For people living in urban centers in Kenya, all food has to be bought unless one has access to a garden. This is where mama mbogas come in; a popular Swahili term used to refer to women who sell fruits and vegetables in small stalls in towns and residential estates. Others even sell fried fish in addition to their vegetables and fruits. These contribute to the food and nutrition security state of their estates by ensuring food availability. Back to the village where food comes from, thousands of women wake up every morning to go to the farm. They work as subsistence farmers on their own or family farms. Without these courageous women in the farms and urban stalls, access to food would be very difficult.
Challenges of Women farmers
Women farmers in Kenya comprise up to 50% of the agricultural labor force. These women are mainly in smallholder households, which produce most of the food supply in Kenya. However, women go through more difficulties than men when producing food. These problems could be associated with land ownership, access to finance, extension services, or even markets for their produce. In addition, since rural households mostly depends on natural resources for survival, it is women who mostly go fetch firewood and water. They also care for family members and in some cases look after cattle. If rural women are empowered and given equal chances to resources that facilitate food production, especially land, they will increase food production greatly and lift millions of people out of hunger and poverty.
Women farmers and exposure to pesticides
Conventional farming is popular in rural Kenya and with it a trail of problems. Monoculture encourages the growth and proliferation of pests, which requires pesticides on a regular basis. Just like it is with most rural male farmers, female farmers also tend to use pesticides without consideration of protective equipment. There are many reasons for this problem which include: lack of money to buy, lack of knowledge of the severity and toxicity of the pesticides, or unclear instructions from pesticide labels. Whatever the case, pesticide exposure in women is a major challenge that comes with a myriad of health problems including hormonal imbalances and chronic illnesses such as cancer. Women are particularly vulnerable to the cumulative effects of pesticide exposure since they begin working in the farms for long hours at an early age. They get exposed directly during spraying, or indirectly during planting, weeding, harvesting, or washing pesticide-contaminated clothes. In addition to this, women expose their children to pesticides when pregnant or through breast milk, and other family members through cooking food with pesticides or reusing pesticide containers.
Smallholder farms and food security
Contrary to the opinion that large farms with sophisticated systems are the solution to food insecurity, smallholder farms can be highly productive. A large study was done by FAO on smallholder farming that covered over 37 million hectares in 57 developing countries. Results from this study showed that sustainable smallholder farming increased crop yields by 79%. As the current UN Secretary-General António Guterres says, women are early adopters of agricultural technology. Once women are exposed to sustainable farming techniques, they will ensure increased food supply and diversity. Crop diversity is particularly important since it shields households from price and shortage shocks, as frequently happens with the tomato in Kenya.
Empowering the mama mboga
Food gets to the city mainly through middlemen who take it to major markets. This is where mama mbogas go to buy vegetables and fruits in wholesale and take them to their small stalls in the estate. Just like their female counterparts in the village, these women also go through various challenges. Transport is the main challenge for these women since most do not own vehicles. For most, a good relationship with the public transport crew saves them, and it is very common to see them in matatus early morning. Usually, they have to wake up as early as 4AM so that they can go to the market and find the freshest produce from upcountry.
Believe it or not, mama mbogas provide food to millions of urban dwellers on a daily basis, and they do so from their shanty stalls which are in most cases poorly designed. They provide a variety of foods and even go to the extent of cleaning and chopping like in the case of vegetables. These women are important players in the food system. Without them, it would be difficult to access food. On the flip side, the safety of food that these women sell is not always guaranteed. It is common for most to be selling food that is contaminated with harmful microorganisms due to poor handling or pesticide residues. Educating these women would be important as it would greatly help them improve hygiene and be keener to sell food that is safe for urban clients.
It is necessary that women working either on the farm or at the market place be empowered. Empowerment could be through education and training, favorable policies, and incentives such as lower interest rates for agribusiness loans. If we invest in our women, we are investing in our future as a country.