NANYUKI, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women herders in Kenya's semi-arid Laikipia County have broken with tradition to export the leaves of a desert plant to Europe, boosting their incomes.
Three hundred women in El Poloi have switched from the age-old occupation of goat-keeping to the new and far more lucrative activity of farming aloe, a plant with healing properties.
Along the way, they are transforming their economic status and creating educational opportunities for their daughters.
Drought-prone El Poloi lies to the northwest of snow-capped Mount Kenya in the Great Rift Valley. According to the Kenya Meteorological Department, the area receives less than 400 mm (16 inches) of rainfall annually.
Only a few hardy shrubs and savannah grass can survive on the harsh terrain. The community's women say their men used to journey miles to Mount Kenya in the dry season seeking grazing for their herds, while the women and children stayed behind without enough food.
Knowing maize and vegetables would not produce good harvests in this climate, the women decided six years ago to cultivate Aloe secundiflora, a plant common to semi-arid parts of Kenya.
They formed four groups tasked with fighting poverty and gender inequality. Each group farms at least 3 acres (1.2 hectares) of the short-stemmed succulent plant.
Rosemary Putunoi, a leader of Twala Cultural Manyatta Women, said her group was given 40 acres (16 hectares) of dry, eroded land to farm by the men of the community in 2008.
"We then saw an income opportunity in growing osunguroi (aloe), which we traded for goats from our men. We planted aloes on 2 acres to start, and 12 roots of the plant (could be) exchanged for a goat," Putunoi said.
The men used the aloe to brew a traditional fermented wine made of the pounded roots mixed with water, sugar and honey.
But the benefits of aloe cultivation did not end there.
The women discovered the plants reduced erosion and improved the soil, enabling grass to grow. So they decided to charge fees to herders who wanted to graze animals on their land.
They used that money and proceeds from their aloe sales to pay for their daughters to be educated.
Aloe plants are cultivated in a nursery before being transplanted to the farm, explained Joseph Lentunyoi, director of the Laikipia Permaculture Centre.
A one-acre plot can accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 plants, which take about three years to mature. They are less susceptible to diseases than other crops.
Before the women could start exporting aloe leaves, they had to regularize their business.
Living in a remote area, they did not know the Kenyan government had banned the harvesting of aloe for commercial purposes in 1989, because the plant was considered endangered.
Solomon Kyalo, who leads implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) in Kenya, said the ban was prompted by overexploitation.
Aloe propagation is permitted under a license from CITES, however, which costs 500 Kenyan shillings ($5.33), while an export permit is 2,000 shillings, Kyalo said.
Teresa Sarioyo, leader of the Nabulu Women's Aloe Group, said it obtained an export license in 2013.
After the local groups had met regulatory requirements, Lentunyoi introduced them to Lush, a UK-based retailer of handmade cosmetics. The women won a contract to supply fresh aloe leaves to the company for use in its products.
Exporting aloe has turned the women's lives around. They no longer have to rely on food aid from the government when drought hits, since they can provide for themselves.
"A kilo of aloe leaves sells at 380 shillings. Two big leaves of the succulent plant equal a kilo. We can export between 45 and 80 kilos a month," said Sarioyo.
Twala Cultural Manyatta Women banks more than 300,000 shillings ($3,200) annually from the venture, according to Putunoi. It makes further income by leading tourist groups on walks, selling beads and performing cultural dances. Its activities generated over 2 million shillings in 2014.
"Our lives have improved so much," Putunoi said. "We share the dividend among our members and use the rest to educate our 21 girls in boarding school."
Being at boarding school protects the girls from early marriage, which is common in the pastoralist community, she said.
Although aloe has been grown commercially in Kenya for a long time, most farmers have traded aloe bitter gum, a product of boiled aloe sap. The El Poloi women are the first to be licensed to export fresh aloe leaves.
They have also started making cosmetics from the sap, including soap, body lotions and shampoo which they sell to hotels and guest houses in Nanyuki.
Putunoi said the women were wary of relying only on orders from abroad. "We want to go into value addition to capitalize on every aloe we produce," she said.
Reporting by Leopold Obi; editing by James Baer and Megan Rowling