Growing up on a small coffee farm in Kenya, Rose Karimi knew firsthand the struggles of women coffee farmers. As a result of climate change and market conditions that exacerbate poverty, farmers often lack the ability to pay for their families’ basic needs and are highly vulnerable to food insecurity.
Now a doctoral student at Rutgers University, Karimi has set out to help women farmers in her homeland. She developed Women Going Green, a five-year project that seeks to enable small-scale women coffee farmers in Kenya to adopt low-cost climate change adaptation strategies, diversify their income, and achieve food security.
Because of her efforts to empower and build the capacity of economically disadvantaged women farmers, Karimi is this week’s Food Hero. Read on to learn more about her efforts, in her own words.
What are the main challenges for women farmers that Women Going Green is addressing?
First, vulnerability to climate change. The negative effects of climate change (e.g., increasing temperatures and damage by pests and diseases) are already evident for many of the 25 million coffee farmers across the tropics and the US$90 billion coffee industry. Based on recent studies, the coffee berry borer, the most devastating coffee pest worldwide, has already benefited from temperature rise in East Africa. In Kenya, this has serious implications for the livelihoods of small-scale women coffee farmers, who depend on coffee production for their subsistence. These women are the most vulnerable, because they have little capital to invest in possible adaptation strategies and/or pest and disease management, lowering their resilience.
Second, a lack of climate change communication, education and awareness programs. Generally, there are no forums, policies or programs for creating awareness of climate adaptation methods among rural farmers in Kenya. As a result, farmers are ignorant of even the simplest methods for adapting to the changing agri-climatic conditions. For example, even though a proven strategy to alleviate potentially negative effects on coffee production is the introduction of shade trees, this [method] is threatened by the cutting down of shade trees for firewood and charcoal.
Third, a lack of market access and exploitation by middlemen along the coffee supply chain. Small-scale coffee farmers work hard and, in most cases, have nothing to show for it. The middlemen pay very low prices, and often the payments are delayed.
Fourth, energy poverty. More than 80 percent of Kenya’s rural population relies on wood and charcoal for cooking and lighting, and women and children must walk long distances in search of firewood. Thus, the adoption of shade trees by small-scale women coffee farmers, together with biogas digesters, may be the most cost-effective long-term measure for sustainable coffee production.
Finally, a lack of capital and technology. Small-scale women coffee farmers lack the capital to finance adaptation strategies. They are not even able to obtain a loan, since they do not own any property for use as collateral (i.e., a loan guarantee).
Why is empowering and enabling women coffee farmers important?
Climate change has emerged as one of the most critical issues facing millions of small-scale farmers in the tropics. They will need to be empowered to develop site-specific adaptation strategies tailored to their environment and economic circumstances. Currently, very little knowledge and information about adaptation strategies has been shared with them.
Over 70 percent of [the world’s] coffee is produced by small-scale farmers. [An estimated] 125 million people depend on it for their incomes, and a number of countries—even those with a low share of the global export market, such as Kenya—rely on coffee for a high proportion of their export earnings. In Kenya, an estimated 700,000 small-scale farmers and over 6 million people directly or indirectly depend on coffee for their livelihoods.
Small-scale women coffee farmers are especially vulnerable and will be most affected by climate change, because many of them grow solely coffee and, consequently, have to invest a significant share of their revenues into purchasing food. Thus, climate change effects on coffee production cascade into worsening food security, malnutrition, and, ultimately, poverty. In addition, pest and disease outbreaks mean these farmers have to use the income generated for plant protection strategies, such as managing the coffee berry borer.
Moreover, women coffee farmers are critical to the food system in Kenya—they are left to work on the farms, while the youth and husbands migrate to urban areas to look for jobs. Thus, empowering them will directly impact their household’s livelihood and ensure that families are food secure.
How will the project help women farmers achieve a sustainable livelihood?
[The project will] create awareness through meetings and demonstration farms about climate-smart agriculture. This will increase the number of people knowledgeable about affordable climate change adaptation strategies that will benefit rural households. [It will also] extend a Women Going Green Savings Fund to the farmers, so as to empower them to diversify with other income-generating micro-projects…and mobilize farmers to set up fruit tree nurseries for both income generation and use as shade trees for their coffee farms, which will enable them to access specialty markets and earn premiums. Finally, it will promote alternative energy solutions, such as biogas systems, to liberate the farmers from energy poverty and dependency on firewood and charcoal.
What agricultural practices do you promote to mitigate the effects of climate change?
[We promote] increasing shade trees on coffee farms, [the] adoption of low-cost, solar-powered drip irrigation systems, and increasing access to clean energy for cooking and lighting.
What impact has the project had so far? Any particularly exciting success stories?
In its first year, the project has mobilized 88 women coffee farmers, 35 of which have adopted fruit trees as shade trees. The demo farm has been set up, and the women are getting trained on food security issues, such as planting drought-resistant tuber crops. Most of the women have adopted these crops and are now able to feed their families, since the methods taught require a small portion of land and still provide good yields. The fruit tree nursery has been set up, and the women have planted macadamia nuts and avocado seedlings to sell and use as shade trees on their farms.
The savings fund has also been set up; the women contribute US$1 every week. In addition, the income from the sales of the tree seedlings goes into the fund. The women are then able to borrow from the fund to finance some of their obligations. The women have been able to pay school fees for their children, install piped water on their farms, and build iron-sheet roofed houses, among other basic needs. Since the fund has been built with only the farmers’ meager savings, whose needs are many, it has not yet reached the level [needed to] finance drip irrigation and biogas digesters. We are in the process of fundraising to achieve these goals.
What gives you hope that we can change the food system?
Today’s consumer is beginning to demand food that has been grown and sourced sustainably. With an increased awareness and sensitivity to the need for sustainability in the food system, and with all the information getting to the consumers, then suppliers, farmers, and traders will be required to meet consumer demands in the modern agricultural supply chains. Together, with all stakeholders within the food and agricultural supply chains, we can and should change the food system.