Kenya: Women earn healthy profit by exporting aloe (Trust)

| April 27, 2015

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Three hundred women in the village of El Poloi have broken with tradition. The women herders have swapped their goats for the far more lucrative activity of growing and selling aloe.

They export the leaves of the desert plant to Europe, where aloe is used in cosmetics and traditional medicines. The women use the profits to improve their livelihoods and pay for their daughters to go to school.

Only a few hardy shrubs and savannah grasses survive on the harsh terrain northwest of snow-capped Mount Kenya. According to the Kenya Meteorological Department, less than 400 millimetres of rain fall annually in the area surrounding drought-prone El Poloi. Traditionally, local men journey to Mount Kenya in the dry season to graze their herds, while the women and children are left behind without enough food.

The women know that maize and vegetables do not yield well in their area. So six years ago, they decided to grow aloe, a common plant in drier parts of Kenya.

Rosemary Putunoi is the leader of the Twala Cultural Manyatta Women, one of four women’s groups that grow aloe in the area. The men in her community gave the group 16 hectares of dry, eroded land to farm in 2008.

Mrs. Putunoi says: “We then saw an income opportunity in growing osunguroi [aloe], which we traded for goats from our men. We planted aloes on [one hectare] to start, and 12 roots of the plant [could be] exchanged for a goat.”

The benefits of growing aloe did not end there. The women discovered that the plants improved the soil and countered erosion. Grass started to grow between the plants, so they charged herders a fee to graze animals on the land.

But there was a problem – they did not know the Kenyan government had banned the commercial harvesting of aloe in 1989.

Solomon Kyalo leads the implementation of an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, or CITES, in Kenya. He says the plant was considered endangered and the ban was prompted by overexploitation.

But CITES can issue licences to grow aloe, and export permits are available. The women received their permits and an export licence in 2013. They are the first groups to be licensed to export fresh aloe leaves.

Joseph Lentunyoi is the director of the Laikipia Permaculture Centre. After the groups received their licenses and export permits, Mr. Lentunyoi introduced them to a UK-based retailer of handmade cosmetics. The women won a contract to supply fresh aloe leaves to the company.

Teresa Sarioyo is the leader of the Nabulu Women’s Aloe Group. She says: “A kilo of aloe leaves sells [for] 380 shillings [$4 U.S.]. Two big leaves of the succulent plant equal a kilo. We can export between 45 and 80 kilos a month.” This would bring a monthly income of $182-$324 U.S.

Mrs. Putunoi says her group banks more than 300,000 shillings [$3,200 U.S.] from the venture every year. She adds, “Our lives have improved so much. We share the dividend among our members and use the rest to educate our 21 girls in boarding school.”

But the women are wary of relying only on orders from abroad. They have started making cosmetics from the sap of the aloe, including soap, body lotions and shampoo. They sell to local hotels and guest houses. Mrs. Putunoi says, “We want to go into value addition to capitalize on every aloe we produce.”

To read the article on which this story is based, Healthy profit for Kenyan women selling aloe to UK cosmetics firm, go to:

Photo: Women’s group members prepare cosmetics made with aloe, Laikipia County, Kenya. Credit: TRF/Leopold Obi