Shane Heywood

Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development

Invisible Farmers: Kenyan Women in Agriculture

In Fantastic Four, a comic and movie about a superhero team, Sue Storm has the power of invisibility. While initially difficult to control, she later learns to be invisible at will. In this sense, while not willingly invisible, Sue’s experience is similar to those of a seemingly silent and invisible set of farmers in Kenya – women.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to travel across Western Kenya with my boss. This first trip was complemented a few weeks later by a second ‘tour’ with the marketing team at my firm, Western Seed Company, which makes high productivity hybrid maize seeds for smallholder famers.

In both tours, I visited around 25 shambas (Swahili for farm). In all but three of the shambas, the farmers were women. Some women plowed fields, pulled out weeds and planted seeds with babies straddled to their backs, keeping a watchful eye on nearby toddlers.

I also visited over 50 retail stores for agricultural products. In discussions with the owners of these stores, and from my personal observations, the purchasers of seeds were almost always male. At field days – events where demonstration plots of maize are harvested, and free products are given away – all the ‘farmers’ are men. At stakeholder sessions – where government, the private sector, and agricultural groups convene – the ‘farmers’ are all men.

Where are the women? At home, farming.

This phenomenon is not only one I have experienced in western Kenya, but is also a prevailing dynamic across the developing world in general, and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular. According to an article by the BBC, over 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s food is grown by women. Globally speaking, 70% of the world’s food is grown on shambas less than two hectares, and tended mostly by women.

While farming, particularly among development circles, is romanticized solely as a rewarding endeavour, the damaging effects of the trade, especially on women is less well known. Muscular-skeletal problems from carrying heavy loads, frequent squatting and kneeling are a concern, with almost 43% of women reporting back pain.

Does this lack of recognition matter? Yes and no.

One reason why it may not matter is that at the end of the day, households are able to cultivate and harvest the food required to generate income or for consumption.

Yet, the dissonance between the actual farmer versus those who are recognized as farmers does matter from an empowerment, training and policy perspective. Women across the world are bedeviled by a lower socio-economic status. Recognizing them for the important role they play in – literally – feeding the world is an important step in driving change on how women are perceived, respected and empowered in society.

Second, if men are the primary recipients of training programs and stakeholder forums, then women – the actual farmers – are devoid of the resources needed to be more effective farmers, with more yields.

At a policy level, government, development organizations and the private sector need to be cognizant of the gender dynamics in agriculture, and work towards empowering women and ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources.

I want women to be recognized for their valuable roles in sustenance of households.

I want African women to be revered for their contribution to society.

I want businesses, governments and men to engage and empower our invisible farmers.


2 comments on “Invisible Farmers: Kenyan Women in Agriculture

  1. Mario
    April 15, 2011

    Great article Shane and thanks for the insight in an otherwise “invisible” area of the world, western kenya. I am sure that few eyes of mainstream journals had the attention to report what you see everyday.

    I would like to understand your view on what do you think women dedicated to farming might need to be more empowered. And by empowered, do you mean to give them the tool to take them away from farming or to make their profession more productive and maybe rewarding?


  2. Brianna Heywood
    April 22, 2011

    good yet intersting article

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