By Maria Villalpando
More than twenty women gather below the shade of an old acacia as children and goats roam around, and the heat starts to intensify before midday. They laugh, encourage each other, and constantly nod at their peers’ commentaries and experiences. Women’s self-help groups have become safe spaces for farmer women in Sandai and Loboi, and almost every woman in these two rural villages in Baringo belongs to one. Some tell stories about sleeping in their farmsteads to make sure the cattle don’t come in and destroy the crops at night, of waking up at 3 a.m to find sufficient water in the canals before the irrigation system is closed in the morning, and others simply laugh at the idea of men helping them out in their farming activities.
This year the drought has been the worst since 2017, when the women recall having to rely almost entirely on food aid. The rain came too late, and it now floods the eroded canals behind their farmsteads. It came so late the cattle have been allowed to roam around freely and eat the half-grown, dried maize. Household food security has always represented a challenge in their communities, and this year’s lack of rain has made agriculture a gamble. There is a general sense of loss and uncertainty among the women; they are all farmers, but they have no food. Fully aware of the paradoxical situation, at times they seem defeated by their lack of options.
These women’s mothers and grandmothers used to save seeds, but today saving seeds in their communities—at least those used to grow Kenya Seed’s maize– is illegal. Kenya Seed entered Baringo county 20 years ago and since then has become the main and often only crop farmers in this region are growing. This parastatal company supplies farmers with hybrid maize seeds to plant and resell back to them. They also provide loans for farmers to buy the fertilizers and herbicides needed for the hybrid maize to grow. Each year after harvesting, all the maize is taken, and most farmer’s plots remain bare for the rest of the season. At first glance, this system might seem like a good opportunity for small-holder farmers to directly access the market, but there is a lot more to contract farming in Kenya. “This is agribusiness, not only agriculture” one of the managers at Kenya Seed Farmers’ Board in Marigat replies when asked about soil degradation and farmer’s livelihoods “…and food is second priority”, he added.
At the end of the year, the loans farmers take to buy Kenya Seed’s inputs are deducted from their final payment, and a year’s worth of labor is just enough to pay children’s school fees. When the harvest is bad, farmers accumulate debt, and the vicious cycle continues. The evident power dynamics between Kenya Seed and farmers have deepened gender issues in Sandai and Loboi. As in most of Kenya’s smallholder farming communities, the land is usually owned by the man in the household. Women work throughout the year, but because cash is directly deposited into the landowner’s account, they have little say on how this money is administered. When hunger strikes and there are no other crops for consumption or money to buy food, women reveal having to resist the urge of harvesting the maize to feed their families, as they must wait for Kenya Seed’s field managers to ‘approve’ their harvest or they risk having it rejected.
To avoid cross-pollination, Kenya Seed forbids intercropping, and farmers rely solely on their maize crops. Monocropping has slowly depleted the soil, and women wistfully recall when the local maize used to grow tall and thick, or when they harvested sorghum and millet to make flour for ugali, a traditional staple in Kenya. The use of urea fertilizer and herbicides has not only affected the soil’s health, but also bees. Once a productive honey-making area, farmers are now struggling to keep sufficient beehives to sell a few gallons of honey. Nevertheless, Kenya Seed claims to be improving farmers’ livelihoods through innovative contract farming schemes. The managers and field officers interviewed quickly went back to the ‘hard work pays off’ precept when delving into uncomfortable topics, such as farmer’s malnutrition and health issues.
Women have been disproportionately affected by this farming system and the lack of control over their natural resources. Taboos over ownership and women empowerment prevent them from setting aside land to grow crops for their families’ own consumption, and even from seeking other income-generating opportunities besides contract farming. Tea, ugali, and milk make up most of their family’s diets, and cooking local vegetables such as terere, managu and sukuma wiki has become more and more challenging as they are no longer growing them locally. In these rural communities, women are both farmers and the main caretakers in their families, and they mention being constantly worried about their children’s nutrition and health. When asked if they would recommend the next generation in their community to continue working with Kenya Seed, they unanimously say no, and go on to describe the hardships of depending on maize seed production to survive.
The paradox of growing maize and going hungry permeates women’s lives in Rongai and Loboi.
Nevertheless, women’s self-help groups and capacity-building trainings on seed saving and kitchen gardening for auto consumption in recent years have filled them with a sense of hope at the prospect of household food security. Some have been able to open their own bank accounts and save money, and cheerfully narrate the small luxuries they sometimes allow themselves, like buying new clothes at the market. Although Kenya Seed’s maize still fills their lands, small green patches with cabbage, kales and sweet potatoes are slowly appearing here and there. Pole pole— Swahili for little by little — they tell me; change is hard, but it is always a possibility.
María Villalpando is a Masters of Development Practice second-year student. She is passionate about sustainable alternatives to rural development and in uplifting women farmers’ voices.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.