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    Being expelled from school for lack of school fees was the spark that inspired 14 year old Laetitia Mukungu to start a rabbit cooperative movement, a move that has metamorphosed into a behemoth now supplying to biggest hotels and keeping girls in school.

    When her mother, the sole breadwinner of the family, lost her job Laetitia had no choice but to drop school due to lack of school fees. She went to live with her grandmother in the village where she became a tutor in Math, Science and English. Seeing the plight of school girls struggling with fees as their parents were not able, she decided to do something about it.

    She borrowed Sh50,000 from the School’s head teacher and started the Women’s Rabbit Association, a cooperative that farms rabbits, helps support local women and pays for their childrens’ school uniforms and stationery. The rabbits are sold to Kenyan restaurants. Each woman who works on the rabbit farm gets a salary and free farming supplies such as seeds.

    The business began as an income-generating project to support the kids in the school. Laetitia learned that rabbit meat was in high demand but supply was low. She also learned that rabbits were the most productive of domestic livestock. They have a short gestation period of 30 days and are produce 42 babies per year. Rabbits are cheap, easy to feed and take up little space, making them suitable for most small-scale rural farmers.

    Rabbits are also quiet and can be raised in any environment, even in a school. They rarely get sick and are appropriate for rural women who have no money to spend on vet bills. Not to mention rabbit meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol.
    She knew that rabbit breeding was a perfect rural enterprise, since it “is not complicated and requires no professional skills, which makes it suitable for rural women who are largely uneducated.”

    In 2012, Laetitia was one of 12 finalists in the Anzisha Prize, a youth entrepreneurship competition which opened doors for her. She has since been invited to speak at international conferences and she’s received more funding for her project.
    Laetitia used some of the revenue from the business to launch a micro-finance bank to help village women start their own small businesses such as selling fish and fruit. “I lend the women from 5,000 shillings to 10,000 and they repay within a year, with…
    interest,” she said.

    Now 17, Laetitia is in her final year at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. While she is at school, her mother and some local women managers are looking after the rabbit farm. They have a vested interest in keeping the project going, she said.  Local producers cannot keep up with the demand for rabbit meat, Laetitia  said.

    To boost production, she is planning to offer the cooperative women three months of training so they can start their own micro rabbit farms. They would be expected to sell their animals back to the Women’s Rabbit Association. This will boost her profits and further empower the women, she said.

    Laetitia hopes to begin her university education this year. “I really have a passion for agriculture, and would love to study agricultural engineering,” she said. “I have already applied and hope to get into the EARTH University in Costa Rica. My plan is to study there and come back to Africa.”

    The Anzisha Prize is for African entrepreneurs age 15 to 22 who have developed and implemented innovative businesses or solutions that have a positive impact on their communities.

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    A project that gives women pastoralists market for their camel milk is insulating them during dry times when men migrate with animals in search of pasture and water leaving them vulnerable.

    Dubbed Samburu Camel Project, the project supports the pastoralist way of life in Kenya by reducing the vulnerability of women like during the dry season. For years, women, children and the elderly in Samburu would suffer when men would migrate with their cattle and goats in search of water and pasture. But the camels offer the women of this semi-nomadic community a drought-resistant source of food and income during lean times.

    Camels also act as a stash of emergency cash for women during the dry season. A herd of animals serves as a pastoralist's bank account; when there is an emergency, the family will sell a goat or cow to raise money. But when the herds migrate, women are left without access to their family's capital.

    Selling camel milk provides the women with an income of their own. Samson Lebitiling, chief of the village of Ngrunit, said he has seen the women's ability to provide for their families increase exponentially after receiving the ungulates.
    "It assists the children to get school fees," he says. "If someone is sick, (the women) will sell a camel and take the patient to the health center."

    Working with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, women from the project have also made dried meat, cheese and other milk-based products. And as an added benefit, camel ownership has helped to increase the status of women in this community.
    "Before, the cows and the goats were owned by my husband; all the ownership belonged to him," said Leisingobanai one of the beneficiaries of the project. "But now since I have got a camel, we own all the animals together. I just thank God and the people who gave me this camel."

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    Bishop turns relief dependent households into exporters

    An initiative by a Yatta bishop to get households out of relief aid has turned over 2,000 households into net exporters. For the last five years residents in the Yatta district of Eastern province have been on constant food relief due to suppressed rainfall that affected yields.

     That was until a local bishop, trying to find ways to prevent mothers from forcing their teenage daughters into prostitution, changed everything. On a Saturday evening in the district’s village of Makutano, Stephen Mwangangi, his wife, Margaret, and their two children pick bullet chilli peppers meant for export to Europe.

    The family is one of about 2,000 households that are part of a project called Operation Mwolio Out – Mwolio means food aid in the local Kamba language.

    The project began after Bishop Titus Masika from the local Christian Mission Impact ministries saw a story on local television that showed women from the area forcing their teenage daughters to peddle sex for food or money. “I was disturbed by the story. It prompted me to convene a meeting of all the agricultural and marketing experts born in Yatta who I could reach – most of them were working elsewhere in the country. We sat with the residents of Yatta to identify the main cause of the problem, and find the solution,” Masika said.

    What the residents needed was sustainable employment that would lift them out of poverty. “By implementing advice from the experts and using the traditional knowledge from the residents, we have now successfully eradicated Mwolio. But this was not going to be possible without the involvement of all family members at all stages,” Masika said.

    Local farmers were introduced to different farming techniques, which include the use of zai pits (pits of manure on top of which plants are grown), irrigation using rainwater stored in water pans (small earth dams), and the planting of drought-tolerant crops.

    Through seminars, training workshops and field days spent at local villages, Masika and other agricultural experts from Yatta managed to convince men to join the project. The men provided the hard labour to help dig the water pans, but they also helped women access farm equipment generally owned by men.

    Now farmers in Yatta grow their high-value crops, including the bullet chilli peppers, and jointly package and export them to Europe. Farmers are paid depending on the amount of produce they contribute.

    Masika said that the success of the project was thanks to the involvement of entire households and not just women seeking ways to support their families. “When we started this project three years ago, we only had 60 women participants,” Masika said.

    Now, if people want to join the project, they can only do so if all their family members join as well.

    “Working together as groups of families, when men became involved, has worked miracles over the past two years. As families, we usually reason together, identify prevailing challenges, and strategise how to tackle them as a team,” said Masika.

    And scientists from the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative say that in Sub-Saharan Africa, men and women working together for a common goal increases productivity.

    A book soon to be published by the initiative, titled “Transforming gender relations in agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa: Promising approaches”, highlights innovative methodologies in small-scale farming that have improved gender relations. The book states that cooperation between the genders contributes to increased food production, food security and nutrition, stronger value chains, and better use of natural resources.

    “This means that we have to improve women’s positions in communities so they have equal access to land, to tools and supplies (like fertiliser), to learning opportunities, and to markets,” one of the authors of the book, Marion S. Davis of the Stockholm Environment Institute, said.

    One of the case studies in the book is of coffee farming in Uganda, where men and women directly competed with each other, but in the process ended up producing lower-quality coffee.

    “But after a gender-focused project came in and encouraged men and women to collaborate, they were able to work together to produce higher-quality, higher-value coffee that they sold together, benefiting the whole family,” said Davis.

    Transformation involves more than just focusing on women’s needs and empowerment, according to the findings of the book.

    “It also depends a great deal on men and women working together at all levels. This is true particularly in the case of adapting technologies and integrating into market value chains,” Dr. Cathy Farnworth, an international expert on gender issues and one of the authors said.

    She said the findings showed that promoting methodologies that encouraged cooperation between women and men farmers resulted in increased productivity dividends when they shared resources and maximised the efficiency of their decision-making.

    “They are efficient producers with what they have, but usually produce less than male farmers because of their limited access to land, credit and other production inputs,” said Sundell.

    Janice Wanyama, a housewife from Bungoma County in Western Kenya, is a case in point.

    “I have just a small plot within our compound where I grow vegetables that feed the entire family throughout the year. But the commercial part of the land, the tractor used for preparing the land and other major farm equipments are controlled by my husband. But still, I have to find time to labour on the commercial land as well,” she said.

    This is despite the fact that women in Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest average agricultural labour force participation in the world.

    “In Ghana, for example, women produce 70 percent of the food crops, provide 52 percent of the agricultural labour force, and contribute 90 percent of the labour for post-harvest activities. In East Africa as a whole, women make up about 51 percent of the agricultural labour force,” said Sundell.

    She said that where women lacked the right to own land, children also suffered.

    “A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development indicates that countries in which women lack any rights to own land have on average 60 percent more malnourished children,” said Sundell.

    But a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations titled “Closing the Gender Gap in Agriculture” shows that closing the gap between the genders in agricultural inputs alone can lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.

    And the community in Yatta district is proof of this. “On average, my family earns Sh20, 000 shillings every two weeks. This is far better than many employed people in Nairobi,” Mwangangi said.

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