“When you know what you want to achieve, then you’re good to go and people give you space.” When Peris Njenga sits down to talk about dairying, her confidence, farming knowledge, and transparent leadership are immediately apparent. She looks each person in the eye and explains that a lot of what she - and her dairy farm - are today is a result of her involvement in her local co-operative.

“All co-operative members are treated the same, so there’s no special emphasis on women,” Peris says. “But you really see what being a co-operative member means to women during our annual general meetings. They find their space and speak up because they own this business. They are more aware of what’s happening on their farms, and they’ve been paying attention to what our co-operative is doing.”

Before farming full-time, Peris worked for the Ministry of Co-operatives while milking a few cows. She was trying to do it all, but wasn’t happy. So Peris quit her job, increased her herd size, improved her understanding of dairying, and honed her business skills. An elected representative for her co-op zone, Peris had time to get more involved. She regularly attended meetings, shared ideas from her work experiences, and gradually took on more responsibilities in the co-op board management.

Her commitment paid off when she was elected Kiambaa Dairy Co-operative’s chairperson in 2006—the first woman to serve in that leadership role. She was determined to work smarter as well as harder.

“My first meeting, I was so nervous. But I had work experience in addition to some training, so I knew how to set the agenda, let people see and speak about what the co-op was doing, and then keep the discussions focused,” she recalls.

“When you know what you want to achieve, then you’re good to go and people give you space.”

Peris knows her performance as board chair is judged side-by-side with her skills as a dairy farmer, which she and other Kiambaa members have improved through SNV’s Kenya Market-led Dairy Programme (KMDP). The programme is financed by the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. KMDP focuses on increasing milk production and quality, as well as improving farmer management knowledge and skills.

“I am continually setting new benchmarks for the dairy herd and myself,” she explains. “After working with SNV dairy advisors and understanding more about the importance of fodder, I rented land so that I can have more control over the quality of what my cows eat.”

The co-operative has been paying one of the highest prices for milk in the country. It does so by negotiating better, more equitable prices for members and because “we simply cut out inefficiencies and work closely with our hired manager to make things work better.” Peris says.

Just like setting an agenda for meetings, this approach keeps everyone throughout the co-op focused on the essentials of good business: healthy cows, quality milk, proper storage, and good handling.

Yet Peris’ success is not reflected a few kilometres away where Judith Wairimu lives. A mother of five, Judith works with her family’s dairy herd and provides substantial labour, but she is not a member of the co-op because her husband owns the dairy cows and, therefore, is the formal member. By law, the co-op sends the monthly payment for milk to formal members’ accounts only.

Judith is frustrated, yet keeps working with the dairy animals despite the fact she has no control over the income.

“My children get school fees from the income. That is helpful and keeps me going,” she explains.

“If the decision was mine to make, I would buy more cows and better dairy meal to improve milk production,” she explains. “I would also invest in an innovation such as a biogas digester that some of the other women in this area already have on their farms.”

A biogas digester would enable Judith to capture methane from the manure—an environmental disposal problem—to cook for her family and light her house. It would save her a lot of time that she could then dedicate to taking care of her children and managing the dairy herd. Besides she lives in a small house and smoke from the current traditional charcoal cooking place has been a challenge to the health of her children.

Judith feels she holds little control over many aspects of her life and she really would like to improve her farming skills, yet doesn’t know where or how to start.

Unfortunately, Judith’s story too often represents the plight of a majority of rural woman around the world, says SNV’s Global Coordinator, Gender and Youth, Sabdiyo Bashuna Dido.

Yet SNV and its partners make it happen for women such as Judith. SNV specifically includes a focus on women in programmes, especially agriculture, to ensure they have equitable opportunities to increase their income through female entrepreneurship and a larger share in the income generated from enterprises such as dairy farming. 

“These two stories of women in the same socio-cultural context show the disparity in economic status,” Sabdiyo contends.

“Gender and power relations change from one economic group to another. The relative power of women is far less in circumstances of poverty. We understand these issues and work with all socio and economic groups, as well as encourage women such as Peris to support others as they try to break through barriers to engagement.”

Many women around the world need this support to make it happen within their local social context, she adds.  “This support is often most helpful when women can win over men in non-threatening ways,” Sabdiyo emphasises. “Networks such as peer groups can be a beginning for such transformations. Through women helping women build their socio, economic, and technical skills, we see them improving their livelihoods, improving the lives of their children, and contributing even more to communities so that everyone benefits.”