The golden girls of Kenya’s agriculture

As the world marks International day of women, Kenya’s recognition of women farmers has been dismal even as studies show that 80 percent of all Kenyan farmers are women. A paltry one percent of the women farmers own land or have access to agricultural supported financing facilities.

But even with these odds there are women from the farms to boardrooms who are making successful strides in policies, innovations and farms in a bid to make Kenya food secure and turn farming into business. Farmbizafrica brings you its own list of Kenyan women who are shaping the course of agriculture in the country.


Nancy Karanja- Sanla Farm
The former accountant turned farmers has received multiple local and international awards for her half acre urban farm that earns her an impressive Sh750,000. On only half an acre of land, the farm has 20 dairy cows, which produce more than 500 litres of milk daily, three 50 by 100 feet greenhouses, where tomatoes, cabbages and green pepper are grown, a fish pond, homestead, borehole and a biogas unit.

The farm has also received global recognition. During the 2011 World Food Day, it was awarded the best farm trophy among small scale farms in Nairobi by the Food Agricultural Organization in collaboration with the Kenyan government. And for the past three years, it has also been used by the Njiri District agricultural office to stage its field days.
With a burgeoning population which is moving to towns in search of jobs, food production is the next headache. But with new farming technology like Nancy’s industry players argue a big catastrophe could be avoided.

Sicily Kariuki Principal Secretary Ministry of Agriculture
Sicily Kariuki has been an avid crusader of modern agriculture as a tool of delivering the country from the bondage of perennial hunger. She was formerly the CEO of Tea Board of Kenya where she actively campaigned for modern tea farming models. This saw increased acreage under tea production, emerging tea export markets and improved welfare of tea farmers.
As a key player in the Ministry of Agriculture, Sicily has been vocal about the government’s fertilizer subsidy project and in consultation with industry players is leading in ensuring all gaps are closed to ensure that the project reaches the intended beneficiaries.

“It is a shame that at this time and age our people are still relying on relief food. My resolve is to make Kenya hunger free in the next five years. We can do it, we have fertile land and a very hardworking population,” she said during a National Farmers Award Ceremony held last year.

Jane Karuku President Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)
As the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Ms Jane Karuku oversees one of Africa's largest grant-making organizations in the food security and agricultural development sector. AGRA seeks to trigger a uniquely African Green Revolution that transforms agriculture into a highly productive, efficient and sustainable system that will assure food security and lift millions out of poverty. Africa’s agricultural story has been one of unmet potential.

Despite employing 65 percent of the continent’s workforce, and accounting for more than 30 percent of GDP, the sector is struggling. Poor and degraded soils, non-existent irrigation systems, crumbling public infrastructure and insufficient access to credit are all hampering the growth of a sector that has the potential to redefine the continent’s development trajectory.
Jane favours taking a scientific approach to the problem. She wants to see research and development – an often neglected part of the agricultural story – put at the top of the agenda, both by countries and donors.

“The first and most important thing is that we have to continue building on the capacity of Africans themselves to do agricultural research,” Ms Karuku argues. “That requires investment in scientists and in research institutions, which receive very little funding by government, so that we can breed more seed varieties that are high yielding and resistant to pests and diseases.”

Su Kahumbu
Su Kahumbu-Stephanou is one of Kenya’s most passionate organic farmers and technology entrepreneur. Su created iCow, a mobile app that supports farmers caring for livestock.

The iCow application essentially reminds small-scale dairy farmers in Kenya of important periods in gestation. This was information farmers previously had to acquire by contacting veterinary offices or artificial insemination providers. Now, via SMS, farmers register, inputting information about their livestock, and iCow pushes information and instructions to them, prompting them on what to do during vital gestation days. It also offers tips and information on feeding practices, disease control, and so on.

Much of this information is delivered over SMS, but farmers may also speak to a live person in our customer care centre. Our farmers will never trust something that is absolutely virtual — they like to know there’s a voice at the other end of the phone if they need it.

But iCow has already grown from when we launched it in June 2011 with two features — the gestation calendar and a search directory to help farmers find nearby vets and artificial inseminators. Literally — within two days — farmers started asking for more features. So we started building them, such as the iCow marketplace.

Elizabeth Nyaberi, Urban farmer
The self-confessed queen of urban farming has rallied families in Nairobi slums to grow their own produce and cushion themselves from the escalating food prices. This has seen hundreds of slum families not only able to fed for themselves but also earn from the surplus produce. Locals have now turned her small garden into a dumping site, more so: plastic materials hence hindering crop production.

To mitigate this, the self proclaimed queen of urban farming has resorted to 'plastic farming' where she collect and plant onions, coriander and even flowers an aspect that she says offers a double solution to food security and environmental degradation.

According to her, she reaps more from this venture than normal garden farming as she pocket at least Sh250 daily after selling onions, kale and coriander to local residents. During rainy season, her produce triples hence her market extends to neighbouring estates. She has a ready market in Muthaiga where she sell flower and tree seedlings. ''I take Sh9000 monthly income from my plastic garden which has benefited me a great deal,'' offers the lady who doubles up as second hand cloth seller in Gumba market in Mathare.

Jamila Abass and Susan Oguya- MFARM Founders
One day while reading the newspapers and depressed about the level of frustrations by farmers being fleeced by unscrupulous middlemen, Oguya and Abass started toying with the idea of making things right.

In 2010 Abbas and Oguya, both IT professionals in Kenya, set out to think of ways to empower farmers. Their brainstorms yielded M-Farm, which provides a digital marketplace for subscribing farmers using mobile phones. A few weeks later, the initiative won a €10,000 investment at the IPO48 competition, an international technology online challenge, and it has taken off since.

The key to the company’s success is the use of technology to streamline the production chain. Ms. Abbas explained, “M-Farm has a contract with a local exporter, who buys the produce directly from the farmers” using their mobile devices. This gives farmers access to a reliable and guaranteed market that enjoys stable year-round prices while eliminating middlemen and lowering transaction costs.

Dr. Charity Kawira Mutegi- Scientist
The 38 year old Kenyan scientist was last year awarded the prestigious Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, for her role in combating the deadly aflatoxin mold contamination that occurs in stored grain, which destroys up to 40 percent of Kenya’s annual grain production and been responsible for hundreds of deaths from unsuspecting people after eating highly contaminated maize.

She spearheaded efforts to identify the cause of, and solution to, a deadly outbreak of aflatoxicosis in 2004-05, fatal to 125 people in eastern Kenya who consumed contaminated grain.

Her diligent research led to innovative solutions to avert future outbreaks and safeguard the region’s staple crop of maize. Dr. Mutegi is leading efforts for the development of a biocontrol product in Kenya that can be used to significantly reduce aflatoxin levels in maize.

This works by introducing naturally occurring non-toxic strains of the fungus, which have a competitive advantage over the strains that produce the deadly aflatoxin, a technology that was developed by the US Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS), and locally adapted for use in several African countries by IITA and partners.

Margaret Wanjjiru- Vanguard farmer
At a time when farmers have been busy removing weeds from their field, one woman has been busy planting them, making juices from them tripling her income and wining admiration from scientists and the continent at a time when industry players are heightening call for value addition.

Sixty-year-old Margaret Wanjiru who farms in Rongai uses loathed weeds like blackjack, pigweed, Lantana camara, yellow sorrel, and wandering Jew which she mixes with indigenous vegetables to make nutritional juices whose health benefits nutritionists say include protecting the liver, heart diseases and preventing cancer.

She said, “I tell my fellow Africans: let’s go back to our traditional foods and vegetables. These days people are lazy; they don’t want to go to the garden and collect the vegetables. But if you are a farmer and continue eating these vegetables, you will remain healthy.” Wanjiru has been invited in many agricultural trade fairs and seminars across the continent to explain the economic aspect of value addition and benefits of traditional vegetables. Scientists have also pitched tent in her farm in a bid to learn more about the weeds and how else they can be used commercially by farmers.