Women in Kenya's ASALs lead climate resilience for transformative change

The women of Kenya's arid and semi-arid regions are taking courageous and resilient actions to combat the effects of climate change. By recognising the crucial role of gender in climate change impacts, these women are leading the way towards transformative change and a brighter future for their communities.

A well-known quote often used to advocate for gender rights is from Gloria Steinem, who stated, ‘The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.’

Gender equality and empowered women are catalysts for multiplying development efforts. Investments in gender equality can yield significant high returns for development. However, the persistence of gender inequalities directly results in poorer agricultural and human development outcomes. A study by the World Bank, Global Monitoring Report 2005, conducted in four African countries showed that providing women farmers with the same quantity and quality of inputs that men typically receive and improving their access to agricultural education could increase national farm output and incomes by an estimated 10 to 20 per cent.

The case of Kenyan women in the ASALs

The Kenyan arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) have been experiencing severe climate change effects. These range from floods across the country where rivers have swollen, breaking banks, displacing hundreds, and destroying livelihoods, to extreme droughts. The persistent nature of these changes has hindered the socio-economic growth of the impacted regions and individuals. Interestingly, within these communities, the effects of climate change are felt significantly differently between men and women.

The impact of climate change on gender can be defined by the distinct roles men and women play in climate change dynamics, the specific effects climate change has on each gender, the different approaches used by men and women to cope with and manage the negative impacts of climate change, and the shift from short-term coping strategies to long-term resilience. Rather than solely portraying women as passive victims of climate change, it is essential to recognise their active role as change agents. Women possess valuable knowledge and skills that should be acknowledged and utilised to enhance resilience in climate change adaptation efforts.

The Laikipia, Isiolo, Samburu Transforming the Environment through Nexus (LISTEN) Project is working with women pioneers in the Kenyan arid and semi-arid lands of Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu, to build resilience and cascade knowledge and new technologies to their communities. Through this project, we highlight these women living in difficult conditions, constrained by the effects of climate change but going over and beyond to achieve great results and acting as catalysts for broader societal transformation.

The Nabulaa women group Opiroi, Baawa Ward, Samburu County

Nestled beneath the valleys of Opiroi, the beautiful landscape is a sight to behold. However, the destruction of the soil is visible at first glance, with huge gulleys making it a sight for sore eyes. One year ago, Nabulaa women group's land looked desolate, with zero chances for any productivity; today, the story is different, having undertaken a transformative approach to restoring their land. The group has established soil and water conservation structures, which marks a pivotal step in their journey towards sustainability. The swales, ponds, and check dams are a testament to their commitment to restoring the land. These structures mitigate soil erosion and replenish groundwater reserves, laying the foundation for a greener, more resilient landscape. The group has also invested in a water pan to collect and harvest water that aids irrigation.

The regeneration of once-degraded land is proof of their dedication and hard work. Where barrenness once reigned, now flourishes an abundance of vegetables produced through drip irrigation, signalling a remarkable turnaround in soil fertility and water management. Through sheer perseverance and the adoption of conservation techniques, these women have breathed new life into the land, ensuring its viability and output for generations to come.

Nabulaa women tending to the group's farm

Beehives at the group's farm

Beyond land conservation, the women have ventured into beekeeping, where they have mastered the art of hive management. As they near the harvest of high-quality honey, they showcase their knowledge of apiculture and their entrepreneurial spirit, diversifying income streams and ensuring economic sustainability. They also have a curio shop displaying and selling different wares, fostering economic empowerment and community resilience.

Women leading the way to regenerate degraded landscapes

This group has grown significantly from its humble beginnings, embodying the spirit of resilience. Starting with only 88 members, it has grown to 226 members, comprising 139 women and 87 men. Their innovative approach to land management and environmental restoration is central to their success. Across their 15-acre farm, the group has employed half-moon bands to plant Maasai Love grass, a resilient species that sustains livestock and contributes to ecosystem restoration. The group has created a governance and management framework to safeguard its efforts. With accountability at its core, owners whose animals encroach upon the reseeded areas face a fine of 15,000 Kenya Shillings, effectively protecting the newly planted grass and fostering a culture of responsibility within the community.

In addition to livestock rearing, the group has embraced modern agricultural practices, cultivating vegetables using drip irrigation techniques. This optimises water usage in the water-scarce region and ensures a steady supply of nutritious foods.

The impact of these initiatives extends beyond environmental restoration to community empowerment. Once reliant on external aid, residents are now actively engaged in food production, cultivating crops for sustenance and economic empowerment. Through training and capacity-building programs, the group has equipped community members with the knowledge and skills needed to build resilience.

Clean cooking initiative transforms lives in rural ASALs

The LISTEN project works to enhance clean cooking within households, providing environmental benefits and tangible improvements to daily life through reduced pollution. Among the beneficiaries of this initiative is Rael Letaya, a resident of Suguta Marmar ward, Samburu County, whose transformative story shines a light on the role of women in driving behaviour change in the ASALs.

Rael Letaya explains how the energy-saving jiko works

One of the most striking improvements noted by Rael is the stove's efficiency in reducing smoke emissions and using less fuel. Unlike traditional cooking methods, which often generate excessive smoke, the clean stove emits minimal smoke, resulting in a healthier environment for Rael and her family. Since adopting the clean stove, Rael has noticed a remarkable improvement in her cooking practices and overall quality of life.

‘Before, I needed to walk long distances twice every week and spend four hours searching for firewood. Today, I only collect firewood once a month, using the same amount of firewood for three to four weeks, eliminating the need for frequent wood-gathering.’

Rael's positive experience with the clean cooking stove has sparked significant interest among other community members. As word spreads of the stove's benefits, more households desire to adopt clean cooking technologies, signalling a growing awareness of the importance of sustainable clean-energy practices at the community level.

Bada women adopt poultry practises at scale

Comprising 30 members, 23 women and 7 men, the Bada Women group embarked on their journey towards economic empowerment and food security. LISTEN Project through the Merti Integrated Development Programme (MID-P) in Isiolo provided them with 124 birds, a chicken unit, and chicken feeds. Before receiving the birds, the group benefited from capacity-building training on indigenous chicken husbandry facilitated by the Isiolo County Livestock Officer, enhancing valuable connections with the local government's Department of Agriculture.

The cost of feeds remains a critical challenge for most poultry farmers. To address this challenge, the group channels the earnings from activities such as offering conference facilities and accommodation and reinvests it into purchasing more feeds, ensuring optimal nutrition for their poultry. This way, the group can sustain the poultry venture, which is now breaking even. The group also supplies eggs to local shops.

Central to their success is a culture of precise record-keeping. The group maintains a detailed record book containing information on vaccination schedules, the number of birds sold, eggs produced and sold, water purchases, and feed records. This practice facilitates effective management and enhances transparency and accountability within the group.

Birds at Bada women's poultry

Eggs harvested from the group's farm

Addressing the farmer-extension gap

Extension officers play a vital role in agriculture by providing farmers with the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to improve their agricultural practices and increase productivity. They provide education and training, technical assistance and advisory services, community engagement, research and development, advocacy and policy development. Despite their critical role in agricultural development, the Kenyan government has yet to meet the FAO recommended extension ratio of 1:400, mainly due to inadequate financial and technical investments in agricultural departments.

The situation calls for alternative models to bridge the gap from this challenge. The Village Based Advisors (VBA) model is one such alternative that complements the public-funded government extension system and has the potential to provide a sustainable private sector-driven extension model. The VBA business model uses farmer entrepreneurs to offer extension services to fellow farmers. It presents a complete cycle where all stakeholders in the agriculture sector are linked to the farmers through VBAs.

Mercy Gatwiri's farm is a training site for Good Agronomic Practices (GAPs) for other farmers within and beyond her village. She cultivates both commercial and food crops. She is one of the 157 VBAs trained by the LISTEN Project through the County Governments of Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu. She is also a champion of climate-smart agriculture, employing a range of practices such as water harvesting, irrigation, integrated soil fertility management, pest management, soil conservation, agroforestry, sequential crop rotation, and intercropping. These practices mitigate environmental degradation and optimise productivity and resource efficiency on her farm.

Water harvesting structure at Mercy Gatwiri's farm

A team from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Netherlands Embassy in Kenya visit Mercy's farm

With support from the LISTEN Project, Mercy has established strong market linkages, partnering with Medime to offload 250kgs of spinach and other traditional vegetables. Additionally, she has secured a partnership with Kieru Ltd to take off dolichos, ensuring a steady income stream and market access for her produce, with her unwavering dedication to sustainable agriculture and community prosperity.

Investing in the economic empowerment of women is not only a goal, but it also has concrete outcomes such as gender equality, poverty eradication, and strong economic growth. Women contribute significantly to economies worldwide, whether by running businesses, working in agriculture, or managing households. Their participation is not just a matter of justice, but also a crucial decision that promotes prosperity at all levels. When women are given the tools and opportunities to thrive economically, they lift themselves out of poverty and elevate their families and communities. Scaling these outcomes necessitates the dismantling of barriers that impede women, such as access to knowledge, training, and opportunities.

Lean more about the LISTEN Project