Smallholder farmers in Kenya’s Kiambu and Makueni counties are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They are disproportionately impacted by issues such as water scarcity, nutrient-depleted soil, deforestation, and biodiversity loss because their livelihoods rely on land. Agroforestry – the practice of integrating trees on farms – offers a promising pathway for people of all genders to build livelihood resilience through improved incomes, land health, and food and nutrition security – while contributing to national and global climate change and restoration targets.
Small-scale tree nurseries are critical in providing farmers with sufficient quality germplasm and diverse tree-planting materials that bear desirable traits and offer multiple benefits. They are also vital for producing healthy and suitably-adapted tree seedlings to support Kenya’s ambitious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32% by 2030 and increase tree cover by 30% by 2032 by growing 15 billion trees on 10.6 million hectares of degraded forests and
rangelands. Yet Kenya’s tree nursery operators face significant challenges in seed sourcing, collection, handling, and production, and lack adequate information and knowledge on a diverse range of species, thus limiting the options available to farmers.
Given that gender norms often constrain women’s access to resources, time, and capital, these challenges are often amplified for women tree nursery operators – and present barriers to women engaging in nursery activities. Nevertheless, women in Kiambu and Makueni County are increasingly positioning themselves as tree nursery managers, taking on this traditionally male-dominated sector.
“Applying gender transformative approaches is important to overcome challenges associated with tree planting material production and sustain tree growing efforts through inclusive capacity building activities involving both men and women,” said Catherine Muthuri, Kenya Country Director and Regional Convener for East Africa at the Center for International Forestry Research–World Agroforestry Centre (CIFOR-ICRAF). “This is critical to support integrated gender perspectives – and reduces gaps for thriving tree nursery enterprises.”
Applying a gender lens from the ground up
In this context, the Fruit Trees for Climate Adaptation and Mitigation in East Africa project, which is supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and led by CIFOR-ICRAF, aims to support tree nursery operators in transforming both the management and inclusivity of their businesses. In late 2022, the project held two-day training workshops at Waturu Farm and Palma Tree Nursery in Kiambu and Makueni counties respectively.
The workshops brought together 77 tree nursery operators – 40 men and 37 women – and county agricultural extension agents. To ensure inclusivity, the nursery managers’ spouses and employees were also invited. Training was facilitated through a combination of approaches, including active participatory discussions and practical demonstrations.
The participants were trained in various topics, including seed sourcing, handling, procurement, tree nursery management, vegetative propagation, and business elements. The workshops also aimed to help participants identify opportunities for – and recognize the value of – more inclusive nursery management in ensuring successful and sustainable businesses.
The trainings emphasized the importance of maintaining high quality standards in seedling production. Participants were enlightened on gaining accreditation and registration from regulatory agencies such as the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KEPHIS) and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to achieve recognition as trusted sources and be able to market themselves as such.
Unpacking gendered roles and responsibilities in tree nursery management
During the trainings, participants were asked to demonstrate and discuss the various roles that women and men perform within the industry. They identified gendered imbalances in workloads and decision-making power and reflected on how such inequalities present potential challenges for nurseries’ smooth operation. They also explored what they would like to see in terms of gendered roles and responsibilities going forward.
The participants identified that women are usually more involved in media collection, preparation and potting, weeding, transplanting, fetching water (if the nursery does not have a nearby water source), watering, seedling sorting, pest and disease scouting, marketing, and bookkeeping. They also assist in the collection of fruit tree seeds such as avocado and mango from the market, as well as the collection of materials for composting. They identified that men are usually more involved in vegetative propagation (grafting and cutting), soil mixing, building nursery structures, and chemical spraying. Men are also involved in the sale of seedlings – especially those that fetch a high price, such as fruit trees.
The activities provided a forum for discussing the obstacles created by these gendered roles and responsibilities. Women shared some of the challenges they face in engaging in nursery operations, including lack of time, balancing household chores and nursery work, and the hard physical labour involved in lifting and mixing the soil, potting, watering, weeding, and transferring seedlings. Limited access to training and technology and lack of land ownership were also identified as significant barriers. They also said that the tasks they are usually assigned tend to be the more tedious ones, and they often work for long periods of time in the nurseries.
One participant said she believes women are overworked, that their husbands delegate their work, and that they rarely make joint decisions. Another said that “running a tree nursery requires a lot of time and energy, which is hard to combine with household chores. It also requires hard physical work like building the structures, and it is difficult for me as a woman. Therefore, I seek help from my husband or children.” A third stated that tree nursery operation requires specialized techniques for seed sourcing and propagation, but that she rarely has the time to attend tree nursery trainings – and that when opportunities do arise, she must request permission from her husband to take them on. It was also identified that many men believe that women are not knowledgeable in tree nursery management, and as such don’t seek their involvement in critical decisions such as which species to raise.
Despite these challenges, many of the women participants saw tree nurseries as a profitable business opportunity. Some of the desired changes discussed included joint ownership of land and decision-making, and shifts in social and gender norms to overcome specific barriers for women to engage in commercial nurseries such as access to quality land near water sources, information on technical nursery management, distribution of household tasks, restricted mobility, and access to capital.
An inspiring partnership
Among the participants were Paul and Mary Mwanza, a couple that jointly own and manage Palma Tree Nursery, where the Makueni County workshop took place. The Mwanzas originally left Nairobi City to become smallholder farmers, and they started their nursery in 2016. They produce and sell assorted seedlings including fruit trees, ornamentals, and other multipurpose trees. They said that by working together they complement each other’s strengths – both in the production and management aspects of running the nursery.
The nursery has become an important knowledge hub for many people, including farmers, students, and community groups from within and beyond the county who are keen to learn about selecting and nurturing the right trees best suited to their local environmental conditions. The Mwanzas also offer placements to young people which help them to gain relevant skills in nursery operation and ultimately start their own business ventures.
Throughout the two-day workshops, a lot of excitement and interest was generated – particularly among women during the practical session on vegetative propagation, of which many had little previous training or experience. Many of the participating men voiced that the
training had opened their eyes to the importance and value of attending the training with their spouses and employees, who are often the ones engaging in many core nursery activities.
Agnes Gachuiri, Mary Crossland, Caroline Njoki
Originally published on worldagroforestry.org