This post originally appeared on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
By Jennifer Duncan and Megan Olson
After giving birth to her third child, Sarah* lay in a hospital bed in a small town in Meru County, Kenya, battling a ruptured appendix. While struggling to stay alive, she received news that her husband had left her and her children.
Although recovered from her life threatening battle, Sarah was unable to return home. Their home was built on land that was her husband’s family land and, by custom, she and her children could not stay there once her husband left her. For years Sarah relied on other women to help her and her children to survive. She started working as a small-scale mango trader and eventually earned enough money to put her children through school.
Over a decade later, Sarah is a mango trader buying and selling mangoes from farmers across Kenya. She recently inherited land from her father who had made a special request that she receive some of his purchased land (the family land went to her brother and other male relatives per custom). She has since planted over 250 mango trees on the land over the past few years and grown her business.
Given Sarah’s personal experiences, she has become an advocate, raising awareness among other women on the importance of documenting and registering rights to land. She works with women in the communities from which she buys mangoes to help them understand their constitutional land rights.
Kenya’s Constitution recognizes equal rights to land and property for women; in practice, however, women have weaker rights to land than their male counterparts. This situation is not unique to Kenya. In too many places, women’s claim to the land they rely on for food, income, and shelter is through their relationships with male relatives. Even when laws recognize gender equality, customary norms and practices can entrench women’s insecure land rights.
And why does this matter? Strong rights to own, use, control, and transfer land can empower a woman within her household, giving her a greater say in decision-making. This in turn, has a ripple effect on household nutrition and health, food security, education, access to credit, and a number of other positive outcomes.
In addition to working as an advocate for women’s land rights, Sarah works as a trainer teaching mango farmers about proper pesticide application, harvesting techniques, and storage as part of Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise Initiative. YieldWise is a multi-country endeavor looking to reduce post-harvest losses across four value chains in three African countries: Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria. In Kenya, the Initiative is working with mango farmers to help reduce food losses by at least 50 percent, thereby improving millions of rural lives.
In conversations with Sarah, it is clear she believes YieldWise is doing significant work to help mango farmers understand how to use pesticides and by providing them access to mango buyers. But Sarah also sees barriers and challenges project implementers must overcome to meaningfully include women and youth in YieldWise activities.
In an assessment commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation to better understand how land-related challenges could impact YieldWise implementation, Landesa identified insecure land rights of women as one of the biggest risks the Initiative should consider.
Women play an important role in management of mango trees within many of the project households. However, very few women are considered to be the ultimate owners of mango trees or the land upon which the mango is planted. Because of this and other cultural constraints, many women cannot interact with the mango traders, control the proceeds from the mango harvest, or make decisions about long-term uses of the land.
Currently, men control the vast majority of cash from mango sales. YieldWise participants and implementers alike report that it is much more likely for men to make decisions about how to use this critical source of income in a way that does not support household wellbeing. Therefore, instead of increased mango profits gained under YieldWise directly contributing to improved rural livelihoods, increased profits could potentially perpetuate vices pursued by male recipients of this extra income, including drunkenness, prostitution, and drug use.
Sarah is already taking measures in her own work to address these challenges. When she knows she is buying mangoes from a household with a husband and wife, she requires both to be present when she delivers payment. She has also worked out informal arrangements with several families to make mango payments directly to the children’s schools.
The Rockefeller Foundation is reviewing the recommendations Landesa developed based on the assessment to identify practical steps it can take in the short-term as well as long-term approaches and research questions to garner more information. The Foundation is also working with Landesa to develop a training toolkit for YieldWise Initiative implementers to help them identify land risks in projects and equip them with some recommended approaches and tools for addressing these challenges.
The YieldWise Kenyan mango land assessment identifies a number of other risk areas, in addition to those related to gender – problems related to land titles, boundary conflicts, access to credit, and insecure rights of youth to land and trees. Full findings and recommendations can be found here.
*Name has been changed.