Promoting women’s rights, including access to a fair education, advocating against FGM, and economically empowering women, are cornerstones of gender equity and SDGs. Whilst measurable progress in empowering women has been made, there is still a long way to go. In this interview, we hear from Lanoi Parmuat - long term thinker, role model and founder of Ewang’an Nadede Advocacy Initiative (ENAI). ENAI–Africa’s primary mandate and focus is to build the capacity of pastoralist communities in Africa with special emphasis on gender equity and equality, sustainable food security, quality health, improved literacy and education systems, environment, resource utilisation, for sustainable development in Africa. It is guided by the vision of a healthy, food secure, good governance and developed Pastoral community in Africa.
Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and tribe?
I am from the Maasai, an indigenous community in the south rift of Kenya. I grew up in a small village in the Mau Forest highlands until the age of 12. I went through many challenges, including distance to school and cultural encounters that suppressed girls’ rights. I was rescued by a school and a religious platform, which sheltered me for some time. Then I transferred to town with more of a cosmopolitan community.
What was your experience like as a young Maasai girl in school?
I attended a boarding school up to secondary education and became a mature girl at the age of 18 - that's why I have the spirit for championing girls’ rights. Being a Maasai girl, I can say you become, what you call a girl of two worlds. On one side, you are battling with technology advancement and other societal issues. On the other, you are a very innocent, naive girl from the village and the only thing you know is your communal spirit and culture. Being a Maasai girl was the best thing. I am so proud to be an Indigenous Maasai woman, except for those elements that suppress a child. For instance, the female circumcision and early marriages.
FGM is seen as a transition from childhood into womanhood. It is done at a very early age of 9 or 10. Then you're married at the age of 15, already having children and a husband to care for. I feel it is depriving girls’ rights because they need to have free will and free decision, whilst having parental guidance, community guidance and respect for our important cultural values. I feel that you should have that freedom to access education.
Who or what inspired you to promote the rights of young women?
I have a PhD, but that does not make me a non-indigenous woman, denying me the opportunity to serve my community. Those elements I just discussed could have hindered me in achieving my goals. That's why I'm in the community, to give back. I initiated ENAI, an African organisation that supports communities and ensures that women’s rights are realised. We give voice to indigenous communities, helping defend their God-given lands. Every human being has a right to be on his or her land and fulfil their purpose. I want to see women and girls accomplish that.
As a Maasai woman, I want girls to reach a position of free choice over what to do, who to marry, with equal opportunities as a girl from the West. Maasai girls are courageous, tough and resilient communities, they can be whoever they want in the world today.
What is the mission of the ENAI organisation and what is your role as CEO?
My role is to manage and drive the organisation, implementing decisions that I'm given by the board of directors. I need to make sure that our vision is actualised and that we are accountable to the partners who have entrusted us with funding to support our advocacy work.
Could you give an example of one of ENAI’s support schemes?
We have individuals willing to support our girls with educational scholarships, we have individuals who’ve supported our voice and we received funding from grant-making organisations. For instance, the Ford Foundation and Johnson & Johnson, have advocated for favourable policies to strengthen health systems, specifically in Kenya. In Kajiado, we’ve been training Community Health Assistance (CHMT) in developing ChisApp, a community-based information system and advanced primary healthcare at the grassroots level. We've ensured that health is a priority as an organisation through the partnership with the County Government Department of Health. We've also partnered with PAI (Population Advance International), spearheaded development of Family Planning Costed Implementation Plan for 5 years (FPCIP) on issues relating to Reproductive Health (RAMCAH) and advocated for child spacing.
Do you see gender equity improving in Kenya?
We still have issues around gender gaps and women lag behind, yet they are the primary producers. At ENAI, we've developed a social entrepreneurship programme where we enhance women’s income and support them through a saving scheme, which they can share in groups at the grassroots or household level. We've initiated an income-generating activity where women operate the dairy plant, as we know in our community milk is central to Maasai women because it’s a ‘full course meal’, with nutritional value and it enhances the economy. We add value to the milk by producing yoghurt, butter, ghee and cheese. These products reach the market, so women can enlarge their saving culture. It's through their indigenous knowledge and skills that these women can advance in the world today. We are proud of our cows; our riches are measured in their numbers. The strength we hold is in our land, food & security, and we are the best stewards of our environment.
With a population of over 40 million that need enriching, the government is also producing economic opportunities for women, such as the women’s enterprise fund and an electorate wing for women’s leadership. As an NGO, we’ve complimented the gaps within the government, but we need these policies to be customised to each unique area. There are also spaces in universities that provide opportunities for studies on women’s issues or even focus on gender development.
Are FGM and early marriages still a big issue in rural communities?
It’s still a big issue in the rural areas because culturally it is believed that it's something to celebrate, like a birthday. But there is a lot of advocacy happening and I'm proud to be part of the women who champion for anti-FGM. Today we have a policy against FGM, and I am glad to have spearheaded this from November 2011 to campaign for those rights. I'm pleased that today we have a board that the government accepted. The leaders embrace it, and they are not shying away from supporting these women. It's now a criminal offence if you are caught participating in FGM - you will serve 5 years and pay handsomely for the crime.
What key societal actions need to happen for women to access a fair education?
In our communities, we believe in our indigenous knowledge and skills. If we keep this, I feel it's something to be proud of as we can hold onto it forever. I think of all the countries today worldwide, we are the top in preserving our culture. We have our own identity in terms of language, dressing, territorial land, and we are still proud to have our governing system.
When it comes to formal education, we can still say we have not yet fully embraced it. We are trying, but there are issues of early pregnancies and early marriages, which pulls girls out of the system. Yet, we can see each community gradually accepting education, especially now that it's free.
How does climate change impact the lives of nomadic peoples?
We still have a long way to go, we’ve seen so much destruction and now it’s a global issue. We've seen our territory invaded by technology and development, where towns expand into pastoralist land. One of the impacts of the economy and accepting the devolution system is people selling their lands, which develop into industrial skyscrapers. There's a mass excavation of timber, minerals, sand and building stones. Then there are locust invasions, which are a threat to us and our food security. It's still a big issue, which is why one of the programmes supported by open society initiative focuses on land, food security and nutrition. We bring the female voice to the centre, but if there is no land or food for the cows, women become powerless. It's a big agenda and we need to protect women from changing weather patterns.
Do you see children playing an active role in achieving the SDGs?
Yes. We need children in education to get there. When it comes to health, we are championing it through nutrition. That's why we engage in community health units for universal healthcare. All these interventions help us achieve the SDGs.
How has COVID-19 affected Kenya’s most vulnerable communities and what more can be done to help?
It has affected communities and we’ve lost loved ones. We are just holding our hearts and fearing for our children as now social distancing is a big issue in schools. It has affected the productivity of women - for nine months they were not able to produce anything, economically nothing was generated and when our markets were closed, we could not sell livestock or trade across the border.
There were risks for girls and women, we couldn’t even access the family planning services and that’s why there was an increase in unplanned teenage pregnancies. There were also a lot of issues of domestic violence due to lack of food. The road to recovery is now the big focus in Kenya and is a key area where we want everybody to come on board and support our local women, especially in the indigenous communities.
What does a typical day look like as a Community Health Volunteer (CHV)?
I had the incredible opportunity to support women during that time, even when the doctors and nurses were on strike. The community volunteers depend on the traditional knowledge of the Maasai, as midwives, they help girls to deliver, they help us use herbal medicines even to suppress issues coming from COVID-19 and use traditional treatments for dislocations or bone breakages. If there are issues with headaches or stomach-aches, they can help.
The only challenge we have is addressing these issues with sanitation. There are many water-borne diseases in pastoral communities because we share the same water paths with our livestock and wildlife. In some communities, we have open defecation and no closed toilettes so when it rains the sewage gets very bad. One of the things we are doing is encouraging people to build toilettes and purify their water. We’ve done it in our community by helping women purify their own water for consumption. We continue to campaign and support our communities to address sanitation issues because it's a big problem.
Could you explain one of your greatest achievements in the last year?
We were able to distribute food to the households of those drastically affected by COVID-19. We were able to take prevention measures, find ways to cope with social distancing and used the community volunteers to reach out at the household level. It was really challenging due to the restrictions and lockdowns, but we were still able to distribute food and send messages through the social media platform and local radio stations.
We gave a lot of counselling as there were so many cases of domestic violence. We were able to get shelter for some girls in religious houses and get them counselling. We also distributed 25 motorcycles to take food, messages and get reports back from the local people.
What are you most excited about working towards this year?
Now that the world has opened up, I'll be glad to see children back to school and succeeding. I'll be very happy to see a good formula for girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy returning and achieving their goals. I'm excited because now we have all the policies, I want to see them implemented in safeguarding and supporting the community of volunteers. I'm going to be happy at the end of this year to see all the programmes that we planned as an organisation and all that we've been able to achieve. I'll also be pleased to have more partners supporting our initiative.
Finally, when are you are at your best or happiest?
I was happy to see Kamala win the election in the US and now that we are going towards an election, I will be glad to see more women in power voicing gender issues. My best moment will be to see every woman and girl prevail in a balanced society. That is why it is so important to achieve an all-round healthy environment.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Lanoi ene Parmuat, Board Secretary and Executive Director at ENAI
Could you tell us a bit about your background?
I got my bachelor’s degree in liberal arts studies, focusing on music and German. That's where my interest in different cultural backgrounds started. I was born in the United States and grew up speaking German, but it wasn’t until I studied the language, culture and literature at college that I got a chance to engage in different mindsets. Learning about world music and international music really sparked my interest. After pursuing my Master’s in International Communication in Germany, I got an entry-level job at the United Nations in New York with the United Nations University. I was so interested in cross-cultural understanding and working together across different nations to solve global problems. The job gave me insight into the broader policy discussions within the UN and how to look at these issues to make an impact.
I then got a post with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) as a public information officer, translating policy processes into the field. I also started a youth peace programme. It was exciting to see how much we could change the lives of some of the world's forgotten people. Then I got a post in Nigeria with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) doing public information communications, media and advocacy. That was an intense time to be in Nigeria because of the conflict with non-state armed groups in the north-east.
For the last few months, I've been with the UN World Food Programme in Sudan doing media and communications, responding to different crises such as the flooding in September. It was the worst the country has seen for 100 years! We've also had the refugee crisis on the border with Ethiopia, trying to mobilise assistance for nearly 60,000 refugees. Sudan was also recently removed from the US state-sponsored terrorism list, so many changes are happening. The World Food Programme is one of the largest humanitarian agencies providing food assistance and establishing long-term food security and livelihoods.
What triggered you to work in the humanitarian sector?
My grandparents were refugees after World War Two and my father was born in post-World War Two Germany in 1946. I heard a lot of their stories growing up and what it meant to go through conflict. My grandma was always trying to do some humanitarian work or bridge cultural understandings between different people. She inspired me to want to alleviate the suffering of people. I was drawn to work that had meaning and impacted people's lives, especially the most vulnerable.
If you were to pick an influence(s) growing up, how did they affect your career path?
It's actually a lady that I never met, but I'm named after. She saved my uncle's life in World War Two. As a small child, he got lost in southern Germany, this lady named Leni found him and took him in for two years until she was able to find my grandparents. I was given her name and I feel I have to live up to it because she made such a difference in my family's life. She was always known for her warm-heartedness and helping everybody, which inspired me to have that kind of difference in people’s lives.
As UN Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs in Nigeria, what did a normal day look like?
You couldn't say that there's a typical day working in that kind of humanitarian emergency and protracted crisis. The situation in North-East Nigeria is quite insecure - it's one of the highest levels of security that staff members work in. I lived in a compound and we were driven around in armoured vehicles, so there was always this security concern in the back of your mind. It was a terrorist environment where at any point somebody could blow themselves up. We were reporting on all kinds of insecurity incidents, so because of this and the counter-terrorism operations going on and the Nigerian military trying to free villages from non-state armed groups, there were a lot of population movements. In January 2019, shortly before the Nigerian elections, there was a sudden influx of around 50,000 people to the state capital where I was working. The humanitarian community had to mobilise an emergency response for these people, who were fleeing from conflict, find a place for them and try to get them urgent life-saving support.
There were constant crises like these popping up during my role in public information and advocacy. I was sharing and drawing attention to what was happening with the outside world to mobilise resources. There were also various attacks on humanitarian compounds throughout the area and aid workers abducted. You had to react, respond and raise awareness so that the international community knew what was happening.
How did your UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan differ?
It was more on the grassroots level, focusing on peace and security. It wasn’t necessarily about mobilising food, water and shelter, but about creating the conditions for a lasting peace. There were also many humanitarian actors in South Sudan, the peacekeeping mission is just a different part of the UN. We would go out to villages and hold peace dialogues. The peacekeeping mission also ran a radio station, which was one of the only functional national radio stations in the country. So, I turned into a radio journalist, reporting on some of these peace dialogues and informing the general public on important peace processes.
I was responsible for going to remote locations and building trust with local communities. We would explain our purpose and the role of the local people in trying to move past conflict, look towards building durable peace between the different tribes and how this could contribute to peace and security more broadly on a national level.
What were your greatest achievements of the past year?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was in North-East Nigeria. When they closed the borders, one of the biggest challenges in the humanitarian response was the lack of water and over-crowded camps for internally displaced people. At the same time, we had to adapt the response to maintain social distancing measures, get masks into the country, distribute PPE and run information awareness campaign. I took the lead in doing an education and information campaign on COVID-19 prevention measures. There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation around the pandemic, so we worked closely with local radio stations and different humanitarian actors on the ground to produce material that saved lives. Implementing measures in these areas with poor sanitation and the mass amount of people, prevented what could have been a catastrophe.
The second half of the year, I moved to the World Food Programme in Sudan. I’m proud of our media efforts throughout the crisis of refugees from neighboring Ethiopia crossing the border into Sudan. I produced the video news highlight reel that was picked up by a lot of international broadcasters. I was glad to be sending information out to the world on an emerging crisis and advocating on behalf of the needs of vulnerable people fleeing conflict.
How have you seen COVID-19 affecting the position of the world’s most vulnerable?
More than anything, it's the economic impacts felt most among the world's most vulnerable. In Nigeria, they tried to do a lockdown, which lasted no more than two weeks as people were going out on the streets saying, ‘I might get COVID, but if I don't have anything to eat, I'm going to die.’ Having these types of lockdowns in countries where the standard of living is much lower exacerbates the economic impacts and food insecurity. Globally, one of the big things we are also seeing is the ‘shadow pandemic’ and the increase in domestic violence, mostly against women.
What role do you think the media is currently playing in reporting what's happening on the ground?
I think one of the issues is how news cycles work - what's breaking news, what's developing and what's new, because that's what makes news and that's how the industry works. One of the biggest problems in the media industry in covering protracted humanitarian crises after several years is that it's no longer new and therefore there’s no focus. I just experienced it in this emerging situation from Ethiopia. There's been a protracted crisis in Sudan for decades and at the height of the hunger season last year, there were 9.6 million people food insecure - the highest number ever recorded in the country and close to 25% of the country's population. Yet, international journalists only became interested in Sudan when Ethiopian refugees entered the border fleeing from violence in the Tigray region. If you look at it in terms of numbers, the 'bigger' humanitarian crisis was in Sudan, and especially Darfur, yet the media focused on the emerging situation because that’s what makes ‘news’.
Is there a better role for the public to play in helping improve humanitarian action?
It's difficult because it's a matter of proximity. Around 50% of Americans don't have a passport and have never left the country, so when something is going on in a far away country there’s nothing they can relate to, they have no understanding of what it means. I would say it is more of a long-term and profound change that's needed in terms of developing as a society that is more globally aware. That all has to go back to the education system - it's more of a domestic and education policy question. We need to change the schooling system and expose children to a global society and developing an international mindset in an interconnected world.
How does climate change affect disasters on the ground?
Climate shocks from droughts to floods, as we've seen in Sudan last September, are exacerbating humanitarian crises and are sometimes the cause of humanitarian crises because people have to migrate. The flooding of the River Nile in Sudan was the highest level it has been in 100 years, over 150,000 homes destroyed, and nearly 1 million people were affected. This is one natural disaster that happened in one country in 2020, but it's happening globally. Again, it’s not communicated by the media, especially on how its broadcasted to the West. Because climate science is such a complex, interconnected system, it's quite hard to explain it in a straight forward way. For example, how one particular case of flooding in Sudan is related to greenhouse gas emissions in the US.
Do you think the UN Humanitarian Affairs should prioritise this in their strategic focus over the next 5 years?
There is ever more focus on this, especially from the office for UN OCHA, demonstrating how climate shocks exacerbate global crises. For the UN's 75th anniversary, the UN held a survey on the core issues concerning citizens around the world. Climate change and how to frame responses to humanitarian crises were at the top of the agenda. But, the thing to remember is that the UN is not one organisation that can mandate something for everybody - it’s a multilateral network of different nations with their own policies. More than anything, the United States re-joining the Paris agreement will have a greater impact in leading the global green policy change.
Do you have any particular goals for 2021?
Given that 2020 was such an unpredictable year, my goal is to be kind to myself. There's enough pain, suffering, crises and anxiety and to uphold my role in humanitarian work for the next three to five years, I can’t afford to burn out. Self-care is essential to staying strong, energetic, motivated, inspired, compassionate and most of all dedicated to the work that I do. We're seeing the effects of the pandemic taking a toll on mental health across societies, so my motto is to try to maintain that mental health and stability amidst these turbulent times.
Finally, what is most important to you at work?
The most important thing for me is to embrace teamwork to solve problems and to create a work environment where we build upon each other’s strengths. We should empower and motivate each other to stay inspired, remain committed and look at as many angles as possible to solve a problem. If you create an environment for people where they love to work and feel passionate and committed to what they do, I think that's the best way for them to strive individually, reach collective success and make a lasting difference.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Leni Kinzil, Communications Officer at World Food Programme
Venter Mwongera: "I envision partnering with like-minded organisations to digitise agriculture in Africa."
Could you tell us about yourself?
I grew up at the foot of Mt. Kenya (Meru) in an average family set up. My parents were strict disciplinarians who believed in holistic growth and the importance of having a multi-faceted skillset to succeed in life. From a tender age, I had an insatiable thirst for information and an inquisitive mind. My grandparents were mixed-crop and livestock farmers - I was amazed by the complex world of farming which they navigated with ease! I would negotiate with my parents for permission to spend time with them, having spent much of my youth living within the grounds of a missionary hospital where my mum nursed. So, a day with my grandparents in the countryside was a breath of fresh air.
I’m now an integrated communications specialist, passionate about telling African stories through the lens of solutions, inclusivity and dialogue. I believe we can overcome challenges by embracing an open mind-set and listening to each other. I have been a Multi-Media (print, broadcast and digital) storyteller for over 15 years. I have broadcasted news, trained and mentored journalists and implemented complex developmental programmes in fields such as agriculture and gender mainstreaming. I’ve worked with many organisations, including Environmental Research Mapping Information Systems in Africa (ERMIS-Africa) and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT). I also serve at various board member positions in media organisations in Africa.
What was the driving force that led you to the fight against poverty, hunger and social injustice?
Growing up interacting with medics, farmers and business people allowed me to mingle and ask questions. Their answers shaped my world view at the age of 10. Often, I would visit the patients in the hospital to hear their story, especially those who had malnutrition complications and cases of gender-based violence. Sometimes, my parents would send me and my siblings to share foodstuffs to various families, especially, when drought was declared as a national emergency.
After working with various regional and global organisations in African communities, I learnt that most family feuds were a result of insufficient family resources and male land ownership. Women were left to till the land, unpaid labour, whilst their husbands controlled the yields, sold the farm produce and left to spend the money how they wished. The women and children were left at home without access to food, school fees, clothes and other needs. After spending the family money, the man would come home empty-handed and this ignited gender-based violence. A patriarchal society limits holistic family happiness, promotes poverty and breaks families - a fabric that unifies society.
Embracing an environment that embeds equity from family, community and society levels would reduce poverty, hunger and social injustices in Africa. The governments need to provide a separate budget for sustainable agricultural farming methods for the farmers to live a decent life from their agricultural investments. Also, in July 2003, the Maputo declaration committed by the African countries to allocate 10% of their national budget to agriculture need be honoured. Only Morocco and Ethiopia have honoured their commitment.
How did you get into working for DAKOKE (Dissemination of Agricultural Information and Knowledge in Africa)? And what is your role as the Consulting Director of Communications for DAKOKE entail?
I’m a co-founder of DAKOKE. We founded the communications consulting firm to seal the gap in the dissemination of agricultural information existing between the smallholder farmers and the research. We demystify the technical-scientific reports relevant to the smallholder farmers’ farming calendar, make it digestible and develop farmer-to-farmer training videos that explain various agricultural innovations that are easy to adopt. We also offer various communication services, including documenting the impacts of the projects/programmes and advocate for formulation of policies supporting sustainable farming methods. We work with seasonal communications consultants with over 10 years’ hands-on expertise in global agricultural communication.
I implement the communication functions, identify partners and nurture relationships, lead in advocacy activities and fundraising initiatives, train and mentor in science communications in Sub-Saharan Africa.
What is your philosophy towards your work?
These are the times and we are the people to bring the change we want through honest and smart handwork. Embrace the unity of purpose, gender equity, live in the present, espouse the diversity of skills and perspectives to achieve a common goal of abolishing poverty in the African continent.
Can you name 3 of your greatest achievements since working at DAKOKE?
Growing the partnership base to achieve more with fewer resources. For example, partnering with like-minded organisations to advocate formulating agroecology policies in Sub-Saharan African countries.
Developing modules on training and mentorship of science, health, agriculture and environmental communication, contributing to improved ways of communicating simplified but factual science in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Developing proposals with various organisations where DAKOKE’s responsibility is to entirely handle communication, advocacy and the documentation of the projects’/programmes’ activities.
Have you faced much gender discrimination within your work? If so, how have you overcome these encounters?
Sometimes. With scientific communication, especially in leading positions such as Director of Communication and Chief-Editor, which were previously held by the male gender. Mostly, patriarchal societies place women as subordinate to men which becomes complex when a woman is in charge.
With such an understanding, any time I join a new team, I hold meetings to understand their motivations, fears, world views, belief system, their understanding of the job description (JDs) and how our roles are crucial to the organisational goal. Once this is clear, I share my views, various working styles and then we choose a style that works for everyone. I explain my role in the team and how working together will help us succeed as individuals and as a team. We create collegial relationships backed with open communication and empathy.
Can you tell me a bit about your new project, Farm Studio? What were the reasons and inspirations for setting it up?
With over 15 years of hands-on experience in science, agriculture, climate change and environmental communication, I have worked closely with African and Asian smallholder farmers, governments, scientists and all those crucial voices in the agricultural ecosystem. With farming challenges and research reports written in a technical language, providing a platform for these voices enables the discussion of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through knowledge and information empowerment. COVID-19 hindered extension teams in meeting with farmers’ groups for training or responding to their farming challenges. Hence, agriculture was adversely affected.
So, Farm Studio is a digital platform offering smallholder farmers e-resources, responses to their daily farming challenges provided they have a smartphone and internet connection.
What synergies exist with TreeKenya?
There are synergies in ensuring that the benefits and outcomes of the programmes reach the smallholder farmer. Local language and local knowledge are key to broadening the impacts of the programmes. There’s clear communication through lobbying, documentation, developing farmer training radio programmes in local languages and farmer-to-farmer learning videos. Both see the importance of identifying partners, nurturing relationships and building support initiatives on a community or regional level to change mind-sets and implement policies to aggregate farmers.
How do you see technology unlocking the potential of smallholder farmers?
I have done much research for my second MA/PhD in Digital Journalism and my dissertation is in technological communication among the smallholder farmers. Adopting the digital paradigm could unlock farmers’ potential as the e-resources are available for all. The fibre cable provides a vast internet connection, even to most rural areas and affordable smartphones allow farmers to surf the net and access updated agricultural information and knowledge.
Technology enables knowledge sharing and farmers can choose the digital platform which has solutions to their issues. Or, the training team can e-learn on a broad topic relevant to the farmers’ and train them on the subject. It offers expansive and borderless access to agricultural e-resources enabling sustainable farming to feed the current and the future generations. Although movements and large group meetings are regulated due to COVID-19, tech-savvy farmers continue to surf the net to learn about the various sustainable technologies applicable to their farming environments. However, adoption of these technologies is still dismally low. Hence, there’s an opportunity to build the capacity of the smallholders on how to navigate around digital world for their convenience and improve their farm yields sustainably enhanced by digital agricultural solutions.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa?
It has adversely affected the production, processing and distribution of food and further aggravated hunger and malnutrition in a continent already food insecure. Scarcity of workers due to massive lay-offs, sporadic food production shortages, food losses and food price inflations have increased malnutrition. It has hit the very poor hard as 70% of their income goes to food. It’s affected the consumption of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits and animal products, whilst increasing micronutrients deficiencies such as in Ethiopia. Developing countries that depend on food exports have been adversely affected due to COVID-19 since there’s low income and less food availability due to the imposed food export restrictions, increased methane emissions and risks of diseases like salmonella, which increases vulnerabilities to COVID-19.
Are national governments doing much to support your efforts, especially during the pandemic?
COVID-19 is an awakening call to all governments to relook at their priorities. They need to invest in human resource refresher courses, increase budget allocations to the ministries of health, agriculture and education. They must build scenarios for proper planning to mitigate the impact of any unforeseen catastrophic occurrence, improved crisis communication and response preparedness, develop infrastructure and efficient systems, invest in cold storage systems and tarmac roads in the interior regions to reduce food losses during transportation. Governments have an opportunity to look beyond these times of triple crisis - hunger, locust incursion and the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are your goals for the upcoming year?
I envision partnering with like-minded organisations to digitise agriculture in Africa, support efforts to combat COVID-19, continue lobbying African governments to honour their promises made in the 2003 Maputo agreement and support the formulation of agroecology and climate change policies among other policies relevant to agroecology. We need to create an enabling environment for farmers (including creating alternative sources of incomes for the youth and women) to farm sustainably without depleting the natural resources. I want to connect various players in the agricultural ecosystem to make decisions based on relevant data to combat the food crisis in Africa.
If you were head of the UN, where would you put your focus over the next decade?
I would digitise all sectors of governments and find sustainable solutions to the challenges affecting people from the community, to national and global levels. I’d review policy frameworks and align them to emerging challenges, encourage all governments to install functional systems that allow equity, invite all multi-national corporations to mitigate the impacts of climate change and insist on their commitment to reducing global warming. I’d put a stop to irresponsible mining and oil drilling, embrace indigenous knowledge and empower communities to have stocked seedbanks with indigenous seeds that are always accessible to the smallholder farmers. I’d embrace the complementarity between the genders as both perspectives are unique and relevant to the global development agenda.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
To be among the teams changing gradually, with consistency, the African narrative from food insecurity to food sovereignty, whilst promoting the unity of purpose working closely with both young and old for a seamless continuation of generations.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Venter Mwongera, Co-founder, DAKOKE Communications
I’d like to start by asking you about your family background?
My dad’s origin is Iraqi Jewish and he was born in India (Calcutta), now living in Israel. He travelled to the UK by boat with his parents and some of his siblings in 1960, while others went to Israel. My mum’s parents were of Dutch and Russian origin but lived in East London. My mum is now living in Bristol close to my sister.
Could you tell us about your influences growing up in London?
I grew up in North London. I always found the socio-cultural and historical aspects of London fascinating. I also lived in Hackney and Stoke Newington for several years, which is one of the only places in the world where Jewish and Muslim people live together as one community. My background, in combination with growing up in London, always inspired me to work and travel, doing social stuff especially in Asia and Africa. However, I never thought I would end up living in Kenya working for myself in gender and social responsibility.
Did you encounter much racial or gender discrimination– and how did that frame what you’re doing now?
I don’t recall experiencing any gender discrimination, but I do remember seeing racism in school and experiencing some myself, being Jewish with a dad who was born in India. This was in the 1980s and 1990s when racism was more prevalent in London than it is today, although nationally and globally it is still at the forefront of global social and political issues. I am very proud of my heritage and love the reactions I get when asked where I am from.
Can you tell us about Rise and your role as a consultant?
I established Rise in October 2018 in Kenya to take on a fresh challenge and to broaden my service offerings. Previously, for 12 years I worked at an international sustainability firm called Environmental Resources Management (ERM). Projects at ERM included working with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to integrate gender into their Fragile and Conflict States Programme, developing gender action plans and strategies for several clients, and mainstreaming gender into Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), management plans and others.
For the last year, I have supported Agence Française de Développement (AFD) as their Regional Environmental, Social and Gender Specialist, which has included managing related risks and integrating gender into their East Africa portfolio including in education, energy, transportation/infrastructure, water and sanitation sectors. Other projects have included developing a gender management system for a financial institution in Gabon, undertaking a social safeguard review on a smallholder tea farmer programme in Rwanda and acting as strategic advisor for impact assessment related to the refugee influx in Uganda for the World Bank, which included a component for gender and violence against children.
In short, Rise offers a broad range of social and gender development/safeguard services in Africa and internationally. This includes gender mainstreaming, risk review, due diligence, community needs assessment, impact assessment, management planning, livelihood restoration and resettlement.
Through the years, how has Rise impacted Kenya? What has changed and what has worked?
This is a big question for a young company. At Rise and during my time at ERM, working with E&S risk management and gender integration has influenced clients. For example, working with AFD and their government counterparts has allowed for capacity development in these areas, including enhancing female participation in decision making regarding project designs and mitigation measures, as well as increasing access to benefits through employment and other project impacts (e.g. access to energy).
From your experience, how can a baseline help to reduce gender inequality?
Having a baseline to understand the gender context is key to designing a project or a programme. It enables an understanding of the current situation in terms of roles and responsibilities in the household and community, access to education, participation in decision making, access and control of resources and assets (e.g. land, shelter, finances etc), and issues related to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This allows us to identify programme outcomes, monitor and measure success and recognise areas for improvement related to project impacts and inequalities.
Community engagement seems like a key process to your work, could you tell us what types of projects you’ve been running?
For most projects that I work on, participatory and inclusive community engagement is essential. It ensures that everyone’s views and needs are considered, allowing us to build a connection and manage any risks that may block or delay a project. In many countries, it is a challenge to get a representation of females due to cultural factors, so having group discussions helps to alleviate this.
For the refugee project in Uganda, we focused on engagement activities. We met with key informants who specialised in gender issues, conducted separate focus group discussions with male and female refugees, and host communities to capture sensitive issues regarding their situation and gathered information relating to SGBV, violence against children and social inclusion. I also led social and gender aspects of projects in Malawi, Liberia and Sierra Leone where female participation in meetings is also very limited. The only way to capture their views was through focus groups and interactive data collection techniques.
Political will is key to how Kenya progresses. How much emphasis does the government place on mainstreaming gender into Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG)? Do you think enough is being done?
Kenya is a signatory to Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (1979) and the United Nations Declaration of Violence against Women (1993). There has been a lot of progress in Kenya concerning gender resulting from the Sustainable Development Goals, which has led to the development of a number of gender specific policies and integration of gender in environmental and social legislation. As such and from experience of working with various agencies, I can say that the will to integrate gender in ESG is very much there. However, there is sometimes limited capacity to mainstream gender due to the number of projects that are running at the same time, and not enough gender specialists within agencies to meet this need.
How do you see gender playing a role in mitigating climate change?
In 2009, I undertook my masters' dissertation on ‘gender differentiated impacts of environmental change in West Bengal, India’. I also researched a policy paper for Oxfam on the linkages between gender and climate change in 2008. This topic area has been a priority for many academics and non-governmental agencies for over 10 years. Since women and men have different roles in communities, they are impacted in different ways and therefore are adapting according to their needs. For example, in rural areas, women are primarily responsible for collecting food, water and fuel (firewood) for the household, while men are usually responsible for income generation and farming activities (although women often take on this role in combination with their domestic role). Across Africa, many women are now selling and using energy-efficient cookstoves that minimise reliance on natural resources for fuel. Mini solar panels are also being used for lighting and mobile phone charging. Women are being trained in water management techniques, such as rainwater harvesting, to improve access and the safety of those that have to walk long distances, due to water scarcity resulting from climate change.
How do gender biases differ in rural vs urban life?
Patriarchy, cultural and traditional behaviour continues to play out more in rural areas resulting from poverty, lack of education and health facilities that compromise the position of females. This includes teenage pregnancy, SGBV, polygamy, and other issues. In urban areas, through social media and government initiatives, there has been a focus on encouraging females to complete education (e.g. through Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) programmes) and an incentive to take on professional positions. In Nairobi, many women are now in professional positions, such as managers, engineers and lawyers.
What other countries could we draw exampled form in terms of gender equity?
Rwanda is far ahead compared to other African countries resulting from gender integration in their development framework following the 1994 genocide. The World Bank gender portal suggests that women have 61% of seats in parliament, compared to its neighbours; 21% in Kenya, 34% in Uganda and 36.9% in Tanzania. There is a lot of focus on education. The UN Women report on Rwanda also states that they are leading on the numbers of signatories to the UN HeForShe campaign which aims at bridging the gender digital divide by tripling girls’ enrolment in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and eradicating gender-based violence in all its forms.
What has been your greatest challenge and how are you/have you overcome this?
Through my clients and network, the demand for gender mainstreaming in ESG and development is growing. So, I am currently working to build a network of experienced gender specialists in Africa and elsewhere to support this area of growth for Rise, covering all sectors. It is an area that I have always been deeply passionate about and I am determined to meet this important demand.
Youth exclusion at almost all levels is widespread. How do you convince a generation of young women that there is a better future for them?
Education and mentoring are the key to empowering young women to play more of a role in economic development. It is challenging to change cultural beliefs and social influences that often determine the role young women play, mainly in rural areas, and shift aspirations from young marriage and domesticity. However, if there is a platform where they can freely express themselves and are guided by mentors, then I believe this will empower gifted young women to fulfil their dreams and to inspire others. This includes young men who can also be vulnerable and sometimes engage in petty crime, alcoholism and SGBV if they feel that there are no opportunities and are unable to fulfil their social role.
I understand you’re also working Pan Africa and soon going to Sierra Leone – could you tell us about what you will be doing there?
I am leading social studies for an EU funded project aimed at constructing bridges at various points in rural areas to improve access. Currently, pedestrians and vehicles use makeshift cable ferries made from planks of wood. This is an important project for communities in these areas as it will open up the market, enhancing income opportunities, for both men and women in these areas, as well as improving access to education and other important services.
Where should we be drawing optimism from, that the ‘war’ against gender-based inequality, will be won?
If you look at gender indicators over time, positive changes are happening with education, employment and participation in decision making. The role of social media has a role to play in supporting this shift, without leaving men behind. This is crucial in the success of beating gender inequality as men face other challenges that are often hidden and must be addressed.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Natasha Ezekiel, Founder, Rise Sustainability Consulting