Diversification, i.e. having several different income-generating activities, is vital for many poor women in rural Kenya. Various actors should therefore take measures to promote diversification. That's what Ella Ihre, master's student in rural development and natural resource management at SLU, writes in a guest analysis. Photo: Ella Ihre. Location: Kitui, Kenya.

Guest analysis

Infrastructure and climate adaptations promote women's work in Kenya

Att have several income-generating activities have become an increasingly important survival strategy for women in rural Kenya. Improved infrastructure, climate adaptations and self-help groups can promote women's work and thus their own livelihood.

In May 2022 announced World Bank that 30 billion dollars will go to various projects around the world to tackle the global food crisis that has arisen after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the UN's World Food Program (WFP), explained that 120 million people in Africa are facing a food crisis where the lack of food risks increased hunger and malnutrition among the population.

Kenya is one of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa that, due in part to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, is rapidly experiencing rising commodity prices. For example, shipments of wheat from Ukraine have stopped or been severely limited, leading to a 30 percent increase in the price of wheat. Likewise, cooking oil prices rose by 50 percent at the beginning of 2022. In addition, the country continues to be vulnerable to the effects of climate change, mainly due to the large number of smallholder farmers who depend on rain for their agriculture and their lack of resources to adapt to climate change. East Africa is now facing its worst drought in 40 years.

In rural eastern Kenya most women support themselves by diversifying, i.e. practicing a number of different income-generating activities, in order to survive. Several social, economic and cultural norms and traditions contribute to a strongly gendered work. Women spend many hours doing reproductive work such as cleaning the home, cooking and looking after children, studies show.

Better roads and climate adaptation promote women's livelihoods

Two important prerequisites for women in rural Kenya to be able to diversify their work successfully are improvement of infrastructure and adaptation to climate change.

Many of the women travel long distances to sell their products in markets. Many roads have been built in the area, which has greatly simplified everyday life for them. Improvements to the infrastructure have increased their job opportunities as they have been able to sell their products along the roads and thus reach more customers. They have also increased their income by reaching markets further from home. The improved infrastructure not only saves time, but also money as women's transport charges have been reduced.

The women who participated in our MFS study, which was conducted in the spring of 2022, all ran small-scale farms. In order to adapt to the negative effects of climate change, most people are forced to combine activities on their farm with activities outside the farm in order to survive. Diversification into non-climate dependent activities was found to be the most prominent strategy. Poultry farming, for example, is neither seasonal nor rain-dependent, and it contributes in several ways to the livelihood of their households – food and sales of both eggs and meat, financial start-up capital for other activities, and also a way to recover from economic shocks. Since many other activities are seasonal and poultry farming is not, this activity can help during, for example, a season of drought.

Beyond diversification is so called table banking a crucial strategy for women in rural Kenya. It is a group-based concept where members, in this case women, form groups where they save money together and borrow from each other. These groups are organized either with the help of a local organization or as an initiative by the women themselves. It is difficult for women in rural areas to get a formal loan granted, but the groups mobilize women and give them increased social and economic power.

Our study shows that diversification is vital for many poor rural women. Therefore, both government actors and civil society organizations should support research in the field and take measures to promote diversification – for example by offering microloans and entrepreneurial training. With strengthened knowledge and financial resources, these women can better withstand shocks such as rising food prices and economic difficulties in the country. 

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