The unseen pillars: How social capital empowers female smallholder farmers in Kenya

The Itanya Africa Group, one of the RAIN Challenge winners, through an intimate baseline study, explores the significant role social capital plays in the lives of female small-holder farmers in Kenya.

Written by: Ashley Mutiso
GRP Areas of work: Innovation

In the lush yet often unforgiving terrains of Machakos County, a story unfolds — a story of resilience, silent strength, and of an unyielding bond with the land. Here, female small-holder farmers, with hands that have caressed the soil through seasons of abundance and scarcity alike, weave a narrative that is both inspiring and heart-wrenching. Their tales, though deeply rooted in the earth they till, transcend beyond mere agriculture, revealing a rich tapestry of social capital that has often gone unnoticed yet is pivotal in rural development.

Itanya Africa Group

The Itanya Africa Group, through an intimate baseline study, sought to delve into the lives of these women, not just as farmers but as pillars holding together the delicate fabric of their communities. Engaging with women, ranging from 21 to 65 years of age, each navigating through the daily challenges with an average household of five and managing an average of three acres of land, the study sought to answer a question: What is the role of gender in shaping adaptive and transformative capacities for building resilience?

In the narratives of these women, 55% of whom identify as farmers, 27% as businesswomen, and 18% juggling both roles, we find a silent, often overlooked force: social capital. It is in their collective efforts, their shared wisdom, and mutual support systems that these women find the strength to navigate through the myriad challenges that come their way.

In the realms of their daily lives, where they balance between domestic responsibilities and labour-intensive farming, the women of Wamunyu have inadvertently built a robust network of social capital. This is not just in the physical labour they provide on their farms and others’ but also in the intricate web of support systems, locally known as ‘chamas’ or VSLAs (Village Savings and Loan Associations), which have become a lifeline in addressing their pressing needs and navigating through financial challenges.

These ‘chamas’ are not merely financial entities but emotional and social safety nets. They serve as platforms where these women, often burdened by the patriarchal structures within their households and communities, find a voice, solidarity, and a shared sense of purpose. Here, they navigate through challenges such as ensuring their children’s education, managing the scarce and often unsafe water resources, and negotiating through the gendered nuances of farming and domestic responsibilities.

The concept of social capital, especially in the context of rural development and particularly among female small-holder farmers, goes beyond mere collective financial activities. It encompasses shared knowledge, mutual support during crises (be it crop failure or family emergencies), and collective bargaining in markets, which often tend to negatively impact individual small-scale farmers.

In the context of these women, social capital becomes a tool for empowerment, a means through which they can navigate through the socio-economic and environmental challenges they encounter. It becomes a platform where knowledge, from the wisdom of seasons to the innovations in farming practices, is shared and passed down through generations.

Itanya Africa Group

The Itanya Africa Group, through this study, seeks not only to understand but to amplify and dignify the livelihoods of these women. The insights gleaned are not merely data points but are stepping stones toward crafting interventions that are deeply rooted in the realities, needs, and aspirations of these women.

The journey ahead is to weave this social capital into the broader tapestry of sustainable development, ensuring that the interventions and support mechanisms formulated are not merely imposed but co-created with these women. It is to ensure that their voices, often subdued by the cacophony of larger agricultural narratives, are heard, acknowledged, and placed at the forefront of development initiatives.

In the silent strength of these women lies the potential to transform not just their communities but to offer insights and models that can reshape our approach towards rural development, gender equality, and sustainable agriculture. Their stories imbued with challenges, triumphs, hopes, and dreams, beckon us to not just listen but to engage, empower, and elevate their roles in shaping a future where their livelihoods are not just sustained but are dignified and celebrated.

In the heartbeats of Wamunyu, in the hands that till the land, and in the voices that echo across the fields, lies an invitation to all of us: to recognize, honour, and uplift the unseen pillars that have held, and continue to hold, the edifice of rural communities together. Together, let us weave a narrative where social capital is not just seen but is acknowledged as a cornerstone in building resilient, sustainable, and equitable rural landscapes.

Read the full baseline study here.