assistance must change to meet the needs of women, she says.

“When you target food security issues, you actually target women,” she says. “As a single woman with only one cow, you may not be able to be very productive. But if water points are provided and women are empowered to farm, I believe we can make a great difference in the lives of rural women.”

World Bank Senior Agriculture Economist Andrew Karanja says the survey will help the Kenya Agricultural Productivity and Agribusiness Project better serve women. The survey’s findings will have implications for technology development. Agricultural extension services, too, might change substantially, he says.

“We need to find ways to make it attractive to women, and available at suitable times for women, because they have other issues to deal with.”