Gender Conversations from East Africa with Esther Njuguna-Mungai, Nairobi, Kenya.

As a gender researcher working in dryland agricultural research, one of the outcomes we strive for is equity in improvement of farm level outcomes for men and women farmers. This is dependent on rural men and women farmers adopting new technologies like improved seed types, good agronomic practices (early planting and the efficient use of manure/fertilizers, accessing enhanced linkage to markets for surplus produce). I have had opportunities to discuss with colleagues and I also notice in literature, that the question of ‘what makes rural women farmers adopt innovationsespecially in smallholder systems of sub Saharan Africa is a key area of interest. It was therefore a great experience to meet a woman farmer, working with the ‘The Development of a Robust Commercially Sustainable Sorghum for Multiple Uses (SMU) Value Chain in Kenya and Tanzania’ project in Kitui County, since 2014, who can be classified as an early adopter and a role model. Her name is Francisca Loko, 53 years old, a wife and a mother of four girls.

Why do I classify her as an early adopter? Loko’s story starts in 2014, when she was invited to a field day organized by the SMU project in her rural home in Kitui County. That one visit turned her life around. She learnt about good agronomic practices in sorghum production, use of improved sorghum seeds and the potential of commercializing sorghum products. Immediately, she decided to put 2 acres of her land under sorghum, with the aim that the produce would ‘take her out of poverty’. In that first season, she harvested  8 bags of 100 kg each. She was able to sell her produce at USD 0.4 per kg, making a total of USD 320 in her first sale. For the first time, she made money from her farm; and from that sale, there was no turning back. Loko soon learnt how to add value to her sorghum produce through value addition trainings facilitated by the SMU project; she learnt how to bake cakes from sorghum flour. “I bake cakes for birthday parties and weddings in my village. Each weekend, I earn  between USD 100-200 from the sales,” saysa proud Loko.

Loko quit her teaching job to concentrate on her new-found opportunities in farming and community development work.  From her sorghum-based income, all her childrens’ school fees are paid. She no longer relies on her husband for her monetary needs. Her aim is to become a sorghum processor supplying sorghum and sorghum products to supermarket chains in her county. This transformation happened in a period of 4 years. This story stood out for me, because I know many women farmers who have attended field days, learnt a lot but went back to their farms and remained the same or changed very little over time.  So what was it about Loko that was different? I had a conversation with her to try and understand her story.

Photo credit: Eleanor Manyasa, ICRISAT

Photo credit: Eleanor Manyasa, ICRISAT

Leaning in: The term leaning in has become a business motto, since Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook wrote a book entitled ‘Lean in: women, work and the will to lead’ in 2013. Although the book is focused on women in business, it outlines some useful strategies to help women achieve success: pressing ahead, projecting confidence, ‘sitting at the table’ and making themselves heard. Loko may not know the ‘lean in’ principles as outlined in the book, but my conversation with her demonstrated that she applied these principles. With a lot of confidence, when she was invited for the field

day by SMU project field staff, she was ready to learn. She seized the opportunity, made her presence known, offered to take up the challenge of planting improved sorghum varieties, applying the good agronomic practices she was taught, learning about value addition and turning it into a personal business as well as offering to take up new responsibilities in reaching out to other women and youth in her community (linking them to development activities) and soon found her niche. As she recounts, “I have been able to reach 3000 women in Kitui County  through trainings, where they were trained in value addition, good agronomic practices, post-harvest management, food formulation and poultry farming among others. I have enabled the training of 15 youth groups; some have gone ahead to buy water pumps that have been used to generate income as they supply water to various people.  I noticed that Kitui’s children were starving and dying due to hunger and the women were hopeless as a result of no income. Knowing that sorghum can be utilized in various ways to end malnutrition and poverty, I embarked on a journey of eradicating the two. I started to initiate food programs in schools and in the community. I do not give handouts to the women, I teach them how to utilize sorghum for household use. I pay special attention to group members who have health issues and I encourage them  to ensure that they are eating healthy and nutritious food to enable them to live longer.”

Personal agency: I was intrigued by the kind of confidence/agency that Loko demonstrated. She recounted a traumatic event in childhood that made her realize her inner strength. As a young girl, she found herself having to stand up against ‘a man’ that had committed an injustice against her sisters’ family. Her parents did not have a son, but for some reason, she took up the role of being the family protector, like a son would do in a typical rural African household and she was successful. This changed her perspective on life. This is a case of pushing the boundaries of ‘gender norms’; of what roles, what responsibilities and what power is located in a girl or a boy as a guide to the ‘mindset’ in positioning oneself in society. Since realizing that she can do anything and that being a woman doesn’t limit her, Loko has carried on that confidence to her adult life, farming responsibilities and community leadership. She is teaching the same principle to her daughters now.

Photo credit: Eleanor Manyasa, ICRISAT

Photo credit: Eleanor Manyasa, ICRISAT

Opportunity structure. Interacting with the SMU project, a collaborative activity between ICRISAT and Africa Harvest as well as the County Ministries of Agriculture, processors and seed companies in Kenya and Tanzania, expanded the ‘opportunity structure’ for Loko.  Since the project is value chain based, she learnt about accessing quality seeds of improved sorghum varieties that areappropriate  for her area, using good agronomic practices to increase productivity, good post-harvest handling and value addition as well as marketing linkages with potential buyers  of  sorghum  produce/products.    Loko  has successfully started a local cakes business.  She has a vision that she can do more and become a grain processor one day.  Loko has had an opportunity to travel abroad to an IFAD (the funding organization supporting the SMU project) meeting in Rome Italy, that was a highlight of her life, as it helped boost her confidence in addition to  giving her ideas of how to take on a leadership role in organizing  women and youth for development action.  “I am a role model in my community, a lot of women look up to me and come to me for advice when they are in need,” says Loko.

Can this story be replicated?

If Loko’s story is anything to go by, attaining adoption of innovations among women is a ‘whole’ that comes from many ‘parts’. Besides the projects and programs offering opportunities for access to knowledge, institutions and processes; change happens at the nexus of the women’s confidence, their ability to lean in and attaining success that supports them to validate their confidence. Just as I am writing this article, I receive a report by Kristin Mmari at the Global Early Adolescent Study1 that has demonstrated, from respondents in 15 countries, that ‘gender stereotypes are firmly rooted by age 10’. Challenging gender stereotypes that perpetuate female passivity is therefore critical for facilitating change, and it seems to imply it has to be done early, when the girls are forming their personalities before age 10. In the sum total of things, would that accidental traumatic experience in Loko’s childhood, that made her realize her potential, be the main driver of her success? How do we scale up such lessons?

This is an ongoing conversation.

1. A study partnership between the World Health Organization and the Johns Hopkins University.

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