Women account for over 65 percent of all workforce in the country yet they never get to enjoy the fruits of their hard labour. Data shows that in Kenya women account for paltry 5 percent of all registered landholders nationally.
It is against this backdrop that the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute KARI has introduced a set of activities that engage women in commercial indigenous chicken and eggs in Malindi. In selecting farmer groups to work with, the project used a detailed profiling activity that included the composition and roles within the group by gender, as well as other factors such as the age of members, the main purpose of the group and its current activities groups were selected, comprising 936 members, 700 of whom were women.
A ranking exercise was undertaken by the groups to determine their preferred enterprises. To encourage women to voice their preferences, men and women did the ranking separately. Their results were then presented to the whole group, allowing all the members to understand the reasons behind their varying preferences and helping to reach a consensus. While men often preferred tomato production, for instance, women tended to favour chickens, which required little space or capital investment. Similar to the enterprise ranking, men and women worked separately to suggest suitable monitoring and evaluation indicators for their communities, in terms of where they felt impact was most needed, before coming together to achieve a consensus.
As well as farmer groups, KARI also worked through a number of Market Research Committees. Selected through a farmer-driven process, each committee consisted of 16 women and 11 men, who were given training on topics such as interacting with input suppliers and other market actors. The committees grew to understand better how markets function, helping the farmer groups to take advantage of existing and emerging opportunities.
Paul Mwandoe, a committee member, comments, "I was looking at the market survey as a study tour till we got to the first market outlet! There I got to know that the market demands specific products with specific standards. I will from now be producing specifically for target markets and will extend this to my other farm produce." To improve groups' poultry production, a 'learning by doing' model was used, suiting women members, whose literacy levels were generally low. Practical lessons on key challenges such as poultry house design, feed ration mixing and vaccination were included on a 'just in time' basis, at appropriate moments in the production cycle.
Group training and meetings were arranged to take place at times and days agreed by all members, usually between 10 and 11.30 am, when children were at school and women had completed morning chores. Early signs of impact from the training, which began in 2012, include an encouraging reduction in chick deaths caused by poor housing.
Rearing improved indigenous chicken breeds was a key step in improving production, but groups faced a significant challenge in obtaining day old chicks of these breeds. To address this, a public-private-partnership was developed with a local institution and farming entrepreneurs to build their capacity in incubating and brooding chicks, creating a locally available source for the groups.
Another significant challenge was the threat from Newcastle and Gumboro disease, which the women identified as a severe hindrance to expanding their flocks. Working with the Ministry of Livestock Development and Osho Chemicals, in another public-private partnership approach, allowed KARI to organise a vaccination programme. Farmer group leaders coordinated with the vaccination teams to ensure all members were reached, and over the course of 2012 a 30 per cent reduction in mortality was achieved.
Looking to the future, as the groups' poultry businesses grow and the value chain becomes more formal and structured, there is a risk that women may be edged out by men. Ensuring that local markets can cope with the increased production - rather than depending on facilities in towns or cities - is one way to support women's continuing involvement. This may require the support of policymakers, for example to ensure that slaughterhouses are located near to local trading centres, so that women can easily access them.
Another challenge will be to ensure that women remain cohesive within their groups, so that they can continue to influence the value chain. Negative attitudes towards the cooperative movement are common in Kenya, springing from bad experiences in coffee and tea cooperatives. Within the groups, the value of working collectively seems to be recognised, as expressed by Juma Kabaso, chair lady of one group: "We have been at the mercy of chicken middlemen who dictate the price for us. We now appreciate we own our produce and our voices must be heard. We can only do this by marketing our produce collectively."
Maintaining group cohesion, however, may require continuous capacity building from a wider range of partners, such as the Ministries responsible for social services and cooperative development. Meanwhile, at the household level, the project's efforts to engage with men and boys throughout the process have been crucial in gaining their support for the empowerment of women. Such support will also be key in ensuring that the changes made are sustainable.