CHAMARI Under the scorching sun in Marafa, a small village nestled in a canyon-like depression in Kilifi County in southeast Kenya, women are carefully harvesting pineapples from their open gardens. Using kangas rectangular pieces of cloth wrapped around their waists they pick the ripe fruits and pack them into sacks, ready for transportation to the solar dryer.

Until six decades ago, the Waata hunter-gatherer community lived in the forest, moving their children and their settlements to wherever the men made a hunting kill. But, in the 1940s, the introduction of British colonial wildlife conservation laws and the creation of national parks in Kenya saw the Waata people evicted from the forest to make way for the Tsavo East National Park. The community found refuge on the periphery of the new park, where they were forced to abandon their lives as hunter-gatherers and start farming.

With no agricultural traditions, the community struggled to grow enough to survive. "Our livelihoods were brought to a standstill," Hagaya Wario Boru, a resident of the nearby Chamari village, says. "With no farming skills, and having to gamble on growing maize amid unpredictable weather patterns, life became tough."

Women tried providing casual labor for other farmers, but were often paid too little or not at all. So, in 1999, they turned to growing their own pineapple crops as a last resort. Now, the fruit is providing the whole community with a steady income.

Like many rural women in Kenya, Boru and her colleagues had no land of their own and no access to credit when they started. They opted to grow pineapples instead of other drought-tolerant fruits such as mangoes because they needed a crop that matured fast to give them a quick source of income.

"Ours was a small beginning," says Boru, who chairs the Hajirani Women's Group of pineapple farmers which currently has a pool of 47 members. "With small plots of land we obtained from the community, we used a burn and plant method." Using this technique, farmers cut down and burn vegetation to leave behind a layer of nutrient-rich ash that helps fertilize their crops.

Venturing into pineapple farming was a smart move for these women, since the crop did not require extensive labor and use of mechanical tools and chemicals. But that didn't mean business was easy.

"We constantly faced the challenge of finding a reliable market for the pineapples," Boru says.

The pineapples' perishability, compounded by high temperatures in the region, forced the women to sell the fruit for as little as 5 Kenyan shillings ($0.05) each. Knowing farmers were desperate to move their crops quickly, middlemen would demand to buy up to three fruits for the price of one.

When Boru attended an agricultural show in the coastal city of Mombasa in 2010, she came across the idea of a solar dryer, a solution that would increase the fruit's shelf life and cut out the middlemen. But the women couldn't afford the technology, so they started cutting the pineapples, drying the slices in the hot sun and selling them at the local market. The dried fruits, though lacking in nutrients and produced in unhygienic conditions, nonetheless fetched them higher prices than the raw fruits.

"Compared to selling raw fruits to the middlemen, dried pineapples became a solution to my financial problems. I can now take my two children to school, feed them and ensure for my future," says Agnes Wakesho, a single mother.

The women can now make more profit.

The venture caught the attention of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian NGO that runs development programs in the region. The organization donated a solar dryer, a small greenhouse-like structure the women now use to dry the pineapple slices under more hygienic conditions.

Solar dryer

Using a solar dryer means selling the pineapples for more money — Photo: Robert Kirbet

Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture, through its local office in Magarini, which partners with World Vision in various economic activities aligned to smart agriculture, also stepped in to train the women on agronomic practices and market-focused production.

Now the women can get more for their dried pineapples, says Amos Rukwaro, Magarini sub-county agribusiness officer. Selling 5kg of raw pineapples earns the women around 250 Kenyan shillings ($2.50) but when that same amount of fruit is processed to create 1kg (2.2lbs) of dried fruit, it attracts a market price of 580 shillings ($5.80).

"The women can now make more profit, which translates to a higher income and better livelihoods," Rukwaro says. "As the business opportunity grew and a readily available market [arose], they have now expanded their farming plots to increase productivity."

With the solar dryer increasing production capacity, the women were able to expand beyond the local market and now have a deal providing dried pineapples to the Kenya Fruits Solutions Company, which exports packed processed fruits to overseas markets. The women's group makes around $914 per week selling dried pineapples to the company.

And their success with the dried fruit has given the women the confidence to demand more for their fresh pineapples, too. Now they can charge up to 50 shillings ($0.50) per pineapple, 10 times as much as they were making before.

"We split the revenue amongst our members after setting aside an amount for reinvestment into the business. Some of our members have been able to start small businesses such as small shops through the earnings, and hence helped in diversifying sources of income," says Eunice Daria, the group's secretary.

"Since I became part of this success, my life has changed," she continues. "As a mother, I do not solely rely on my husband for basic needs. I can clothe myself and the children, but of [most] importance is the ability for me to maintain health insurance for my family using the revenue."


See more from Culture / Society here