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December 8, 2016

There was nowhere better to recover from the elections than bouncing across the dirt roads of western Kenya. With dust and wind in my hair, and the sun on my back, I was off to visit ActionAid’s work with local women farmers.

I came carrying anxiety about what the elections will mean for U.S. foreign policy, and wondering if the campaign rhetoric will continue once the new President is in place.

What would I tell these beautiful, resilient small farmers who are on the front lines of poverty and exclusion in Kenya about our elections? How will they see me – a white American woman?

And yet, despite all the worry, I already knew whatever I brought them in solidarity and support, they would repay tenfold in inspiration. And I was right!

I visited two farms and a cooperative factory. At each farm, a dozen women and a few men gathered to tell me about their work with ActionAid. Over the past few years, the women farmers have set up groups to talk about their needs and their rights as women and as local farmers.

When they started the project, they’d wanted to solve a few core problems – grow their farming business and make it more resilient to the changing climate. They also wanted to claim their rights as women, at home and in their communities.

And they asked ActionAid to help support them: to help them learn how to access, understand and track the Kenyan agriculture budget and to support them as they called on decision-makers in their country to increase spending on agriculture – and change how it’s spent – so that it meets their needs as women and local farmers.

They hoped this would let them grow their businesses, make more money and, with control over growing income, also change the power dynamics between men and women in their homes and communities.

I asked them how it felt, the first time they stepped into the local office of the Ministry of Agriculture, carrying with them their demands. They told me they were scared. They giggled together remembering how frightened they were!

They said they didn’t know how they would be received. It was unusual for women to be their own advocates and for farmers to enter into State Houses. But they said that they were received well. They could see the respect of the decision-makers because the women had so much knowledge.

But the greatest accomplishment of all was that they won! While they continue to push for increases in the agriculture budget, they’re already changing local agriculture policies in ways that meet their needs as farmers. They have greater access to things like new farming research, tools and fertilizers, and these services are increasingly meeting their needs and desires to become more climate resilient, increase production and soil health. They’ve also received support to help get their products to market, and are profiting as a result!

One woman describing their victory called out,

“Now we are brave. Now we can go anytime anywhere to demand our rights!”

And the others cheered!

As I walked through their farms I saw the impact of their victory. The lush green arrowroot – which fetches the best price – the rows of sweet potatoes, French beans, banana trees and maize, among many other plants.

They told me with pride how they fix the nitrogen by planting multiple crops, use compost, and use manure to fertilize and replenish the soil. Their victory has meant that farming experts have helped them make the most of their small plots.

When I asked what they use their profits for, the number one answer for each was school fees, “and not just for the boys but for the girls as well.” They also used the money to buy land and invest in their farms. They spoke with pride about how they now can afford meat, to do their hair.

“We are no longer poor.”

The farmers I met also had participated in research that showed how poor their neighbors actually were, and so as they grew their profits, they began recruiting farmers living in the deepest poverty and exclusion to join them.

I was reminded about how great it is to make sure that women drive their own agenda. It never would have occurred to me sitting in DC, or my colleagues based in Nairobi, to demand that things like fertilizers be packaged in smaller bags so that they would be both affordable and used efficiently by the local farmers.

The lush farms, increased profit, and food sovereignty were only just the beginning of the benefits the women won. In one of the groups, they also spoke about how their relationships with their husbands were changing.

“We have peace in our home now! Now he looks at me with respect! Before I had to ask for money and he didn’t respect me.”

They even laughed about how they “even” sometimes will give their husbands a bit of money to go to the bar!

Of course, farmers need access to the market, and the more they can add value to their product through processing, the better their price. The women and men started a cooperative factory. ActionAid supported their fundraising efforts by teaching grant-writing skills, and they got resources from the local government and private investors to create a factory that makes banana bread – a new thing for the area – and many popular treats like banana and sweet potato crisps!

They created a completely green factory. It is a no-waste facility, running off a micro-grid powered by solar, and their products have only natural ingredients and are sourced from farmers practicing climate resilient agriculture. They talk about how they market their products as being “by farmers for farmers”.

When asking them what comes next, they talked about needing to continue to push for more government money to agriculture, women’s rights to land, and support for refining their business plan for the factory so they could increase production to meet the demand.

I can’t wait to hear what they do next!