It’s a typical hot and sunny afternoon in Marafa; a small village buried in a canyon-like valley in Kilifi County, known to be the home of the Waata community. Scores of women can be seen bent at the waist and hard at work, totally mindless of the scorching sun that is driving daytime temperatures to the high side of forty.
With brows laden with sweat and bodies glistening from the heat, a group of local women can be seen making small chatter as they amiably go about the task before them. These women are carefully harvesting pineapples from their open gardens, and what makes this quite an interesting sight to behold is the clockwork precision and seriousness that is about them as they get on with this activity despite the ‘not-exactly-friendly’ weather condition.
With ‘Kangas’ (rectangular pieces of cloth) fastened around their waists, they go about deftly picking the ripe fruits and stuffing them into sacks. With the efficiency displayed by these women identical to a ‘German train schedule,’ it doesn’t take long before a sack gets filled with the fruit, set for shipping to the solar dryer.
Now, slow down a bit – let’s take a moment to figure out what thoughts the scenes described in the paragraphs above evoke. Well, if you put your money on these women being small-time farmers who take their jobs seriously, you’ll probably be in the running for the jackpot. Yes, these Marafa Women appear to be making a living off growing pineapples and selling them – pretty straightforward stuff, right? Except that it’s not.
Go six decades back in time, and you will find the Waata hunter-gatherer community perched up in the forest, migrating from their established settlements to newer ones from time to time, depending on which area served up better game prospects to the male population who were predominantly hunters.
This nomadic lifestyle was more or less their way of life until the 1940s when things began to take a turn thanks to the arrival of British colonial wildlife conservation laws. The enactment of these new laws laid the groundwork for the establishment of national parks in Kenya. Just like that, with the scribble of a pen and the sound of a gavel, the Waata people had lost their lands, as well as their way of life.
Until then, the Waata people had led a conservative life in the forest, but ironically, conservation laws were now pushing them away from the only place they knew as home. Before long, they were evicted from the forest to make room for what came to be known as Tsavo East National Park.
They did find a new home on the periphery of the new park but as what has always been their way of life had now been suddenly outlawed, they had to figure out a new way to fend for themselves, and just like that, slingshots and spears were given up for hoes and machetes. This former community of hunter-gatherers now had to face the stark reality of adjusting to a new way of life which had farming as the only means of survival.
With very little or virtually nothing by way of agricultural skill, this community struggled with the new set of tools that had been forcefully shoved into their hands. Accustomed to chasing and throwing to capture game, they now had to bend and till. Those first few years, they grew barely enough to survive. With no farming skills, they had to take a gamble on growing maize, but in the midst of unfavorable weather patterns, they were always going to come up short. Thus, life became a whole new kind of tough for this small community.
To augment the communal effort, the women resorted to making extra contributions by providing casual labor for other farmers in other communities for pay. This didn’t do much good as the women had to toil for hours and even days for meager sums, and sometimes, they didn’t also get paid at all.
This life of squalor and privations continued for several years until the year 1999 which marked a turning point. That was the year some of the women of the community decided to start growing pineapples as a sole cash crop. The decision which was more or less a last resort at the time appears to be paying off immensely as the crop now provides the entire community with a steady income. But this improvement in fortunes didn’t come without significant toil.
As is common with many women living in rural Kenya, the women who resolved to embark on the pineapple-growing venture had no claims to the land of their own or access to credit when they got started on the project. But this didn’t deter them from getting on with their plan. Their choice of pineapples against other drought-tolerant crop is said to have been motivated by the need to grow a crop that didn’t require a long time to mature, thus, guaranteeing quick and steady income flow. And that ultimately proved a shrewd decision on their part.
“Ours was a small beginning,” Boru, one of the women farmers, told News Deeply. Boru currently chairs the 47-member-strong Hajirani Women’s Group of Pineapple Farmers. “With small plots of land we obtained from the community, we used a burn and plant method,” she offered.
These farmers adopted a technique which involved cutting down and burning vegetation. This practice is known to leave behind a layer of nutrient-rich ash that helps fertilize crops, hence, improving growth rate and yield. But even though the women had gotten it mostly right so far with their choice of crop and farming practice, they were yet to face the biggest challenge yet which was, unfortunately, waiting for them at the business end of things.
Sure, growing pineapples was the right call for these women since the crop didn’t need much tending to or fussing over. But that doesn’t mean they had it easy. Finding a reliable market for the pineapples was a big challenge.
Due to a combination of factors bordering on the perishability of the crop aggravated by the insanely high temperatures in the region, the women resorted to panic-selling the pineapples for as low as KSh 5.00 (USD 0.05) each, which was a far cry from substantial.
The middlemen smelling blood were there to pounce. They knew the women were desperate to get the perishable crop off their hands and they took full advantage – sometimes even ripping them off by buying up to three for the price of one. This essentially saw most of the efforts of these women farmers go down the drain, and as things stood, they were toiling for nothing.
But all that was to eventually change in 2010 when Boru attended an agricultural show in Mombasa, off Kenya’s coastline. There she caught wind of the idea of a solar dryer which could help increase the shelf life of the fruits and eliminate the ‘Shylocks’ in the middle who were prospering off of their sweat.
Boru may have stumbled upon the idea, but she knew there was no way she and her fellow women farmers could afford such a technology. But it appears the idea was all she needed and not the device itself as she took the idea back home and before long, the women started peeling the pineapples, cutting them into bits, and drying the slices under direct sunlight. Then they proceeded with selling it to consumers directly at the local market.
Now, make no mistake about it; dried pineapple slices are not as nutritious as its ‘fresh cousins,’ and perhaps not as hygienic given the women’s makeshift drying method. But by adopting this practice, these women were able to sell the fruits at higher prices than the fresh fruits. They were now beginning to make decent profits off of the venture.
“Compared to selling raw fruits to the middlemen, dried pineapples became a solution to my financial problems. I could now take my two children to school, feed them and insure my future,” revealed Agnes Wakesho, a single mother. And things were going to get even better.
The small pineapple-growing venture of these women soon caught the attention of World Vision; a Christian humanitarian NGO that runs development programs in the region. Through the efforts of the NGO, a solar dryer was made available to the women. This greenhouse-like structure opened the women up to the possibility of drying the pineapple slices under more hygienic conditions. By drying efficiently and hygienically, the women are now able to get more money for their pineapples.
Through its local office in Magarini, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, which is known to collaborate with the NGO on some economic projects that can be linked to smart agriculture, also weighed in with support. The women received training from the Ministry on some agronomic practices and market-focused production.
Amos Rukwaro, Magarini Sub-County Agribusiness Officer, told News Deeply that the women now get more for their dried pineapples. The women used to earn around KSh 250 (USD 2.50) for 5 kg of fresh pineapples. But these days, they get more than twice that amount for the same amount of fruit processed into 1 kg (2.2 Ibs) of dried fruit.
“The women can now make more profit, which translates to a higher income and better livelihoods,” Rukwaro says. “As the business opportunity grew and a readily available market [arose], they have now expanded their farming plots to increase productivity.”
Since the arrival of the solar dryer, the production capacity of the women farmers have increased significantly, and this turnaround in fortunes has seen them expand beyond the local market. Not quite long ago, they bagged a deal with Kenya Fruits Solutions Company, a supplier of packed, processed fruits to foreign markets. By selling solar-dried pineapples to the company, these women are believed to now rake in as much as USD 914.00 every week!
And there are even talks of the pricing go higher sooner than later as their solar-dried pineapple venture appears to be flourishing. Their dried pineapples now sell for KSh 50 apiece; a ten-fold increase from what they once knew as the norm.
The funds generated from the venture are split amongst the members after a given sum is set aside for reinvestment into the business. Through these earnings, some of the group’s members are known to have set up small businesses to diversify their income stream, and they are doing quite nicely.
“Since I became part of this success, my life has changed,” remarked Eunice Daria, the group’s Secretary. “As a mother, I do not solely rely on my husband for basic needs. I can clothe myself and the children, but of [most] importance is the ability for me to maintain health insurance for my family using the revenue.
From humble beginnings, these women are well on their way to creating an economically-empowered community. They are finally reaping the fruits of their labor. And it all began with the slice of a pineapple!