Women play a critical and potentially transformative role in agricultural growth in Kenya. The country is home to more than 38 million people, the majority of whom live in rural areas and rely almost entirely on agriculture. It is estimated by the World Bank that women are responsible for 80% of paid and unpaid labor in food production.
Yet across Kenya, where 67% of people live on less than 170 shillings ($2) a day, women own only about 5% of the land and produce most of the food. Around the developing world, women are 43% of the agricultural labor force, United Nations statistics show. Women worldwide hold about 15% of the land, the UN says. Women in all developing countries need land rights to achieve any equality.
Under the new Kenyan constitution adopted in 2010, women won rights to own the land they till and farm. In the past, women have had the right to cultivate land but not own it.
This change is significant, given that more than three-quarters of Kenyans live outside cities, most of them on subsistence farms owned by men -- and, by tradition, worked by wives and daughters. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on marital status, allows mothers to pass citizenship to children and even sets gender quotas for elected posts.
"We all work hard in Kenya, but the women are working harder in the fields," says Esther Waithira Chege, chairlady of a vegetable marketing commission in central Kenya. "We are so happy the government is very much about the woman."
What women need. Many female Kenyan farmers participated in a gender-disaggregated agricultural survey targeting 2,500 households and 5,000 individuals in eight regions of 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 survey found the three areas where women face extreme burden and challenges are: access to water, energy and finance. For example, women are typically responsible for collecting water and fuel. In addition, since few women own property they cannot use it as collateral for loans.
Transportation was targeted as another key challenge for women in agriculture. 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.
One development providing hope for Kenya’s rural women farmers is new technology. New mobile phone applications, for example, allowin farmers to cut out the middleman, leading to an increase in incomes for farmers themselves.
There are signs that the ag sector is waking up to the importance of training more female leaders and pioneers in agricultural science and innovation. The African Women in Agricultural Research and Development Programme (AWARD), for instance, now provides a two-year fellowship for African women that offers training in crucial areas of agriculture and agricultural science, such as water and irrigation, crop science and horticulture.
Dealing with gender imbalances in Kenyan agriculture remains a monumental problem, particularly due to the fact that underlying gender inequalities in Africa is a cultural norm. Empowering women as agriculturalists will take time, but with the challenge ahead of feeding a growing population, there is no other option but to press forward.
Read more about my travels and check out some photos I took.