Kenya: Tea tree success launches gender discussion in arid Kenya (Trust)

| May 30, 2016

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Near the market town in Laikipia County, 260 kilometres north of Nairobi, a breath of wind disturbs the stillness of the day, and rows of pale green melaleuca or “tea trees” sway. The two-and-a-half-acre plantation stands out in the desert-like area, with nearly 30,000 well-watered and mulched young trees moving in the breeze.

Charles Mwangi and his wife Mary Anne Wangui are busy tending to the trees. Mr. Mwangi cuts boughs for harvest, and Mrs. Wangui gathers them into heaps. Their plantation is highly successful, thanks to an agreement with Earth Oil Extract Company, which uses the melaleuca to create a product called tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is widely used in cosmetics and as an antiseptic.

Mr. Mwangi says: “From last season’s harvest, we managed 10 tonnes, and a kilo was paying 15.50 [Kenyan] shillings, [so we] managed 155,000 Kenyan shillings [$1,500 US].” The money has helped the couple renovate their house and upgrade their livestock.

But the pair didn’t always work as a team on the plantation.

When the idea of planting melaleuca was first introduced to the area, women did most of the work, but many men—who own the land—wanted the extra income for themselves.

Teresia Ndirangu is a melaleuca production and training adviser for the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network. She says most farmers in Laikipia, particularly men, were reluctant to embrace the new crop at first. When training advisers introduced melaleuca, three-quarters of the farmers who stepped forward were women.

Faith Wairimu is another melaleuca farmer. She says many women had to pester their husbands for land to farm, and were often given the worst areas. Ms. Wairimu says: “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.”

Production costs are also low, as farmers do not have to use fertilizers or chemicals. The melaleuca trees are ready for harvest every six months, providing a regular income. Workers from Earth Oil Extract Company visit the farms to collect the harvested branches for processing, limiting farmers’ expenses on transportation.

Mrs. Wangui heard about the new opportunity from a friend and asked her husband if she could get involved. The 69-year-old recalls, “He half-heartedly allowed me to farm as he wasn’t quite certain about the project.”

Mrs. Wangui says her husband wasn’t hesitant for long. About 18 months after planting, Earth Oil Extract Company collected her first harvest—and Mrs. Wangui received a good paycheque. She says, “[Mr.] Mwangi realized that the project wasn’t a scam to milk farmers of their money … He embraced the project wholeheartedly and to date he has never looked back.”

But the successful harvests and good paycheques have triggered conflict between many men and women in Laikipia. Ms. Ndirangu says, “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.”

In Laikipia, only men can sign agreements, so many men had signed contracts with Earth Oil Extract Company on behalf of their wives. Thus, they expected to profit from the arrangement, even though the women did the work.

The Kenyan Organic Agriculture Network stepped in, holding discussions and training sessions on the importance of including women in decision-making and land ownership. The training increased the proportion of women signing oil contracts on their own from 10 per cent in 2010 to 50 per cent in 2013—and saved a few marriages.

Today, more couples like Mr. Mwangi and Mrs. Wangui are working together in Laikipia County to grow melaleuca.

To read the full article on which this story is based, Tea tree success launches women’s battle for cash in arid Kenya, go to:

Photo credit: TRF/Caroline Wambui