International Women’s Day: Empowering Women in Agriculture for a Prosperous Nation
For Kenyans living in urban areas, all food has to be bought unless one has access to a garden. Most of the fresh food in these settings is supplied by mama mbogas; a popular Swahili term used to refer to women who sell groceries in small stalls in towns and residential estates. Mama Mbogas ensure that food is available to their constituents, and sometimes give it on credit when their customers are not able to pay in cash. Mama mbogas help cut down large trucks of fresh produce into small quantities of food bringing the whole chain closer to the ultimate consumer.
Back in the village where the food is produced, thousands of women wake up every morning to work on their own small family farms and later look for farm work on big farms where they can earn an income to take care of their families and inputs for their family farms. Without the immense efforts of women in the farms and urban stalls, accessing food would even be more difficult for both rural and urban households.
Challenges of Women farmers
Women farmers in Kenya comprise up to 60% of the agricultural labor force. Most of these women work in smallholder family farms, which produce more than 70% of the food we eat. However, they are faced with a myriad of challenges in carrying out their roles to nourish their households and by extension, their communities. For instance, they face challenges in accessing production resources such as land and water.
Access to extension services is a challenge to most women farmers due to cultural restrictions and often-overwhelming domestic chores. Due to lack of collateral, most women farmers are not able to access credit to support and enhance their farming projects and businesses. In many rural areas in the country, the participation of women in the market is limited to certain products, an example they are not allowed to trade livestock.
Women farmers and exposure to pesticides
An industrial model of farming is increasingly being popularised in rural farming communities. in Kenya. This approach now supported by both local governments and private sector encourages mono-cropping, heavy reliance on external inputs including chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Monoculture encourages the growth and proliferation of pests, which requires pesticides on a regular basis. Just like their men counterparts, women farmers also tend to use pesticides without following the required safety precautions. The high cost of protective gear makes it difficult for women farmers and workers to access therefore leading to high levels of exposure. Pregnant women are particularly dangerously exposed to harmful pesticides when working in the farms. .
Pesticide exposure in women is a major challenge, which comes with a myriad of health problems including hormonal imbalances and chronic illnesses such as cancer. Women are particularly vulnerable to cumulative effects of pesticide exposure since they begin working in the farms for long hours at an early age. Additionally they may transfer the exposure to the unborn baby, when pregnant or the infant when breastfeeding.
Small scale farms and food security
Contrary to the opinion that large farms with sophisticated systems are the solution to food insecurity, small scale farms can be very productive farms can be highly productive. A recent study by FAO on small-scale farms showed that sustainable smallholder farming increased crop yields by 79%.
Empowering the mama mboga
Food gets to the city mainly through middlemen who take it to major markets. This is where mama mbogas go to buy vegetables and fruits in wholesale and take them to their small stalls in the estate. Just like their female counterparts in the village, these women also go through various challenges. Transport is one of the main challenges for these women since most do not own vehicles. For most, a good relationship with public transport crew saves them, and it is very common to see them in matatus early morning. They are required to wake up as early as 4am so as find the freshest produce from the main markets, which can be sometimes unfriendly and risky.
Believe it or not, mama mbogas provide food to millions of urban dwellers on a daily basis, more often in open markets and shanty stalls which can sufficiently shield them neither from the evening cold, the afternoon sun or heavy storms. . They sometimes have to wash and chop the vegetables especially for younger clients. Increasingly, they have to deliver the vegetables to their clients who can’t get to the stall because of bad weather or are just too busy to collect their groceries.
To achieve sustainable food security, it is important to empower both women and men who take various roles in our food system. Support through training and capacity building, favorable policies, and incentives such as lower interest rates for farm loans. Investing in women in farming and food systems is investing in the present and the future of our food and farming systems as a country.
This article was written by Route to Food Team