Last year, North East charity Traidcraft Exchange launched an appeal to support ‘Hidden Entrepreneurs’ in the developing world. Mary Milne, the charity’s Head of Campaigns and Communications, meets some of the women in Meru County, Kenya, determined to trade their way out of poverty.
“We don’t get a fair price at all,” Gladys tells me as we sit together, looking out onto her land, a patch of green in the middle of a landscape of yellows and browns. It is the end of the dry season with the long rains expected any day, but Gladys works hard to keep her crops watered through a network of irrigation channels. “If I have a lot of work to do, I just have to stretch myself. I just have to work a little harder every day to get all the work done.”
Gladys’ farm in the village of Ngare Ndare rests on the slopes of Mount Kenya, an imposing, extinct volcano reaching 5,000 metres at its highest point. In theory, this fertile land is perfect for farming – vegetable crops flourish here, and the growing middle classes in Kenya’s cities provide a ready market. But the statistics paint a very different picture. In Meru County, 70% of farming households live in poverty, with many families surviving on just £2 a day.
This isn’t down to a lack of hard work, talent or determination on the farmers’ part. Far from it. Gladys, who starts work on her farm at 6am every day, is a case in point.
Last year, Traidcraft Exchange launched the ‘Hidden Entrepreneur’ appeal, which called on the British public to support hardworking people like Gladys – people who have all the talent to succeed, but none of the opportunities. Together, Traidcraft’s generous supporters raised an amazing £540,000, which was then matched pound for pound by the UK Government through its UK Aid Match scheme, bringing the final total to more than £1.1 million.
Part of this money is being used to fund a new venture in Meru County, Kenya, to help women farmers to work together and improve their businesses. I travelled there earlier this year to meet some of these women.
Gladys comes out to greet us at the gate to her small farm. She takes us past the two-room house where she lives to sit on a bench in the shade while we talk. Through the fence I can see her vegetable plot where she grows onions, cabbages, tomatoes and potatoes for sale.
Gladys has two children – a son who works in Nairobi and a daughter who lives at home with her. She also cares for her teenage niece, who came to live with Gladys as a small child after her mother and grandmother died.
She works on her farm every day to support her family and hopes that joining the new project will allow her to get hold of better agricultural inputs. “I’m looking to get better quality seeds,” she tells me. “Now we can only get poor quality seed which can’t withstand a lot of rainfall.”
Currently, brokers visit Gladys’ farm to find out what she has to sell and offer a price. Once a price is agreed, buyers come to the farm to take the produce away. While Gladys knows their prices are unreasonably low, up until now, this has been her only option if she wants to sell at all.
“I hope that the project will help me find a market for my produce, quality seeds and inputs,” she tells me. “If we can do this, I’m confident we’ll be able to improve our situation.”
A short walk down the track takes us to meet Gladys’s neighbour Chelegat, another farmer taking part in the new project. It’s late afternoon by now and Chelegat is busy preparing the evening meal for the family. Like many Kenyan women, she rarely has time to stop in her busy day, but she’s happy to sit and chat about her hopes for the project.
Over the honking of her flock of geese who are waiting to be fed, she takes me through her rigorous daily routine – waking early to send her children to school, working her land, tending to her crops, feeding her animals, alongside the cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. It’s clear just how important it is for her to run her farm as a successful business.
“I hope that if we come together – all of us as farmers – we will be able to have a voice in negotiations and begin to dictate how to sell,” she says. “Right now, I’ve invested a lot of money in seed, but what I grow doesn’t give me the return on my investments. I hope that through the project we’ll be able to tackle this.”
Chelegat’s sister and her sister’s child are both disabled. Now three years old, her child cannot talk and is unable to sit up. If Chelegat could earn more money from her farm, she would use it to give them proper medical care and take care of them both.
“I’m proud that through my work on the farm, I’ve been able to educate my children through school and college, and feed and clothe them as well,” Chelegat tells me. “You should continue doing this because the project is helping so many people.”
The Hidden Entrepreneur appeal has now ended, but Traidcraft Exchange’s life-changing work with some of the world’s most vulnerable farmers, workers and artisans is far from over.
Learn more at www.traidcraftexchange.org
Photo credits: Traidcraft Exchange/Kevin Ouma