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Women lead the charge for food security

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Award-winning journalist, James Karuga, has written numerous articles for Spore magazine about the women agri-entrepreneurs who are bringing about change in his home country, Kenya. We spoke with him about his appetite for uncovering emerging agri-innovations, and the impact his stories have had for the women behind them.

For Spore, James Karuga reports on women entrepreneurs challenging the common narrative that agriculture lacks opportunities

I grew up on a farm in the central Kenyan highlands and since both of my parents were primary school teachers, excellence in academics was emphasised. However, as opposed to the sciences and maths, my interests gravitated towards creative writing, literature, and fiction. I loved the concept of storytelling, which was fostered by reading lots of newspapers, story books and novels present at our home. In hindsight, I think the lush rural surroundings also subconsciously enhanced my creativity, as I’d often take walks around the family farm thinking about the stories I could write.

The setting to my childhood – coupled with an interest in writing – unknowingly prepared me for a career in reporting on agricultural issues. At a young age, for instance, I’d observe how people farmed in my village and once I began to grasp agricultural reporting in 2009/2010, I realised that the local smallholders lacked clear knowledge on basic agronomy and marketing. Due to this gap in information, the farmers had been plagued by low yields and profits, experiencing a recurrent cycle of poverty and food insecurity in households.

Innovation on the rise

In sub-Saharan Africa, women more than men bear the brunt of food insecurity issues. In homes experiencing hunger, it is assumed that the woman is not playing their nurturing role properly or is lazy. This was the case in the village where I grew up; the women were responsible for raising children but also for working on the farm to provide food for the family each day. I feel that these traditional views have influenced women’s perception of agriculture in the current day and age, and has triggered the move towards food innovation at the village level.

Since 2010, I have written numerous articles about women who run small-medium sized value-addition village enterprises in rural Kenya. Through these businesses, local women are increasing their incomes, improving their livelihoods, creating employment opportunities for others, and delivering food security for their households. What I’ve observed is that rural village food innovation is on the rise, not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in other regions of Africa, as well as in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and women are leading the charge. I love to highlight these women-led food ventures because they are largely borne out of personal struggles to put food on the table for their families, and improve household livelihoods. And when a woman rather than a man is fiscally empowered in these contexts, it is likely to be felt more at the household level.

Building business through exposure

As a reporter, I have been encouraged to see innovative agri-entrepreneurs challenging the common narrative that agriculture is for the older generation and lacks opportunities; most of the agri-entrepreneurs I write about are young. One such innovator is Anastasha Elliot, 36, from Saint Kitts and Nevis, who runs a unique agri-enterprise called Sugartown Organics. Her company adds value to herbs, fruits and plants to produce organic food and cosmetics goods, and demand for her products is on the rise in the Caribbean.

From Africa, I covered the story of Elizabeth Gikebe, a 29-year-old Kenyan software developer and founder of Mhogo Foods Company. Her company processes gluten and grain free cassava flour, which is sold to over 34 shopping outlets in and around Kenya. She started her business with a capital of 800,000 Kenyan Shillings (£6,250) and today has a monthly turnover of over 300,000 Kenyan Shillings (£2,340) per month. After I covered her story in 2016, she was approached by other major media outlets in Kenya. Today, Elizabeth is a beneficiary of the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s entrepreneurship programme, and business is booming.

Finding untold agricultural stories and bringing them to the fore is what drives me, as well as seeing the impact agri-innovations have on a sector once considered ‘down-and-out’. Women’s success in agriculture, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is helping to fight poverty and lead the way for other young innovators. In the coming years, I hope to uncover more unknown women agri-preneurs to help them attract the technical support and investment they might need, and extend their customer reach. In this way, my goal is to continue to challenge negative perceptions of agriculture by showcasing how intellectual and lucrative the sector can be.

James Karuga

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