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Owning an agribusiness in a semi-arid region is wrought with challenges. Being a woman business owner can bring even more.

Being a woman business owner can bring even more. Yet Peninah Mwendwa perseveres through business and social barriers as part of the ’third billion’ carving an important niche in the marketplace for her smallholder farmers.

"I strongly believe that if women strengthen their business skills, it will open various opportunities for them and our whole community. Working with the various smallholder farmer and women’s groups is not about competition, but about working together in a market that is much bigger than what we can do alone," Mwendwa says. "I like to support farmers and women and their groups to help make them ready for larger production and trade opportunities."

A former nurse who also farmed, Mwendwa is part of the 'third billion', a term used to describe the billion women, mostly from emerging markets such as Kenya, who will join the global economy as employees, employers, and entrepreneurs over the next decade She’s been operating her grain-trading business since the early 1990s after nine women and four men formed it to combine their efforts in farming and trading to get better prices.

Today, PM Enterprises Ltd. has an office in Nuu in rural Kitui County of Kenya. It also has shops in both Nuu and Mwingi, and five grain storage facilities. These facilities collect farm crops for quick, accurate deliveries to customers who include East Africa Breweries, millers in nearby Mwingi and far-off Nairobi, local markets, and local schools. In fact, Mwendwa and local farmers have been working together through SNV’s Procurement Governance-Home Grown School Feeding (PG-HGSF) project to tap into this growing, local market. This collaboration reflects SNV’s Markets by Women approach which reinforces the role of women in developing economies, specifically their contributions to food & nutrition security and community advancement. 

None of the farmers had considered school feeding programmes as viable options. In fact, they admit they simply grew the food and sold it, never giving any real thoughts to how or where it was marketed. Through SNV’s PG-HGSF programme and Mwendwa's efforts, the farmers' eyes were opened after meeting with end-users, especially school purchasing committees and cooks, in matchmaking or networking events; visiting other farmers; and attending a national learning event that included representatives from Kenya's national Home Grown School Meals Programme as well as PG-HGSF representatives from SNV Ghana and SNV Mali.

"Where we started and where we are today—we’ve moved ahead," says Lena Nzuki, chair of Ngwatano farmers association.

Mutyangome Primary School is one example. It has 513 pupils and nine teachers. The headmaster said that previous suppliers have been mostly men, and he is pleased to now be working with women suppliers:

"My experience shows that women suppliers are far more straight-forward and women traders such as Mwendwa are more reliable," says the school’s headmaster. "For example, when she has won a tender to supply our school, our procurement and school feeding committees are satisfied with the price paid for the foodstuff; the prompt delivery when the school needs the food; and the fact that she is part of a local community and is known and respected for her work with groups, especially women, in helping them understand and access markets, as well as improve their farm business skills."

Female-run enterprises are steadily growing around the world, contributing to household incomes and growth of national economies. In developing countries, female entrepreneurship is increasing—there are about 8-10 million formal small and medium enterprises with at least one female owner. Yet gender gaps are still present in the critical skills needed to run a successful enterprise. Mwendwa tries to close this gap between men and women, as well as between farmers and non-farm businesses.

"I see my business as a conduit through which farmers can participate in on-farm and off-the-farm training, programmes, and experiences that broaden their understanding of production, marketing, and business."

She realises that her grain business cannot grow without farmers also growing in their skills and knowledge. This requires quite an investment in farmers and their groups—moving them beyond the notions of subsistence or farming as a last resort—to be business-minded and competitive in the marketplace. For these reasons, PM Enterprises provides extension-like, on-farm technical services to over 35 local farm associations, co-operatives, and self-help groups that grow mainly cow peas (black-eyed peas), pigeon peas (dal), green grams (mung beans), millet, and sorghum. There are a few other types of legumes grown, but little maize tolerates this semi-arid region. PM Enterprises also sponsors several demonstration farms each year so local smallholders see first-hand what difference new methods make or how crops new to the area are grown. Mwendwa found this valuable when trying to convince farmers to consider growing sorghum, a new product for this part of near-Central Kenya.

While gaining better knowledge about marketing and the school feeding market, in particular, seven farmers from five groups working with Mwendwa recently listed why they are more sustainable:

• Better educated about new farming methods, new seeds, and varied crops (more of the farmers are growing drought-tolerant sorghum, for example. Varying crops doesn’t necessarily tie-in with school menus, which are governed by state guidelines, but does give farmers some protection against weather and price variability.

• Better understanding about crop quality, food storage, and marketing.

• More practical experience in mobilising farmer associations to respond to calls for sufficient product qualities to fulfil contracts.

Finally, for those informal self-help groups—mostly women smallholder farmers—that are not officially registered, marketing under PM Enterprises’ registration and licensing enables them to access school markets. Women also cannot always get loans. PM Enterprise intervenes so they can. It is then agreed that when women sell their crops to Mwendwa, she pays directly to the bank, which applies it to the outstanding debt.

“I strongly believe that if women strengthen their business skills, it will open various opportunities for them and our whole community,” Mwendwa says. She sees the results in her own life and what PM Enterprises has been able to do with and for area farmers.

Adds Nzuki, "We know that selling together is very important, and we've gained financially from working with PM Enterprises to fulfil contracts with the schools." As part of the ’third billion’ women like Mwendwa supported by SNV, are carving out a role that will not only benefit their communities but also contribute substantially to the development of stable and sustainable economies in the global south.