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Tea tree success launches women's battle for cash in arid Kenya

by Caroline Wambui | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 19 May 2016 09:21 GMT

A tea tree farmer shows off his plantation near Nanyuki, in Kenya's Laikipia County. TRF/Caroline Wambui

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Men weren't interested in tea tree - until the money began rolling in. What happened next?

NANYUKI, Kenya, May 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Near this market town in Laikipia County, a breath of wind disturbs the stillness of the day and the rows of pale green tea trees sway.

The two-and-a-half acre plantation – with nearly 30,000 well-watered and mulched young trees – stands out in the desert-like area.

Charles Mwangi, 76, and his wife Mary Anne Wangui, 69, are busy tending it, Mwangi cutting boughs for harvest and his wife gathering them into heaps. But the scene wasn’t always so bucolic.

When tea tree farming first arrived in the area, as a way to protect rural incomes in the face of worsening drought, it set off a showdown between women, who did much off the initial work on the tree farms, and men, who owned the land and wanted the unexpectedly promising income for themselves.

“Initially when tea tree was being introduced in Laikipia, most farmers and especially men were highly reluctant to embrace (it),” remembers Teresia Ndirangu, a tea tree production and training adviser for the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN).

An earlier scheme to introduce borage, a herb that produces valuable oil, had foundered after birds ate many of the seeds and collecting and storing the rest of the harvest proved difficult.

So when KOAN advisers urged communities to try tea tree, many farmers were reticent – and it was largely women who stepped forward. Of the 460 farmers initially registered to grow tea tree, three-quarters were women, Ndirangu said.

This proved a problem, as the farmers needed to sign an agreement with the oil buyer – Earth Oil Extract Company – but “it is fathers and husbands who are seen as the signatories in such documents making many women pull out despite being interested,” said Martin Wainaina, manager of the company.

Wangui, who learned about the tea tree opportunity from a friend, asked her husband if she could get involved and “he half heartedly allowed me to farm as he wasn’t quite certain about the project,” she remembers.

But when she got her first harvest, about 18 months after planting, the paycheck was good.  Then “Mwangi realized that the project wasn’t a scam to milk farmers of their money (and) he embraced the project whole heartedly and to date he has never looked back,” she said with a chuckle.


But for many other women, it wasn’t so easy. In an area where men own most of the land, women had to pester their husbands for a bit of land to farm – and were often given the worst areas, where other types of farming didn’t work, said Faith Wairimu, one tea tree farmer.

“Luckily for the women, no matter what section was allocated, the tea tree would thrive as it is hardy, resilient to climate change, performs well in extremely harsh, dry weather conditions, requires little work and is neither affected by pests or diseases nor eaten by domestic animals,” she said.

In this file photo a tourist walks on the drying shores of Lake Nakuru in Kenya's Rift Valley, 160km (99 miles) west of the capital Nairobi, December 18, 2009. Rift Valley has experienced longer dry seasons over the last decade. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The other advantage was that costs were low, as no fertilizers or chemicals are needed to produce the organic oil, she said.

The crop seemed particularly suited to woman as they could build in the harvests, every six months, around other household chores. Company workers also picked up the branches and took them to the Earth Oil processing unit at Nanyuki, where oil is extracted by a steam distillation process, rather than requiring the women to transport the tea tree themselves.

But when the cash began flowing in, another storm broke out.

“When the first payments were processed, they were channeled to the registered individuals, the majority of whom were women,” Ndirangu said. “Being a patriarchal society, men challenged (this), claiming that the payments should have been channeled to their accounts instead of their wives, as they were the legal owners of the land.”

Battling families ended up at the gates of the Earth Oil offices.

“Conflict arose and couples started storming the Earth Oil offices to change the contracts to the male figure in the family,” Wainaina said. That, for a time, “turned the company into a counseling one rather than farming one,” he said.

To try to calm the storm – including about 50 threatened divorces – KOAN stepped in to launch training sessions on the importance of women’s inclusion in decision-making and land ownership.

“The trainings were on gender, training all farmers to understand the importance of women’s land ownership, land management and ownership,” Ndirangu said. Eventually the work paid off, as all but one of the threatened divorces were called off, she said. Wainaina said the percentage of women signing oil contracts, on their own, rose from 10 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2013.

Today, more couples, like Wangui and Mwangi, are working together on their tea tree plantations, and are happy with the results.

“From the last season’s harvest we managed 10 tonnes and a kilo was paying 15.50 (Kenyan) shillings, (so we) managed Ksh. 155,000 ($1,500),” Mwangi said. That money, he said, has helped pay for everything from renovating their house to upgrading their livestock.

(Reporting by Caroline Wambui; editing by Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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