A year ago, Esther Chelule wasn’t involved in managing her family’s wheat farm in Kenya – she felt that was “men’s work,” something left to her husband. Now, after participating in farmer trainings to facilitate cooperation between married couples on the farm, the dynamics of their household have changed.
Wheat farming is critical for families like Chelule’s in East Africa; in Kenya, wheat is the second most important staple crop after maize. The region has been ravaged by stem rust, a devastating fungal pathogen that can destroy a farmer’s entire harvest. Yet trainings organized by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) to share agricultural knowledge about stem rust were dominated by male farmers, leaving women often ill-informed about new practices and opportunities.
“My husband in the past never used to tell me there were those trainings,” Chelule said.
The situation is not unique across sub-Saharan Africa: Reports from the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report that, on average, farms run by women are less productive than those run by men, likely due to women’s lack of access to resources such as training. To address those imbalances and increase women’s participation in agriculture, gender courses led by the Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) program, are changing attitudes for a growing number of smallholder farmers in East Africa and empowering women to take on a greater role in household farming activities.
“When we grow this crop of wheat, because [of] the training I know how it is planted and weighed, how much goes into an acre,” Chelule said. “Now, even when [my husband] is not there, I can supervise the work very well.”
In the years since the emergence of Ug99, a particularly virulent form of stem rust that swept through sub-Saharan Africa starting in 1999, researchers at Cornell and KALRO have been working to address food security threats in Kenya. KALRO runs a stem rust screening nursery to screen tens of thousands of types of wheat annually for desirable characteristics, holds rust surveillance and management trainings for scientists, and organizes farmer trainings in communities.
Transforming these trainings to be gender responsive was spearheaded by Anne Gichangi, the head of the socio-economics department at KALRO in Njoro, Kenya. In 2017, along with her teammates Bernice Waweru and Godwin Macharia, she participated in the GREAT Cereals Course under the sponsorship of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, which is funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the UK government. Though Gichangi had already begun her journey in incorporating gender into her research prior to attending the GREAT course, she said that the training has further transformed the way she does her work.
Improving disease management and variety adoption by engaging men and women
“[The] majority of the men and women farmers we spoke to did not understand the value that collective action brings. Not just to a couple, but also as a community of farmers,” said Gichangi, who works with farmers to equip them with the skills and business know-how to transform them into agricultural entrepreneurs.
“I came to realize that there was a missing link between whatever research that we do and how we disseminate our findings, or our technologies, or how we train even these farmers, how we introduce the technologies,” Gichangi said. “Once the opportunity presented itself, where we had the chance to conduct training to farmers on wider network, we took advantage of this. We incorporated sessions teaching farmers the value of working together as a married couple, and on working together as a group of same interest farmers to gain leverage in the market for a better revenue. This was done while also teaching the farmers about the new varieties being bred by KALRO and how and where best to grow them.”
Vincent Chelule, Esther’s husband, noted how the training improved their family’s ability to respond rapidly to the threat of disease. “With rust, once you have noted that there is some infection it will not wait. Let’s say you see somewhere in your farm there is a rust infection and you delay for three to four days, you will find that it has spread throughout the whole plot. Now, because she is there, she can supervise what is to be done on the farm.”
East Africa is a center of genetic diversity for stem rust, making wheat research in that region critically important. Cornell has been a pioneer in incorporating gender training as a way to share the benefits of agricultural research for all people, regardless of gender.
Hale Ann Tufan, co-principal investigator of GREAT, said the trainings are an example of the impact GREAT was designed to deliver.
“The aim of GREAT is to give agricultural researchers the tools and methods to look at their world with a ‘gender lens’ and think about how gender affects their work,” Tufan said. “Each country and project’s situation is unique, and effectively integrating gender into research and development activities starts from recognizing that.”
Since attending the GREAT training in 2017, Gichangi and her team have expanded efforts to introduce gender awareness in all trainings. Those gatherings revealed a startling fact: a majority of farmers were not aware of improved wheat varieties released by KALRO.
“We had not realized gender relations and decision-making, inclusiveness and resource ownership were major concerns affecting adoption of the new wheat varieties released by KALRO,” Gichangi said. “However, after the GREAT training, our eyes were wide open and we started addressing this through trainings.”
“The DGGW strives for an approach that addresses gender issues in all of its activities,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for the DGGW. “We recognize that identifying the preferences of diverse smallholder farmers, including women and youth, and being responsive to them will allow improved, disease-resistant varieties to be accepted and adopted, and cannot be overlooked.”