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Kitui women turn to alternative farming

Kitui women strive to make money from farming, including by growing wild fruits, despite cultural practices which impede them from maximising food production or even owning land

Agnes Nzau, a middle-aged peasant farmer in a remote village in Kitui county had just been discharged from Kitui Referral Hospital following a tragic road accident that claimed the lives of four people including her male partner.

Agnes was going to buy a dairy cow at the Catholic Diocese Ranch in Kwa-Vonza area along the Machakos-Kitui round and had asked the man to accompany her. While in the hospital, a friend called her with sad information that a relative had poisoned all her 250 chickens and set the poultry house on fire two days after the road accident.

The arsonists who burnt Agnes’ poultry house were her relatives working with others known to her. It was yet another eviction attempt following prolonged dispute over a 20-acre piece of land she claims was given by her father as she was unmarried.

Agnes had wisely utilised the land, maximising in horticultural crops production through greenhouse farming and poultry keeping to the envy of her brothers. As a woman, she is disadvantaged by the community’s cultural practices, which impedes women from inheriting land from their parents. Worse, clan members often gang up to get justice in the country’s legal system.

To achieve their mission, her relatives have devised all means to evict her from the family land including letting loose livestock to destroy her crops. “Although I have sought intervention from various government offices and human rights civil society groups, my own clan members have blocked me from getting what is mine,’’ she claims.

Agnes is not the only one caught in a vicious struggle over land. Thousands of women are impeded by cultural challenges from farming. Mumbanu Kinako, a primary school teacher, has a sad story. Her brothers invaded her farm in Nzambani location and cut all orchard trees she had planted before pulling down her farmhouse in an attempt to evict her from the land she says her late father gave her.

“Although I am married, my father blessed me with the land as the first born and for taking care of him while he was hospitalised,’’ explains Mumbani. She claims she was given custody of the land in the presence of her brothers oblivious of the fact that they would one day turn against her. After the father died, the brothers went against the deceased’s will and schemed how to evict her farm.

According to an agricultural crop damage assessment report, she lost Sh1.9 million worth of mature grafted mango, orange and other citrus trees. Despite adoption of the 2010 Constitution, which gives women the right to inherit land from their parents, it is a taboo for women to talk on land issues in many communities.

Among the Kamba, land is registered in the name of the husband as the head of the family. In cases where a woman is unmarried, it is registered in the name of her father. “This is where women are in trouble because they cannot use the land the way they want to. They cannot also have access to credit facilities from financial institutions to improve their farming endeavours as they lack title deeds,’’ says Agnes.

Kitui women have, however, devised their own mitigation measures for food security by starting unique income-generating activities, which are not directly controlled by their menfolk. The women have also turned into sand harvesting, sale of water, concrete stones, rearing improved indigenous chicken, sale of wild fruits and dairy goat rearing as an alternative.

“To avoid family conflicts with husbands and cultural adherents, we invest in activities which they control,’’  says Margaret Ndambu, a poultry farmer in Museve village. 

In Mutomo sub-county, Agnes Mwende, a farmer in Kiviu village, has turned to wild fruits which has become the lifeline of the residents whenever rains fail, sometimes for three consecutive seasons. Her 10-acre farm off Kitui-Mutomo road is dotted with beautiful indigenous wild fruit trees ranging from Vitex payos locally known as Muu, Tamarindus indica (Nzumula in Kamba or ukwaju in Kiswahili), baobab (mabuyu) and Bercemia disclor (Kisaaya).

Though Mwende’s farm is endowed with wild fruits, she has been unaware of the trees’ enormous benefits. This is before Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) officers made her farm a demonstration site for value addition on wild trees.

Before, Mwende’s initiative of wild fruits trees preservation could be described as semi-domestication. “I have preserved these trees though they are good source of charcoal, the common economic activity here. But when drought strikes, the trees become the livelihood of my family as the fruits are used as food and one can sell the surplus,’’ she says.

She says through sale of Vitex payos fruits, she has been able to see her last born complete secondary education and is planning to take him to a medical college. A cup of the fruit sells at Sh5 while a debe fetches Sh600. “When combined sales of other fruits, it is easy to afford secondary education costs,” she added.

Mutua Musili, a farmer in Ikanga location, says he turned to growing the wild fruit trees as an alternative source of income after crops failed for five consecutive seasons. “Since late 1990s when drought impacted negatively on our lives, I turned to growing wild fruits and have since been eking out a living from them,’’ says Musili who sells the ripe Vitex payos in Ikanga market.

“I have 10 baobab trees with ripe fruits I but have turned customers away because I do not know how the market prices are but I hope with time, I will make use of the trees,’’ says Regina Mutua, a farmer in Kisaayani location.

She says potential buyers of baobab fruits are from Muslim community from Kitui Town who process them and sell the end produce to Mombasa market outlets.

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