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On Land Where Almost Nothing Grows, Maasai Women Find Autonomy in Aloe

Tired of relying on their husbands, who are often away for months, a group of Maasai women began making and selling beauty products made from aloe. With the profits, they now contribute to their household incomes and help support community members in need.

Written by Daniel Sitole Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Emily Kipish (left), a member of the Nabulu Women Group, explains how elephants sometimes destroy the aloe in the group's two-acre farm. Village elders donated the land to the women, all of whom were married before the age of 18.Daniel Sitole

KIMKANDURA, Kenya – The roads are rough and dusty on the drive to the remote village of Kimkandura in central Kenya. Through valleys, hills and gullies, long stretches of sand are dotted with small patches of green. There are few signs of life: the Maasai herdsmen grazing their livestock, and the wild animals – giraffes, gazelle and elephants.

Upon reaching the village, a visitor might see a notice written on a rock: Aloe Nabulu Women Group. Behind it sits a white semi-permanent house. This is where, for the past 11 years, a group of Maasai women have been producing and selling beauty products made from the aloe secundiflora plant. And they use half of their profits to improve the lives of their neighbors in the impoverished village.

“Had it not been for our group, no girls from this village could have gotten a secondary education, and they could be mothers by now,” group member Naisimari Moiyare says. “We also support hundreds of others in primary schools.”

Laikipia County, especially the northern part, where Kimkandura village is located, has some of the highest poverty and illiteracy levels in Kenya. Of the county’s residents, 57 percent live below the poverty line – most on less than $1 per day.

The majority of people living in the county’s north are Maasai – semi-nomadic pastoralists who still observe cultural practices that date back generations. Traditionally, Maasai women depend on men to provide them with food, shelter and other necessities. With parts of Kenya suffering almost constant drought, the work of finding food and water for cattle can take men away from their families for long stretches of time.

“During the dry spells, men travel far with their animals, looking for pastures. Sometimes they stay for six months and even a year, leaving women and children to take care of themselves,” group spokeswoman Teresia Sarioyo says.

Growing Something From Nothing

In 2000, some of the women of Kimkandura village decided that instead of suffering alone, they would band together to help each other through the times when their husbands were absent. A group of 25 – all of them married before the age of 18 – formed Nabulu Women Group (NWG), named for a Maasai phrase meaning “something growing.”

The group started by running adult education classes for the other women in the village. In a region where only 30 percent of girls complete primary school, the classes were popular. But as the NWG offered them for free, the women of the group were not making any money. Later, with support from some Italian nuns of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, the women tried tailoring. But that failed due to the high cost of buying sewing machines and textiles, as well as the fact that many Kenyans don’t spend money on new clothes, preferring instead to buy used clothes imported from Europe and the United States.

Then Joseph Lentunyoi, 37, a native of the area, suggested that the women of NWG try making beauty products from aloe, one of very few plants that grows in the arid region. Lentunyoi is an expert in permaculture, having studied the subject first in Tanzania then at the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia.

“Our land is arid and not fit for any crop. I went to Australia to learn how to help my people to transform the rocks and gullies into cash crops,” Lentunyoi says.

Lentunyoi got together with other experts from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service to teach the women how to grow aloe and process the leaves into soap, body lotion, shampoo and shower gel. After learning about the group’s project, the village elders donated two acres of community land for the women to grow the plant.

The Nabulu Women Group sells its products made from aloe, one of the few crops that can grow in the arid region, to local villagers and tourists. (Daniel Sitole)

Now NWG sells its products to the other villagers and tourists in local shops and at its headquarters. The soaps and lotions sell for between 50 Kenyan shillings (50 cents) and 180 Kenyan shillings ($1.80). Sarioyo says demand is high and the group can make up to $500 a month when all the raw materials are available. But on average, they make around $100 before they either run out of money or supplies, which are not always easy to restock.

“Our products are meant for small-income women and our prices are set taking into account what they can afford. Demand for our products is 10 times higher than what we can afford to supply,” group member Panayian Paro says.

Whenever they do make a profit, the women take half for their salaries; the other half goes to feeding and educating orphans, the aged, widows and the poorest families in the village.

Earning Money and Respect

The business has its challenges. Ten years since they started the process, NWG’s products have only recently been approved by the Kenya Bureau of Standards. And the certificate hasn’t been delivered to the group yet, which means their products still can’t be sold in supermarkets or large retail chains. And the supply of coconut oil, an essential ingredient for making their soap, is irregular due to it having to come to them all the way from Mombasa, 460 miles (750km) away.

Still, the women have found a decent livelihood in aloe. With the money they have earned so far, the group members have been able to buy iron sheets to roof their huts, as well as a 1,000-liter water tank each, which the women share with their nearest neighbors, helping get clean water to everyone. NWG has become so respected in the community, the women are now able to use their status to campaign against early marriage and female genital mutilation.

“Our men respect us for what we have done for ourselves and the community. They use their money for drinking illicit brews, but our money is to solve problems affecting us,” group member Nkiyalian Ketura says.

“We are not worried to be left alone when the men go with their livestock looking for pastures.”

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