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Finding purpose and fortune in the soil

 Women are making a mark and redefining agriculture by sowing seeds of empowerment while cultivating crops [Courtesy, files Standard]

Women are making a mark and redefining agriculture by sowing seeds of empowerment while cultivating crops. Women who farm are proud to say that farming is cool.

With many stereotypes surrounding agriculture, women are often limited to roles such as cooking, cleaning or providing support for male family members who are seen as the primary farmers.

Contrary to these stereotypes, women are actively taking part in farming; take, for instance, Simiyu Nyambura whose aim is to grow enough food for her family. 

She says farming is therapeutic as it teaches her patience and peace. “Farming is cool, exciting and if you do it right, it pays. I believe the reason most people avoid farming is because it is believed to be dirty and with little returns,” she says.

For her, plants coexist without friction in nature; “I love seeing food grow and I love caring for plants,” she says.

Like Simiyu, Mercy Munene, the founder and CEO of Shamba Connect, says farming is a pleasing venture as it empowers women, offering independence, sustainability, and opportunities for growth, bridging urban-rural divides.

Through Shamba Connect, Munene introduces, trains and empowers young commercial sex workers in slum areas on urban farming as a new source of livelihood.

Simiyu grew up on a farm, but moving to the city where there was no constant supply of fresh food, triggered her to start farming.

Similarly, the struggle to access fresh organic vegetables while in Nairobi, led Munene to quit her job as a banker and go into farming.

“My experiment at the balcony was quite successful, and soon I started getting orders to install kitchen gardens for clients. We have gradually grown to include landscaping and seedlings propagation,” Munene says, adding that farming is her primary source of income.

While statistics show that most food is grown by women in smallholder farms, few are recognised for the efforts, as many times, the land is owned by men - who are key decision makers.

“I love to see a seed transform from a tiny piece to a huge plant and then to food. Gardening is fulfilling. Also, the fresh nutritious and safe food can provide for my family is a great thing,” says Simiyu, who is also in business.

This is one of the many women who take pride in getting their hands dirty on the farm to cultivate food for the family or sale; this is contrary to the belief that most women fancy white-collar jobs, especially in this modern day and age.

 Women who farm are proud to say that farming is cool [Courtesy, Getty]

Despite glorifying agriculture, the small farmer is not without challenges.

“The biggest challenge is, as a woman you may not be given the same platforms and access as men in the same line. Mostly women are assumed to offer labour, but men own land and make decisions,” Simiyu says.

While urban women have only recently started kitchen gardening and farming, for women in rural areas, farming is the business of the day.

Munene says the limited capital and labour intensity of farming is a challenge for her.

Women are valuable in the agricultural value chain, Simiyu says, noting that women have diverse perspectives, innovative solutions, and unique skill sets.

“They often have a deep understanding of local ecosystems and community dynamics, which can lead to more sustainable farming practices,” she says.

Additionally, women are frequently involved in seed selection, crop diversification, and small-scale farming initiatives, all of which play crucial roles in food security and environmental conservation.

“Moreover, empowering women in agriculture can lead to increased household income and improved nutrition for families,” says Simiyu.

Farming has been depicted as a role for the old men and women in rural areas to practice. Munene says this is a stereotype of farming.

“I defy the stereotype by illuminating the vibrant tapestry of modern agriculture. Through relentless pursuit of knowledge, I transform farming into a thrilling journey of discovery and prosperity,” says Munene.

While women are known to bring the family together, especially through food, Munene advises that learning to conduct farming profitably to make money out of farming is very vital.

“As a young woman with a growing family, my favourite part of my day is sitting with my family around hot, delicious food, part of which has been harvested fresh from the farm,” he says.

Another farmer, Muthoni Karume from Njemu farm, says she drew her inspiration from watching her uncle fetch large proceeds from pig farming.

For her, pig farming is a passion “and also self-time management as it gives me more time to be near kids and earn income”.

Muthoni who trains and coaches women and youth, on profitable pig farming, says she did Accounting, which helps her manage her accounts.

Mercy Limbua supports the agriculture food chain, her commitment to food safety and security was sparked in 2011 during the Kenyans for Kenyans campaign.

Mercy believes food safety and quality have a big role to play in attaining food nutrition and security.

For the longest time, farming has been perceived as a dirty job for all, not just women.

“I find it ironic to say that farming is dirty, yet it is through farming that we acquire food to eat, earn some income, and educate our children.

“Women do not look down on farming as being dirt because if they do their families would perish to hunger, thus they have continued to embrace farming,” says Mercy, lauding the move by women doing farming regardless of the size of land.

“I find farming amazing, and not just cool,” she says, adding that people - especially the youth have shied away from farming to pursue white-collar jobs.”

Mercy believes that women should identify what they can offer in the value chain as opportunities are not gender specific.

“I found my niche in food safety and that is what I do best in this space, someone else has their niche in ICT and they are thriving in it,” she says.

As a player in the agriculture value chain, the Food Science and Technology graduate says the potential of women in farming is limited by factors such as access to land.

Like Simiyu, she has observed that most of the lands are owned by men and very few of them allow their women to fully utilise the land, “and if they do, they do now have say or control on what to do or manage the farm thus their potential limited”.

“Access to finance, especially for farming is another challenge with institutional financiers like banks and, microfinance, as the women do not have collateral like title deeds,” she says, adding that high interest rates in financing block women’s access to finance.

According to Mercy, women have been limited from engaging with the outside world in production activities like farming based on a stereotype that they are caregivers and not providers.

“Despite progress made by women, agriculture continues to be a male-dominated industry, most notably in principal producer roles. This lack of authority prevents women from having the voice they need to positively shape the industry,” Mercy says.

Mercy says that women tend to engage more in environmentally-conscious practices, and that many are likely to explore farm-based side businesses.

 

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