Breaking Barriers: Masai Women defy gender steereotypes to thrive in the milk value chain

Dar es Salaam. Happy Longei is standing at the cowshed in Mswakini Village, Babati District, at 6:15 pm with three gourds of milk. She has just completed milking her cows.

Happy owned no cattle a year ago, but now she is part of the women estimated to own 2.7 percent of the cattle in Tanzania, according to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Even though Maasai women are traditionally responsible for herding and watering calves, caring for sick animals, herding near the home, milking, cleaning the shed and preparing meals for the household, as a result of traditional gender roles they have no say in decisions about livestock.

Decisions are solely the responsibility of men, although this kind of discrimination is contrary to the women and gender development policy which emphasises integrating gender equality in all sectors and at all levels.

As a result of traditional gender roles, women milk, use some of the milk at home and if there’s any left over, they can sell it, but the man of the house keeps the money.

Women dominate milk sales, mostly in the informal market, but once a formal market is established, women are pushed out, as happened in Tanzania’s southern regions of Iringa and Mbeya and northern Tanga where there are large milk processing plants.

Improving the informal market would undoubtedly ensure that women receive a fair share of benefits in the dairy industry.

Non-profit organisations such as Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT) provide women with the skills to improve production, add value to the milk and reduce the workload in the milk value chain.

Last year, UCRT trained a group of 30 women, including Happy, on modern farming and animal husbandry to improve the health and productivity of their livestock.

The women were also trained in agribusiness, health and environmental conservation. After the training, and through funding from the Galilea Foundation, Happy took a loan of Sh500,000 and bought two cows which gave birth to twins. These cows produce four litres of milk a day.

Happy, a mother of three, no longer feels disempowered and at the mercy of the little money she would get from her husband after selling a litre of milk. She now keeps all the money she earns from her cows and has more money to meet the needs of her children.

And unlike in the past when she could only sell raw milk, Happy is putting into practice the yoghurt-making skills she learnt through UCRT. Yoghurt fetches more money than kule naoto, which is the traditional fermented milk.

While before she used to make Sh2,000, now Happy makes at least Sh5,000 daily, and up to Sh15,000 on good days, from the sale of raw milk and yoghurt. She uses part of the money for her weekly loan repayments and is expected to finish offsetting the loan within 12 months.

Happy is among the growing number of women who are opening their own kiosks to sell milk and yoghurt, turning the current tide where most milk kiosks are owned by men and women work as their employees.

She has also diversified her business and bought a brood of chicks, which she will sell, once they mature, and use the money to offset the loan. 

Another beneficiary of the training and loan is Yasinta Tango who borrowed Sh700,000. She used the money to buy three goats, six chickens and a gas cooker and cylinder.

“When I started using gas, I noticed I had a lot of free time, so when I sold chicken last month, I used some of the money to start a pastry business, which I run in the evenings. The profit helps me repay my debt,” she said.

The mother of four stated that her husband was opposed to her purchasing the gas cylinder and cooker because he was scared it might explode and kill them, but he eventually welcomed the new manner of cooking after six months of safe use.

The women’s group was formed in 2018 with 30 members as the Rights Council of Women’s Leadership, to defend the rights of girls in cases of sexual violence.

They raised Sh5,000 each and bought 24 goats to breed, with the agreement that they would share the kids. However, nine goats died due to lack of pasture in 2021, following the lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it difficult for the women to graze their animals away from home.

“The COVID-19 crisis shook us, but last year UCRT came and taught us business skills and gave us Sh7 million which we used to buy 100 plastic seats which we hire out for events. We used the remaining amount as a revolving fund for our members to finance their individual projects.

This has helped many of us buy gas cylinders and cookers. We have stopped depending on firewood for cooking,” said Suzana Leonard, who is the chairperson of the group.

Since then, the group has purchased more seats (300 at the time of the interview) and is saving money to buy a marquee tent and eventually a vehicle, to transport the seats and tents to clients.

Mswakini Village Chairperson Violet Elias said with the support of the Women’s Rights and Environment Conservation Council, three women groups comprising 90 members have received training and can access the seed capital they need to buy their own livestock and set up alternative businesses which can provide them with income in case their livestock die.

She added that this has boosted the fortunes of the women and freed them from dependency on their husbands. These women are now champions of change in their communities.

“In pastoral communities women do the hard work of tending to the livestock, but the cow belongs to the husband or the father if she is unmarried. We are only allowed to sell milk if any is left after allocating some for use at home,” she said.

“Now we are thankful that we can buy livestock and do other businesses,” she said.

One of the most impactful training they have received is the management of pasture to prevent feed shortage during the dry season.

“We taught them how they could close sections of the bush where they graze the animals during the rainy season. Then during the dry season, they can open up this area to avoid feed shortage.

This preserves the environment and prevents overgrazing,” said UCRT Project Manager Fred Loure. UCRT has provided pasture management training in 127 villages in 10 districts with pastoralist communities, and taught the women how to pick and preserve seasonal fruits, beekeeping as an alternative source of income and helped them establish Vicoba (village community banks).

While women’s participation in the dairy and livestock market is still low, the women in Mswakini Village are proof that improving the capacity of project staff on gender issues can empower women and improve their participation in markets through gender integration.

In future, establishing a marketing hub where women can sell milk directly to consumers rather than through middlemen would increase their participation in the milk value chain.

This article was produced as part of the Aftershocks Data Fellowship (22-23) with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with The ONE Campaign and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

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