Women Entrepreneurs Leading Resilient Food Systems in Africa

Catherine Otaga, an entrepreneur & farmer in Kenya examines a cassava plant.

While the coronavirus pandemic has been disruptive to the daily lives of everyone around the world, it also both highlights and exacerbates inequities of specific groups of people. One of these inequities is that of gender differences, particularly for those in rural areas. With more needs for caretaking of family during various stages of lockdown, and less access to finances and savings, women’s increased challenges are disproportionate to those of their male counterparts and critical to the food security and nutrition of their communities.

But where there are increased challenges, there is also incredible resilience, strength, and resourcefulness. This resilience presents an incredible opportunity for women to lead their communities in increasing local food security, given improved access to equitable support and resources. Women are on the front lines of resilient food systems, accounting for the majority of labor when it comes to crop processing and food production. With the right access to resources, women agripreneurs are primed to take on more leadership in strengthening the market supply and value chains.

In Bountifield’s “Mavuno Bora” project (“Better Harvest” in Swahili) micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) are one such catalyst for strengthening the local food supply in Kenya. These MSMEs, many of which are led by women, are expanding their agribusinesses to provide support for smallholder farmers to decrease their time and labor for postharvest processing. This improves the quality of the product and frees time for other tasks, responsibilities, and income-generating activities.

Cassava “crackies” are a popular snack in Busia County, Kenya.

Catherine Otaga is a farmer, an entrepreneur, and a leader at the Tangakona Cooperative in Busia County, Western Kenya. As a farmer, Catherine grows a diverse number of crops including cassava, sorghum, maize, sweet potatoes, and traditional vegetables. As an entrepreneur, Catherine established her own line of products including “crackies” and biscuits made from cassava blended with sorghum and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. She currently sells these products at local markets and is preparing to get the Kenya Bureau Standards mark to help her expand into leading supermarkets across the country.

Cassava chips being prepared for drying inside the hybrid solar-biomass dryer.

As a leader at Tangakona Cooperative, she manages the postharvest processing aspects of the crops, including the drying of cassava and sweet potatoes. The cooperative has 326 registered members and serves over 3,000 farmers across seven sub-counties of Busia.

In her managing role, she has experienced many challenges impacting the timely sourcing, processing, and supplying of high-quality cassava to the end market. This includes the challenges of producing poor quality cassava chips and chunks when using open-air drying methods that result in contamination, discoloration, and lengthy drying times. This leads to rejection by the market and hinders the ability to adequately fulfill orders.

Through Bountifield’s Mavuno Bora project, Tangakona received a hybrid solar-biomass dryer to improve the quality and decrease the drying time for cassava and sweet potatoes. Already Catherine has noticed an improvement in the drying process, producing a higher quality product and reducing the stress of the crops being rained on in the open air. Tangakona has since increased the volume of cassava dried from three metric tons in a two-week time period to five tons over the same amount of time.

Catherine participating in a training bootcamp as part of the Mavuno Bora project.

But some of the equally valuable benefits that Catherine has gained from the Mavuno Bora project are the business skills learned from the training bootcamps provided by the program.  

Catherine says that she has, “improved business skills on how to calculate costs, financial projections, and budgets, and how to bargain and engage the markets.” All of these skills will be valuable for Tangakona Cooperative as they begin to engage other market outlets for their cassava now that they have increased their output. But in addition, these are skills and training that Catherine will be able to translate to her own agribusinesses, including her line of food products she sells at the markets.

Despite the challenges, women like Catherine have worked hard to establish their businesses and expand their opportunities, and with the additional access to training and resources, they can take their agribusinesses even further while supporting other smallholder farmers with improved access to postharvest processing technologies. This positions them as leaders in their communities, providing technical services to process, save, and sell more food from the ground up.

Catherine proudly display cassava tubers outside the dryer.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, we recognize the unprecedented challenges over the past year that have exacerbated gender gaps. Yet we also celebrate the resilience of women that when paired with equitable access to resources and training, can be the catalyst for economic recovery, lead the growth within their communities, and have the power to transform food systems.

Bountifield International is proud to support Catherine and the Tangakona Cooperative through the Mavuno Bora project, funded by the van Lengerich family.