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Selina Nkoile is the founder of the Nashipai Maasai Project which empowers Maasai girls through education and uses permaculture to promote biodiversity and combat climate change. Selina also raises awareness about the benefits of local, nutrient-dense foods in addressing malnutrition in her neighbourhood.

“You are a Maasai girl. No man will want to marry you and take care of you if you are interested in school and do not want to be circumcised. And if no man marries you, how will you survive?”[1]

This is something that many parents still tell their daughters, and it is something that I heard quite frequently as I was growing up. The underlying message of such a statement is if you are female, you need to be taken care of and cannot do anything without a man, even if most of the work is done by women.

Learning about organic agriculture gave me choices I would not have otherwise had.

We want our community to be a sustainable food community, using organic agriculture © Nashipai

My community does not believe in educating girls and laugh at the idea of a woman having a career. They believe the sole purpose of a woman is to get married, please the man, and bear children.

From childhood, I knew this was not the path destined for me. I wanted to get an education and pursue a career that did not involve getting married at the age of 10. Unfortunately, this was not going to be easy because education was reserved for boys and educating a girl was viewed as a waste of time.

Luckily, Naning’oi Girls School and Rescue Centre opened its doors in 1999, becoming the first school to offer girls free education in my region.[2] After a lot of back and forth with my family, I was finally allowed to study instead of getting married. This made me one of only two girls studying in the whole community. I went to Nairobi after finishing school to avoid getting married off. That is where I came in touch with the concept of organic farming and permaculture, and this was the turning point in my life.

Every plant grown has a purpose. We can use it as food, as medicine or as food for the bees and other pollinators © Nashipai

My encounter with the organic world

I am a Maasai from the village of Mosiro in Kenya. The Maasai are predominantly nomadic pastoralists who depend on milk from their cattle. Today, only the men move around in search of pasture and water for the cattle, while the women stay at home and look after the homestead and farms. The main food we eat is cereals.

This diet is a cause of malnutrition because of the lack of fruits and vegetables, which are an essential element of nutrition. We have many cases of children under the age of five who are malnourished because they only eat cereals. In order to tackle this problem, I had to educate myself personally on the subject of nutrition.

I took a course in permaculture where I learnt about organic farming and nature-based farming practices, from beekeeping, polyculture and crop rotation to composting, soil and water conservation, the food forest concept and pest management. All without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

The Community demonstration site where people practically learn about organic agriculture © Nashipai

This organic approach gave me so much hope that I quit my job in the city and returned to my community to share this knowledge. I started by returning to support the younger generation at Naning’oi Girls School and Rescue Centre. I did this by setting up the Nashipai Maasai Community Project. So far we have rescued more than 250 girls from early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) and brought them to study at the school.

There are currently over 400 girls at the school and they are learning not only the usual subjects but also organic farming.

Sukuma wiki means “push the weak” which figuratively means to support the weak. One stock can feed a whole family © Nashipai

Farming as a community

Four months ago, I set up a demonstration farm where we started teaching nature-based farming methods for beekeeping, poultry farming and growing various fruits and vegetables. Beans, cauliflower, maize, pumpkins, potatoes and sukuma wiki (kale) are some of the foods we grow, with the main one being sukuma wiki.

Although sukuma wiki is a common vegetable in Kenya, it is not as common in pastoralist communities like mine. However, it was well received by the children and the community at large.

In fact, the children’s mothers and other women farmers decided to come to our farm to learn about organic farming. The farmers in my community only know the traditional knowledge of farming, but lack information from the scientific and research community. To fill this gap, we provide information on all the innovations in the organic world and create spaces for farmers to share with each other.

Some of the women in the community attending a regular meeting on how to use organic farming to generate income © Nashipai

As of today, we have 20 women farmers who have not only started learning how to grow different foods organically, but have also started a seed bank for Sukuma Wiki. We have distributed its indigenous seedlings to the women farmers and they are delighted with the harvest. Unlike the genetically modified sukuma wiki seedlings they had been using, the indigenous seeds had no expiry date and were more resilient to the heavy rains and dry spells.

Currently, GMOs are legal in Kenya, making it difficult to preserve our indigenous seeds. Seed suppliers get the GMO seeds from large multinationals in Nairobi, which are then sold and some are given away for free (through marketing campaigns) to farmers in rural areas. This goes beyond the seeds to include the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are sold to combat pests and diseases, creating a huge dependency on the companies that distribute them.

Our voices as farmers are not heard. That is why I was happy to hear about the #IGrowYourFood campaign from IFOAM – Organics International which gives farmers like me and the 20 women in my community a global platform to speak up.

As farmers, we need to talk to people in our communities about the work we do and the challenges we face. When we have the support of our communities, we can stand together to strengthen the work we do as organic farmers. This is a voice that the government cannot ignore. After all, an obstacle to the work of one farmer is an obstacle to all.

Find out more about how organic agriculture can promote gender equity and strengthen livelihoods!

[1] The Maasai still practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a practice outlawed by the government. Girls first have to undergo FGM before they are married off at an early age.

[2] The school is a safe haven for young girls who wanted to study and did not want to undergo FGM or an early marriage.

Learn more about the Nashipai Maasai Project here