SCARCE RESOURCE: A young boy scoops water from a hand-dug well in the dry riverbed near Matinyani, in the semi-arid Kitui County in southeastern Kenya. According to the UN 17 million people lack access to safe water in Kenya, where drought is a perennial problem. Picture: Dai Kurokawa / EPA

One of the many results of repeated drought in Kenya is that when crops fail, women turn to cutting trees to sell as firewood in order to feed their families.

They make little money from it, but say they have no choice.

But around Kobolwo, in western Kenya, men have banned women from cutting down the few remaining trees near the village, where maize crops have been decimated by the drought.

So Gladys Korir, a 54-year-old mother of six, and 50 other women have come up with another plan to survive: Using donkeys, they now fetch water from the Mara River near Kobolwo and carry it to distant landowners in exchange for the right to access their land to cut wood.

“We no longer have trees (near home). The few trees that are available are not supposed to be cut. My husband will not allow it,” Korir said.

So the women rise at 4am to walk hours to the Kipleleon hills bordering the famous Masai Mara game reserve, an area owned by herding communities that often face water shortages.

“We allow them to cut shrubs that can regenerate easily,” said Francis Koriata, one of the landowners there.

“Sometimes these women come here without money and when they explain to you how they have slept hungry without food, you just pity them,” he added.

But the women make little money from the business – only enough for one meal a day and a few other basics like buying school uniforms for their children.

After cutting the wood, they travel several kilometres looking for markets in hotels, restaurants or even sales to other villagers, selling the wood for 100 Kenyan shillings (about $1) per stack.

“We need food for our children,” said Joan Mainek, another woman in the business.

“Here, there is no other way of getting money, it’s hard. Our maize has dried up. By now we should have been harvesting maize but there is nothing on our farms. We buy maize throughout the year, a thing we are not used to doing,” she said.

About 2.6 million people in Kenya need food aid, and the number was likely to rise to 3.5 million as the drought continued, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

RISKY WORK
Korir said that before she began selling firewood five years ago, in times of drought, she used to work at a sorghum plantation near her home. 
There she earned 250 shillings ($2.40) a day – not enough to support her family, she said.

“You were over-worked, given only 30 minutes for lunch and no days off. So I prefer the firewood business, where no one forces me to work,” she said.

She makes about four times more money selling the firewood than she used to – although “it’s hard and risky because sometimes we encounter wild animals like elephants and they chase us away,” she said.

Richard Langat, chairman of the Elenerai Co-operative, a women’s group based in a neighbouring county, acknowledged that “women in this area don’t have much of a choice other than using natural resources to make  money to buy food”.

But excessive loss of trees and shrubs cover could lead to water degradation and worsening scarcity in the Mara River, he warned.

In 2012 he brought together nearly 1 000 women from Narok County who relied on selling firewood and charcoal, and trained them in dairy farming so they wouldn’t have to cut down trees to earn money.

“The women no longer need to fetch firewood and are able to meet their family’s needs,” he said.

According to Paul Orengoh, a co-ordinator for water and ecosystems at the Kenya-based Research Triangle Institute, “we need to help women find alternatives sources (of income) to firewood, like planting fruit trees, while preserving the environment,” he said.

Fridah Gacheri, an adviser at SNV, a Dutch charity that helps farmers increase their income and employment opportunities, said that women’s skills and knowledge in managing natural resources – through farming and gardening, for example – are too often overlooked in environmental conservation efforts.

“Women are very involved in agricultural activities so we should tap their potential when looking for alternative sources of income to preserve the environment,” she added. - Thomson Reuters Foundation