Tree farms change fortunes of rural women


Women work on a sugar beet farm at Gatimu in Nyandarua County. European Union's project titled Value for Her (Value4Her) seeks to train women in the entire agriculture value chain and make them efficient, competitive, and in control of their enterprises. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Joyce Odari’s semi-permanent farmhouse is at the edge of Kakamega Forest. An elderly subsistence farmer, and a mother of seven adult children, she uses wood fuel to cook but cannot imagine cutting the branches that have formed a canopy over her roof for firewood.

When she once cut branches that were hanging over her iron-sheet roof, forest guards arrested her and was jailed for six months. However, while behind bars, she dreamt of an idea that has transformed the lives of more than 200 households and won her national recognition.

Ms Odari’s three-acre farm borders a forest whose access is restricted to check indiscriminate felling of trees for firewood and building materials.

“When I was in prison, I thought of an idea by which women from my village could start a project where we could get our firewood without seeking permission from the forest authorities and avoid brush with the law.”

Enrich soil

After serving her prison sentence, Odari mobilised 28 women to form a group that is now engaged in agro-forestry. “We decided to plant trees which can provide us with firewood, building materials and feeds for our livestock, and also enrich the soil.” The trees have been intercropped with food crops.

At Odari’s village, families are now harvesting indigenous trees and vegetables including high nutrient soya beans, which the villagers process to feed children orphaned by HIV/Aids. In addition, families have hung beehives on their trees for the beekeeping project they started, whose honey is sold to supplement the villagers’ income.

Far away in Embu, Ms Purity Wanjiku’s four-acre farm near Embu town earns her Sh500,000 every year from sales of farm produce including milk, fruits, honey, trees and training other farmers on integrated farming, a program fronted by the World Agroforestry Centre (Icraf) and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari).

Agroforestry model

Ms Wanjiku’s farm is modelled on agro-forestry, the concept of growing beneficial trees and food crops on family land. It provides food, fodder, timber, fruits, medicinal plants, organic fertiliser, among other benefits.

“It is about teaching people how to care for trees, how they can live with trees so as to avoid situations where people start invading forests. It is part of the technology that will help this country to achieve Vision 2030, “said Mr Erastus Kiruriro, a researcher at the Kari office in Embu.

Her homestead is fenced with a variety of plants that provide balanced diet for her three dairy cows. It is a thick mass of shrubs like Calliandra and other trees which have been confirmed by scientists from World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and veterinarians as some of “the best fodder crops” for cattle and goats.

With grown trees, several beehives, tea bushes, fruit trees, tuber crops plus goats and chicken, Ms Wanjiku completes the cycle of integrated farming.

Scientists from ICRAF said that if a farmer feeds cows with three kilogrammes of Calliandra, it produces similar quantity of milk and of better taste than using commercial feed. Fodder trees are providing farmers with the best opportunity to adopt to climate change.

Ms Wanjiku’s well-trimmed fence of wild sunflower may be mistaken for a weed. It is not. The flowers are harvested when mature, chopped into small pieces and scattered on the farm during planting as fertiliser.

The sunflower chops decay fast and release potassium, phosphorous and nitrates in the soil, the same nutrients that are contained in commercial fertilisers.

“I cannot remember the last time I went to the shops to buy fertiliser,” said Ms Wanjiku. The farmer also combines her kitchen wastes and cow dung for compost manure.

Ms Wanjiku says she will use the decayed matter to produce biogas for cooking and power the machine for cutting fodder. The residual dung is used as manure.

She uses the podo tree for shade and timber when they mature, and at the edge of her kitchen is another shrub, which she says repels mosquitoes when flowering, saving her the cost of bed nets. Other shrubs are used in herbal medicine, which ICRAF said is a way of creating “farmacies” in the rural areas.

The activities by these two women indicate how agroforestry - the growing of trees on farms - can benefit women and improve household incomes but new research says this is not happening on a large enough scale.

“Women are not profiting nearly as much as they could from agroforestry,” said a new study by ICRAF.

Titled “Gender and Agroforestry in Africa: Are Women Participating”, the study found that women in Africa are more likely to participate in agroforestry that is considered to be of little commercial value such as the collection and processing of indigenous fruits and vegetables.

“Across Africa, men are migrating away from farms to earn money, making women more responsible for rural incomes,” said Evelyne Kiptot, co-author of the study and Senior Research Scientist at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI).

Economic gains

It is not only in Kenya where women are making efforts to make economic gains from agroforestry; in some parts of Malawi, women are saving 15 to 180 minutes a day in labour time because they have access to homegrown fuelwood; freeing them up for other productive activities, the study found

“In Tabora, Tanzania, women are earning between Sh1,000 to Sh2,700 per week through the sale of juice processed from indigenous fruits.”

The study found that replenishing soil fertility through agroforestry practices is also attractive to women farmers because it involves low inputs but high returns.

“Apart from the obvious benefit of improving soil fertility, fertiliser trees provide fuelwood and reduce the incidence of weeds. While women’s involvement in agroforestry is fairly high in terms of proportion of female-headed households participating, it is low as measured by the area allocated and the number of trees planted.”

Post-harvest quality

The report recommends that women should have greater access to information and training targeted at women’s groups. Extension services regarding agroforestry should also deliberately target women as they seem to favour men.

“In Kenya, specifically targeting women farmers with a programme to grow fodder shrubs that increase milk yields of dairy cows and goats has helped raise the proportion of women beneficiaries to about half. These women are earning greater incomes and are using this money to pay school fees and improve the nutrition of their families,” said the authors.

The study recommends tree products to be grown on the farm and creating awareness on improving post-harvest quality of ripened fruits.

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