What you need to know:
- The community now processes their produce to get higher returns after years of lamentations.
- Their chairperson perceives the project as one bravely borne in their determination to grow incomes.
Overcoming middlemen exploitation for women fruit farmers in Wote, Makueni County, was a thorn in their flesh for many years.
This was until 2012, when 75-year-old Benjamin Kithuku raised the red flag. He had seen women labour in vain to produce some of the best mangoes, oranges, pawpaw and other juicy fruits, only for them to be duped into selling them at throwaway prices, mostly because of poverty.
Out of sympathy and determination to liberate the women from this form of vicious cycle of exploitation of individual farmers, Mzee Kithuku thought of how the community could form a self-help group.
He also believed a formidable force would address gender disparity by uniting men and women to tackle common problems that hurt families and hampered development within the larger community.
Age not being on his side, he acted quickly, calling Mr Jackson Musyoka, whom he considered a ‘young blood’, to carry out the noble task and save the farmers from Kithoni, Kaiani and Kithambioni who were worst hit by the unfair trade.
Mr Musyoka had worked as a trainer-of-trainers on conservation agriculture, and knew what the problem was. Fast forward, he is currently the chairman of Kithoni Farmers Self-Help Group, which he helped form in 2012.
“Mzee Kithuku called me for a meeting to express his dismay at seeing women toil on their farms, only to walk home with peanuts. He said this led to a cycle of poverty at the family level and the community at large.
Now that he was old and fragile, he wanted to bequeath to me the noble responsibility of realising his dream, to see that the people’s lives improved gradually by making ready-for-the-market products through value addition, instead of selling ripe fruits only.
“In his parting shot, Ukambani people were not lazy, so he did not wish to leave behind a trail of grandchildren engulfed by poverty simply because of unfair trading practices,” recalls Mr Musyoka.
The group currently has 60 members: women and men aged 35–75.
During his trainer-of-trainers sessions, Mr Musyoka had heard the community’s lamentations about selling mangoes, oranges, pawpaw and melons at a throwaway price.
“Mine was a responsibility to design a road map of economic empowerment for the women farmers, eventually incorporating men and youths to increase incomes and raise people’s living standards,” he says.
Mzee Kithuku’s vision made a lot of sense. It’s now over 10 years down the line and that vision is taking shape, with the group gradually becoming the reference point in Makueni County of how leveraging gender harmony can achieve economic empowerment for households.
Through each members’ contribution of Sh200 per month, in 2018 the group bought a Sh100,000 parcel of land at Kithoni shopping centre, where they set up half-million-shilling fruit pulping equipment that can press seven tonnes of fresh mangoes a day, and process jam, yoghurt and juice concentrates.
On a visit to the site, one can see the ongoing project, a sheer determination to make it into a full-scale processing factory, with offices and training and meeting places.
“I am happy that this fruit value addition agribusiness will enable many women to meet their dream of having some investment to bequeath to their children and grandchildren,” says 63-year-old Lucia Waweo, a mother of eight and members’ representative in the management committee.
She perceives the project as one bravely borne in their determination to grow their income.
After learning about their enthusiasm to scale up farming to agribusiness and turn around their livelihoods, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology trained four group members, two women and two men, in fruit processing and factory operations such as sealing, packaging, servicing and maintenance.
Mr Musyoka says the dream of value addition started with a 50-mango planting campaign, which was meant to ensure sustainable fruit supply by the time pulping and processing started.
At maturity, each mango can produce 2,000 fruits per season. At a price of Sh10 a mango, each tree fetches Sh20,000 in the market. With at least 50 mango trees, a farmer would fetch Sh1 million a year. A farmer with 300 mango trees can earn about Sh6 million yearly.
Value addition, one step at a time
“We have seen, in the media, encouraging stories of women whose lives have been transformed step by step, eventually transforming their families and society through more business engagements,” Ms Waweo says.
Mr Musyoka says they currently produce mango juice for the local market. They have yet to begin large-scale production because of their limited market access, even as they await more approvals from the Kenya Bureau of Standards.
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“Once the approval is done, we will have farmers increase fruit supply for full-scale processing,” he says.
According to Dr Anderson Kehbila, a researcher at the Nairobi-based Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), value addition by farmer groups offers them a better opportunity to diversify income as they get into more industrial processing for various farm produce.
Dr Kehbila, who is SEI programme leader for natural resources and ecosystems, says besides better crop management practices, training farmers in how to avoid post-harvest losses determines the quality of fruits, hence market preference.
Engineer Gregory Kioko, Makueni County Fruit Development and Marketing Authority operations manager, says post-harvest losses account for 45 per cent of the fruit harvest in Makueni.
Fruits meant for processing need to be harvested before ripening, and should wait three to four days to ripen naturally.
“Initially, farmers thought yellow-ripe mangoes were the proper ones to deliver to the factory for pulping. However, through training, they have known the right stage to harvest for juice extraction and processing,” he explains.
Ms Waweo, Ms Susan Mumbua and Ms Felista Maithya have appealed to the county government to address their power needs, particularly electricity.
“During the January-February peak season, we have been hiring a diesel-powered generator to do very limited production. Currently, we only sell locally to individuals and cannot store any products to show our potential customers because we don’t have a freezer,” laments Mr Musyoka.
“We need reliable clean energy such as from the national grid, electricity or solar, instead of fossil fuel. We have learnt about global warming and its climate change effects on weather and rain patterns.
"Diesel emits carbon, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
“We do not wish to destroy our environment beyond where it is currently. We wish that our governor [Mutula Kilonzo Jnr] would scale up locally available clean energy resources such as solar and biogas alongside hydropower connection.
"This will save people from going long distances to look for firewood and save them from respiratory illnesses as they cook,” he adds.
“The governor was recently fascinated to learn how the group is scaling up to value addition from small beginnings.”