A woman watches over her herd of cattle at the Garissa livestock market, the biggest of its kind in East Africa, in Garissa City in northeast Kenya. Photo: ILRI/Kabir Dhanji

Include us, involve us – women can be active players in Kenya’s livestock markets

Blog post

Women livestock traders are a tiny minority in the male-dominated cattle trading sector in Kenya. But they don’t see themselves staying at the periphery of a growing livestock economy – they want in.

Garissa, Kenya (29 Nov 2018)_ Garissa City in northeast Kenya is home to East Africa’s largest livestock market. It was also the location for the Livestock Trade Facilitation meeting, more informally referred to as the business-to-business (B2B) forum, that attracted livestock producers and traders from Kenya and neighboring Somalia. In the course of the day, participants talked shop, shared market information, expanded their networks and brokered deals. For some, they were the biggest deals they had made to date.

Of the 90 participants at the forum, only nine were women. At the breakout sessions where traders discussed strategies and challenges, the women sat to one side of the table and stayed mostly silent throughout the discussions. Yet when ILRI research associate, Nelly Njiru, and I sat down with the women participants to discuss challenges and opportunities for women in livestock, their voices were loud and clear: “Include us. Involve us. Make sure we are present right from the start. That is the only way to create real change for women.

What is it like to be a woman in the livestock sector in Kenya?

“The challenges for women in the pastoral sector are huge,” begins Nala Abshir*, a woman cattle trader whom the others address as “Professor”. “Our own culture and environment are the biggest barriers to our advancement. Men dominate the sector and are the primary decision makers. Us women are not allowed to intermingle with them.”

Most women lack education, exposure and interaction with other traders. They also have limited access to capital and resources to help them break into the business, or scale up their current activities. In short, poverty is a root cause. “We are left behind because of our illiteracy,” says Nala. “Weakness and poverty go hand in hand.”

Representation is another issue. Of the 11 members of the Garissa County Livestock Marketing Council (CLMC), the county’s governing body for the livestock sector, only two are women – Nala and Hodan Mohamed, another woman cattle trader at the forum. Even within the council, they are sidelined. Nala had vied for the role of Chairperson, yet when she was assigned the role of Treasurer she was told by male colleagues that she should “feel lucky” she was even given that responsibility.

Opportunities in the shadows

The opportunities that do arise for women in livestock often come in the face of hardship. Widows or women whose husbands are elderly will take on sole financial responsibility for their families. The bold and industrious ones, such as the nine women at the forum, venture into trade – and not in the usual sheep and goats considered “acceptable” for women to trade and own – these women have been taking chances on higher value livestock such as cattle and camels.

“From an external perspective, there is a tendency to perceive women as victims,” points out Nicoline de Haan, ILRI’s leading gender expert. “Yet in spite of the challenges, we are seeing women making headway into economic spaces traditionally reserved for men. We have a responsibility to expand those spaces, to open up opportunities for more women to join in.”

Though smaller players in a big playing field, the women at the forum have found innovative ways to make the most of their situation:

  • They manage their money: Though many cannot read or write, they can do arithmetic and have bank accounts. “We deposit whatever we make,” explains Hodan. “We don’t carry money home. The moment we arrive, our husbands check our purses to see how much cash we have and take it.”
  • They have better financial reputations: Contrary to what one might expect, men at the market do trade with women. “They trust us more. We can be trusted with 100 bulls, whereas men cannot be trusted with two,” says Hodan. This also serves them well in other ways – “Go to the banks and ask who are paying their loans. They’ll tell you it is the women, not the men.”
  • They network: To meet bigger orders, the women will group their stock together. The challenge arises when they are unable to meet cattle grade requirements.
  • They are fearless: Nala has been a cattle trader for five years and trades on average 75 bulls each week. She disproved many skeptics when she traveled to Somalia recently to buy 45 bulls at a cheaper price and trucked them to Garissa without incident.


Two women traders confer during the plenary session at the Garissa City B2B forum hosted jointly by USAID’s East Africa Trade Investment Hub program and ILRI. Photo ILRI/Kabir Dhanji

Room to grow

Women traders and producers have participated at all four B2B forums, comprising a combined total of 20 per cent of all participants (Garissa’s forum had the lowest number of women participants at 10 per cent). Quite a number have also been successful in making new trade deals – Zeinab Abraham, a woman trader from neighboring Isiolo County, doubled her business through connections she made at the Isiolo B2B forum.

There is still room to grow, though. “We are not asking for a one-to-one ratio of women to men,” says Nala, sounding very much like a professor, “That’s not realistic. What we want to see is 30 per cent women participants.”

It’s an ambitious aim but not an impossibility.

“The B2B forum provides a safe space for women in livestock to make new trade connections, but ultimately men still dominate the process and discussions,” points out Nelly Njiru. “We will continue to find ways to raise the overall number of women who attend and facilitate the breakout sessions so that women are encouraged to speak and contribute.”

Livestock across Kenya comprise 42 per cent of the country’s agricultural gross domestic product (GDP). In the harsh semi-arid lands (ASALs) of the country, 90 per cent of the 7 million people there depend on livestock. The aim of the B2B forums is to expand trade networks within the country and across the region, contributing to economic growth that will benefit not only existing players, but also women and youth.

The next scheduled forum will be in early 2019 in Moyale, Kenya.

Read more about the Livestock Trade Facilitation forums jointly organized by USAID’s East Africa Trade & Investment Hub and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI):

  1. Business-to-business forums spur economic growth in northern Kenya
  2. Livestock traders leverage USAID Hub and ILRI B2Bs to build trade relationships
  3. Regional livestock traders make record trade commitments in Garissa

* Names of women traders have been changed.