Ruth is the soil scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Africa Region. She leads the TNC’s Africa work on agriculture-soil-climate interactions, sustainable intensification, climate-smart agriculture, multifunctional landscapes, and food systems analysis and planning.
She works with farmer networks for the deployment of soil condition diagnostic and leads a participatory process to identify suitable agricultural soil management recommendations and put in place appropriate monitoring frameworks. Through improvements in soil health practices, she contributes to farmers’ livelihoods resilience and help to mitigate climate change.
Ruth helps farmers to grow more food on less land under the new TNC-led soil health training program. In the upper Tana region in central Kenya, she has worked to test soils and provided tailored recommendations on treatments and practices to improve the soil health of more than 150 farmers. In the IHEMI cluster of Iringa and Njombe regions of Southern Tanzania, she has worked with smallholder farmers to improve their land’s soil health and drive sustainable intensification.
Her training is in the management of agroecosystem and environment with a master of soil science from the University of Nairobi. Her previous work focused on the quality assurance program of the agriculture sector that affects the whole chain of agriculture, food, and life from soil to folk. She led soil health projects through which farmers in western Kenya had their soils analyzed and corrective measures recommended. She has published articles in scientific journals on integrated soil fertility management and soil carbon stocks.
From Farm to Table: Building an Inclusive Food System
Sustainable agriculture can be a pathway for poverty reduction, growth, and biodiversity conservation. However, the potential for achieving this is limited in part due to myriad constraints that limit the productivity of women in agriculture. Women make up 50 percent of the agricultural labor force in many sub-Saharan African countries and manage up to 80 percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. In Tanzania, for instance, women make up a whopping 87 percent of food producers in the country. Smallholder farmers also grow climate-resilient varieties of crops, playing a key role in enhancing biodiversity. Women, therefore, play a very important role both in agriculture and climate.
In sub-Saharan Africa, women face different challenges than men, from gender discrimination and patriarchal farming systems, to limited access to and control of land and other useful resources. They are less likely to have access to credit facilities, inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, and extension services. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated control measures have exacerbated these challenges. A recent survey of farmers in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa showed that of 83 percent of female farmers had lost their livelihoods as a result of the pandemic, with 65 percent facing food shortages.
At the same time, women are also underrepresented in agricultural research and development—only 22 percent of agricultural scientists are women. This limits their involvement in leadership, decision-making, and priority setting.
As more men move to cities and agriculture becomes more female-dominated, there is a need to better support female farmers to boost their productivity and integration in the food value chain to ensure an inclusive food system. During his visit to Kenya in 2015, Barack Obama emphasized the need to ensure women are included and their potential maximized by comparing it to a football match. ‘’We’re in a sports centre: Imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”
The productivity of smallholder farms varies across sub-Saharan Africa largely as a result of differences in factors like soil quality. Recognizing the constraints facing women and the need to harness their innovative potential for an inclusive food system, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been working to promote inclusive sustainable agriculture in Kenya and Tanzania. TNC’s and Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture’s 2018-2020 pilot project – which sought to catalyze farmers’ understanding of the need to invest in soil testing – worked to enhance sustainable farming through improved soil health and resource use efficiency while protecting the habitat.
The project provided soil testing services to 100 female farmers whose soil had been eroded and degraded over time. Following the tests, each farmer received soil health cards that showed them soil status and provided corrective measures to restore organic matter and acidity levels. This helped minimize the use of fertilizers that are not compatible with specific soil types and provided scientifically recommended quantities. As a result, the women were empowered with improved soil health practices for their lands, access to native seedlings, planting advice, and rainwater harvesting systems to ensure sufficient irrigation throughout the production cycles. They had increased incomes and stabilized food security while protecting nature at the same time.
TNC interventions alone are not sufficient to build a more inclusive food system. There is a need for concerted efforts from different stakeholders to ensure that women are integrated into the food value chain and to support the most vulnerable populations, especially in the face of COVID-19. Inclusive food systems have the potential to integrate marginalized people into the entire process—from farm to table.
Ruth C. Sitienei, Richard N. Onwonga, Joyce J. Lelei, Peter Kamoni. (2017). Use of Dolichos (Lablab Purpureus L.) and Combined Fertilizers enhance Soil Nutrient Availability, and Maize (Zea Mays L.) Yield in Farming Systems of Kabete sub-County, Kenya. Agricultural Science Research Journal Vol. 7(2): 47 – 61.
Richard N. Onwonga, Ruth C. Sitienei, Joyce J. Lelei, Peter Kamoni. (2020). Complementary Effects of Legume Integration and Fertilizer Application on Soil Moisture and Long-term Carbon Stocks in Maize Systems of Kabete Sub-County, Kenya. Tropical and Subtropical Agroecosystems Journal.