At the green edges of the Mount Kenya National Reserve, about 300km from Nairobi, in a small little known town called Kimahuri, is a rusty chimney that savors with sweet potato. This is the home of Mary Mukami. She is a potato farmer. I met her at the Agricultural Society of Kenya show in Nyeri in 2015. Her story introduces four concepts that exemplify how the social invisibility of women’s role in production as well as the perceived informality of their innovations could be major obstacles to standardization for women-owned enterprises.
Mukami spent a better part of her life a thousand kilometers away in Rift-valley, precisely in Molo, where her parents and community indoctrinated her into potato farming. After the skirmishes of the 2008 post-election violence, she emigrated with her husband to what she calls, her own beginning.
To start, she worked as a casual at a neighbor’s farm under a contract locally called mafuti, meaning that the more square feet she tilled the more she earned. Her long experience in farming ensured that she dug better and more square feet than a typical Kimahuri woman. She outdid the men as well, and unlike them continued her work after lunch-time from 2-4:30pm. She instantly became a favorite with employers.
One evening, her neighbor passed word that she would be among four other women to weed his crop of cabbage. She had no work scheduled so she prepared for mafuti. It was a hectare of about 40,000 cabbages, weeding would ensure she had a job for a whole week. At 8 sharp she stood at the farm with a thermos flask of tea, a bowl of mataha and a customized hoe. Quarter past and the women began. About an hour later, a rug, struggling with a hang-over joined in, noisy and nasty. He stood most of the time to entertain with some vulgar tunes.
It struck 1pm and the women approached the farmer’s homestead for pay. To her surprise, her employer brought a different yard-stick that not only measured bigger square feet but also revised the rates for women. It infuriated her the same way it did an undocumented lot of other women and she raised complaint. As usual, only she did. It reminded her of the desire to earn extra when as the only woman, she had to cook for the other laborers or run for water in jerrycans when petrol ran out. But since these were normal customary roles, only the diggings were compensated.
Well, with perseverance she mobilized some capital and leased her own farm. As the crop established she instantly encountered weaknesses with kiudutho; an unaccredited strategy for sourcing and management. Her potatoes delayed 10 more days to germinate and she had to order 50% more seed to replace half a bag that was simply rotten, 20% of her rows that failed to germinate and another 20 that had sprout weak. Unlike Molo, Kimahuri has no seed multiplication station for certifying seed. Regular farmers replant part of their harvest. The clever ones, such as the women group at the Archdiocese, buy it in the guise of food from outstanding farmers. On average, their crop would yield four fold at a tenth of disease pressure.
There was more. Mary spent 30% more on nutrition and pests due to counterfeit fertilizer and pesticides. At a critical stage she couldn’t irrigate because her 1.5inch PVC pipes had burst and she was tired of repairing her Honder (not Honda) water pump. So riddled with counterfeits they even spilt over her farm into the electrical fencing around the Mount Kenya national park. This presented her worst nightmare, the risk of wildlife depredation. She joked how her husband would shop for literally everything including her own sanitary towels, afraid that she would buy fakes.
Anyway, Mukami harvested what she equated to about twelve bags of 100kg worth about Kshs 24,000. Similar input, excluding sleepless nights fighting elephants and porcupines and irrigation, would yield an easy 50 bags of equal measure in Molo. Her crop was late three weeks past the peak prices. She was in with the glut and potentially bad weather a recipe for loss.
Middlemen in Kimahuri, weigh the harvest by muthukio, a subjective way of feeling the tension a potato bag creates on your arms. Mukami once attempted to weigh the bag and it logged slightly above 120kg, suggesting that for every 5 bags she was ripped off a bag. They could controversially expand to steal more. At length, Mukami had seven bags worth Kshs. 7,000. The alternative was to sell directly to the market and when this included boarding the truck as the only woman on a night-long journey to Mombasa, the husband declined. She was devastated!
Her kids were now old enough to tend themselves after school and Mukami saw opportunity to focus on her makeshift hotel, in Kimahuri town. She serves the usual tea and maandazi, bean stew with chapatti or ugali and special, which is basically all of the above in a potato stew. One afternoon, her clients demanded for saucer, a small portion of the food served as a discount. If contained, she says it could save her Kshs 500 everyday, enough to double her pace of acquiring a dairy cow.
The story of Mary Mukami is not substantially different from that of other women who run 48% of SMEs in Kenya. Although they contribute 60% of employment and 55% of national wealth they are disproportionately plagued. Findings can be stereotypical, for instance, challenges of inadequate management skills actually imply the lack of a formal code say ISO 9001. Gender-blind market intelligence and infrastructure could easily portray women as incapable of delivering customer satisfaction; reason why two thirds of all women-owned enterprises die in the first year. Another hurdle is presenting women as purely victims of weak metrology and QA.
To the contrary, and to the stupendous notion “anything informal is dysfunctional”, women could be their own cure. Example? The Archdiocese’s women group secured a grant under the constituency development fund to set-up a seed multiplication station. Relying on self-reporting they profiled market demand, ecological suitability and the husbandry capability of members. With endorsements from the Padre and the area chief, they sanctioned all potato measures to a standard 100kg sisal bag. They also held a workshop with the local agrovet suppliers to invigilate contraband fertilizer and pesticides. As of last month, with Safaricom and ecologists from Kiriri Women’s University they created a text-line for reporting stray elephants to the Kenya Wildlife Service. WHO also initiated them into the fortification mark of quality to identify food options for eliminating micro-nutrient deficiencies among under 5yr.
The results? Human-wildlife conflicts are down to 10%, mothers’ remunerable time quadrupled by an extra ten hours every week whereas household income has in cases grown tenfold. This concert between in/formal standardization has lowered residual toxicants to allowable limits set by supermarkets and exporters for snow peas, French beans and Irish potato. Other fetes such as equal pay for work of equal value, overtime and access to export contracts, testify to the potential of metrology for equitable social change.