“What a man can do, a lady can do” - Researching gender relations in Teso South

by Wai-Leng Chon (completed Master’s in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam in August 2020)

“When [millet] is for subsistence use – you consume small quantities and then you take the rest to the market in a small quantity – that’s the work of the woman. But if it’s for commercial use, they have grown in bulk, that’s the work of the man – he should be responsible for that.”

(67-year old participant in an all-male focus group discussion)

Focus group discussion participants. All photos: Wai-Leng Chon

As part of my Master’s in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam, I spent two months in Teso South, Kenya, conducting research on gender relations in the finger millet value chain. My research aimed to understand the role that gender relations, intra-household dynamics and the wider community setting could play in the nutritional impact of EaTSANE’s interventions. These findings would enable EaTSANE to more meaningfully design interventions that ‘do no harm’, and ideally address the gender relations directly to further improve nutrition.

In western Kenya, the finger millet value chain is important because this traditional crop is a nutritious and viable income alternative to cash crops such as maize, and is more resilient to climate change and soil degradation. Studies have found that income-generating activities for women have positive effects on nutritional status. However, dynamic gender relations throughout the value chain often dictate what crops men and women grow, how resources are allocated and who partakes in marketing activities.

Finger millet

The research process was fascinating. Interviews and focus groups introduced me to the people who make their livelihoods from the millet value chain – and to the gender relations that manifest in the roles that men and women play in the value chain. I found that gender relations impact the value chain directly: women conduct labour-intensive productive and reproductive roles, lack access to resources and benefits and have limited intra-household bargaining power compared to men. These dynamics collectively weaken women’s productive and decision-making capacity, dampening the potential for participation in the millet value chain to translate into nutrition improvements.

Millet can be considered a men’s crop or a women’s crop depending on the size of land allotted to producing it. This means that the millet value chain is gendered from the outset: cultural norms favour men in terms of land inheritance; men then have decision-making power over how the land is used; the size of the land allotted to growing millet dictates who manages the crop; and who manages the crop impacts how the benefits (financial and non-financial) are generated and shared.

All-male focus group discussion

There is a ‘can-do’ gap between what participants profess women are able to do, and what they actually do. Participants are aware of ‘gender mainstreaming’, however, women tend to only conduct traditionally ‘male’ roles, or have decision-making power when the man is absent, such as being widowed, or because they are polygamous and the husband is with another family. Although the belief that women can do anything appears to challenge traditional stereotypes, it may act to reinforce traditional structures because the belief alone seems to be considered sufficient social change.

Inequitable gender relations also create secondary effects on the value chain that negatively impact both men and women. Asymmetric information and a lack of coordination between value chain actors, often correlated with gender dynamics, result in missed opportunities to enhance economic and nutritional impact, such as institutional markets and value addition products.

What does this mean for EaTSANE? Nutrition-sensitive programmes such as EaTSANE are in a prime position to engage with stakeholders and deliver interventions that address inequitable value chain dynamics, improve women’s situations and increase nutrition, which is all the more important in the increasingly fragile, post-COVID world.

Based on the research findings, I recommend that EaTSANE collaborate with extension services, research institutions and NGOs to:

  1. Empower women to integrate in value chains and engage in sustainable and diversified nutrient-dense crop production, processing, trading and marketing;

  2. Improve nutrition- and gender-sensitive education to encourage behavioural change;

  3. Improve the efficiency of the nutrition-sensitive value chain to increase availability and accessibility of diversified nutrient-dense foods.

A female retailer with her millet stock

Not only was the research interesting from an academic and project perspective, personally it was both challenging and eye-opening. As a Western female researcher, I was conscious before going out to the field about how my positionality – my background, ethnicity, education and cultural context – would shape my research objectives and methods, my perception of the participants, and how I would interpret and analyse the data collected. I tried to refrain from embodying the ‘white feminist’ stereotype, criticised for acting as a saviour in the modern development context.

Although I am a non-white woman, I was aware that due to my British nationality and education, I might portray the same whiteliness as my white colleagues. I was also conscious that my East Asian ethnicity may create a different perception of me in the eyes of research participants. Chinese investment in infrastructure across the continent of Africa has led to diverse responses, and I was aware that I might be perceived by participants as associated with this. However, research participants and residents of the community where I lived, referred to me as mzungu, a term often used to refer to those of European descent. Conversations with my local translator confirmed that people perceived me as white and foreign. Associations with my East Asian heritage did not come to the fore until people became more conscious of the Coronavirus pandemic, after which point the label ‘Coronavirus’ became a moniker and even part of a sales technique used by bus touts.

While it may have been impossible for me to understand and account for how I was perceived by others, I could at least be conscious of how I consider others within, and portray myself towards, the communities in which I conducted research. I reflected on the intersectionality of participants, understanding individuals’ experiences at the intersections of race, gender, disability and socio-economic status. I used sex-disaggregated data to understand men and women both separately and in relation to each other, rather than considering only women – a common shortcoming of gender research. I also acknowledged where participants’ views on gender topics diverged from my own, and I worked hard not to let my subjectivities affect the progress of my research.

Article in The Nairobian, January 2020

While in the field, I reflected on my own intersectionality on a daily basis, perhaps a natural occurrence being a woman conducting gender research in rural Kenya. The gender relations I observed and learned about in interviews and focus groups were reflected in the everyday working relationships between my own research facilitators and, at times, myself. I lived on the edge of a town where, after sunset, it was not advised for women to be outside of the home – a stark contrast to the carefree life I led in Amsterdam. I read newspaper articles such as To hell and back with a ‘psycho woman’, which portrayed women as a homogenous group of calculated psychopaths and failed to acknowledge the role that their assumed previous trauma may have on their behaviours. While these personal experiences and learnings may have made my life in Busia more challenging, they also provided a far richer understanding of the socio-cultural context within which I conducted research.

Busia, Kenya

My time in Kenya was fascinating, challenging and dynamic – changing everyday as the Coronavirus pandemic entered, and then dominated, public discourse. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to travel when it was possible, to have had thought-provoking conversations, and to have witnessed the drivers and challenges faced by men and women who participate in the millet value chain. In my free time I travelled in the region, stayed in a treehouse on the banks of Lake Victoria, went on a game drive in Lake Nakuru National Park and crossed the border into Uganda to hike waterfalls and trek with gorillas. The experience was a defining one for me personally, and I hope that what I’ve shared through my research will in some way contribute towards improving the lives of the welcoming, convivial and hard-working people with whom I had the pleasure of spending time. Although the Coronavirus pandemic renders notions of the future fuzzy and uncertain, I envisage a time when I will be able to return to Teso South, break chapati with the locals and have an engaging discussion over a bracing cup of local brew.