Four key points emerge from our exploratory study. First, women are likely to be important catalysts of agricultural innovation and investment amid the increasing outmigration of men and feminisation of farm management. Secondly, if rural aspirations are to be used to target development efforts more effectively, researchers will need to consider the aspirations of multiple household members and how they interrelate and are mediated at the household level. Third, attention should be paid to gendered and intergenerational roles and relations within the household and, fourthly, to how men’s and women’s opportunity spaces change throughout life. In the following section, we discuss these four points and their implications for future aspirations research.
Women’s Increasing Agency and Opportunities in Agriculture
A common narrative within agricultural development is that women, given their responsibility for feeding the family, are primarily interested in innovations related to food production for home consumption, whereas men are more concerned with those aimed at optimising agricultural income (Doss 2001; Fisher and Carr 2015; Shibata et al. 2020). While this narrative is not unfounded, we contend that, at least in the context of eastern Kenya and increasing male outmigration, such notions may require re-examining.
We found that, while middle-aged men often aspired to invest in off-farm income sources, women largely aspired to invest in and commercialise their agricultural activities and saw farming as an opportunity, not only to provide food for their families, but to earn an income. Even women who reported having off-farm income sources often aspired to expand their current farming activities to increase earnings. These findings are in contrast to those of Rietveld et al. (2020) and Elias et al. (2018) who found that, in several sub-Saharan contexts, women’s agricultural aspirations are constrained by social norms designating farming and, in particular, commercial agriculture, as an occupation better suited to men. Unlike the majority of women in our study, none of the young Ugandan women interviewed by Rietveld et al. (2020) aspired to be farmers, and when farming was considered as part of their future livelihood, their interest was generally limited to farming for subsistence or as a means of diversification. This is not to say that in our study women’s interest in farming is not initially shaped by norms and attitudes that constrain their off-farm opportunity space and limit their options to primarily farming-related activities (Van den Broeck and Kilic 2019). For example, similarly to Ifejika Speranza (2006), we found evidence for norms and attitudes discouraging married women from engaging in migratory employment.
Furthermore, although off-farm income activities mentioned by storytellers were often stereotypically associated with their gender, the differences in the farming-related aspirations mentioned by men and women were limited. However, it is worth noting that the opening question to our aspirations survey was purposefully neutral and without reference to farming or non-farming activities so as to elicit an unrestricted response across all possible livelihood strategies. Consequently, storytellers often referred to “farming”, rather than specifying the specific types of agricultural activities they wished to pursue. Further questioning around the types of farming people aspired to invest in may therefore have revealed greater variation between men’s and women’s aspirations within agricultural strategies.
The feminised focus on agricultural investment revealed by our study likely reflects women’s changing agricultural opportunity space amid the increasing off-farm employment and outmigration of men. While the temporary migration of adult men has long been a recurring trend within our study area (Tiffen et al. 1995), the numbers of those leaving for cities in search of work was reported to have increased in recent years, and almost a quarter of women storytellers reported that their husbands live and work away. As a result, women are the ones largely attending agricultural training events, gaining knowledge of new technologies and taking advantage of new opportunities in agriculture. Furthermore, women’s participation in, and agency over, household and farming decisions is thought to have increased substantially in recent years due, at least in part, to the absence of their male household members. These findings are similar to other studies, including those conducted in Kenya, indicating that women’s increased agricultural training can increase their confidence and involvement in farming decisions (Bullock and Tegbaru 2019; Nyasimi and Huyer 2017), and that women with absent husbands may gain greater personal autonomy and power over household decisions (Yabiku et al. 2010).
Rietveld et al. (2020) suggest women’s disinterest in commercial farming stems from the likelihood that their husbands will claim any resulting revenue. Likewise, in Meru County, Kenya, Dolan (2001) document that rural women are often reluctant to take on certain commercial crops since it increases their workload, but not their controlled income. Hence, the accounts of women in this study which frame farming as a potential income-generating opportunity may be indicative of a dynamic whereby, with men away from home (i.e. engaged in migratory work), women gain more control over the financial rewards of farming and, as a result, are increasingly interested in pursuing commercial agricultural activities.
Several pertinent questions and lines of enquiry emerge from the above findings. One such question is whether women’s increased agency reflects lasting changes in family relations and gender-related norms, or whether these gains are simply a practicality in the physical absence of men. Encouragingly, Yabiku et al. (2010) found that in southern Mozambique, increases in women’s autonomy persisted even after their male relatives returned. In our study, however, male storytellers spoke of returning to farming once they retire, raising questions regarding women’s security in their role as farm managers. As illustrated by Dolan (2001) with the commercialisation of French bean production in Meru, men may also choose to appropriate women’s agricultural enterprises once they are commercialised.
Another important question is whether people’s aspirations are, in fact, attainable. While phrases such as ‘I want to be a large-scale farmer’ indicate that women are certainly interested in farming, their stories alone do not provide detail as to the scale of this envisioned production nor if these goals are realisable. Given small farm sizes and marginal farming conditions, the financial returns to women’s investments in farming may well be limited. In light of this, we propose that combining narrative-based approaches, such as SenseMaker®, with more conventional socio-economic household surveys could prove more effective in informing the design of development efforts and identifying the barriers people face in attaining their aspired futures.
Recognising Intrahousehold Heterogeneity of Aspirations
Both Verkaart et al. (2018) and Mausch et al. (2018) argue that development projects could benefit from considering interhousehold variation in aspirations and targeting households who truly aspire to farm. Based on our findings, we further propose that rural development projects should identify those within the household who aspire to farm. Our study suggests that, at least in the drylands of eastern Kenya, it is often the women within rural households who are likely to be a key target group, given their interest and enthusiasm for farming and their increasing agency over management decisions. These conclusions, however, reveal an apparent shortcoming of current rural aspirations research – a lack of consideration of the intrahousehold heterogeneity of aspirations and that asking for the aspirations of only one household member is likely to provide a biased picture of a household’s desired livelihood trajectory.
Research on rural livelihood strategies tends to focus on the household as the unit of analysis and usually relies on surveys conducted with one household member, often the household head. However, in contexts where adult men frequently engage in off-farm income-generating activities, studies that ask only for the aspirations of the household head risk concluding that rural households do not aspire to grow the agricultural aspects of their income portfolios but instead wish to focus on off-farm sources of income. If researchers are to utilise aspirations to target rural households more efficiently, it will be critical to assess the aspirations of multiple household members and how these interrelate and are mediated at the household level.
For instance, in their assessment of aspirations among rural Kenyan households, Verkaart et al. (2018) evaluated livelihood strategies at the household level but subsequently only asked the survey respondent (presumably, often a male household head) what income-generating activities they personally aspired to invest in. Based on their analysis, they conclude that a sizable proportion of households aspire to invest in their non-farm income sources rather than in farming. From their sample of 624 households, 64% of respondents wanted to invest in farming, 41% in non-farming activities and 9% in both farming and non-farming activities. Our research suggests, they may well have concluded otherwise had they considered the aspirations of multiple household members and, in particular, their wives. We therefore propose that researchers studying rural aspirations and livelihood dynamics could benefit from taking an approach that recognises that within a household, there may be those who wish to remain and engage in farming even when other members look to step out.
Changing Opportunities, Interests and Capacities Throughout Life
In line with Sumberg et al. (2012), our findings suggest that specific events throughout life, such as finishing school; inheriting land; getting married; and having children, work to reshape men’s and women’s opportunity spaces in distinct ways, opening up or constraining their interest and capacity to engage in farming or other activities. Specifically, our study, similar to Rietveld et al. (2020), highlights the interrelated role that marriage and access to land play in shaping men’s and women’s opportunities.
For both male and female storytellers, we found an increased focus on farming among older age groups. Supported by a general trend towards larger farm size with age (Table 1), this likely reflects young men’s and women’s limited access to and control over land, and thus their current lack of opportunities in farming. In our study area, young men tend to inherit land once they are married or must wait until they have saved up sufficient capital to purchase land of their own, while women generally gain access to land through their husbands following (Musangi 2017). Moreover, young men’s and women’s access to land is likely to be further constrained by the successive subdivision of land through inheritance (Jayne et al. 2014).
For men, an increased focus on farming with age is also likely to reflect a return to farming in their retirement. For women, marital status seems to play an additional role in shaping their engagement in farming. In Kenya, getting married marks a person’s transition into adulthood and, for many women, a point at which certain options in life, such as education and formal employment, foreclose (Ikamari 2005). For instance, norms discouraging women’s engagement in migratory labour appear to be less binding for younger, unmarried women in Makueni County. Once married, however, women are expected to remain on-farm and take care of the home and children.
While the above findings provide initial insights into the dynamic nature of aspirations, it is important to note that our collected narratives provide only a snapshot of people’s aspirations and are likely biased towards those who remain living in rural areas, as indicated by the low numbers of youth and men in our sample. It is therefore unclear to what extent young men and women who aspire to move out of farming do so and are therefore not captured in our sample, and whether the trend in men’s and women’s stories towards farming-related aspirations with age reflects a socio-cultural shift in aspirations away from farming. Answering such questions, however, will require further in-depth enquiry, for instance using longitudinal studies that track people’s aspirations over time and how aspirations play out throughout life and with men’s and women’s changing circumstances and social identities.
Understanding Intrahousehold Roles and Relations
Our research also highlights the need to consider how individual livelihood strategies and aspirations interrelate and are mediated at the household level. While individuals within the same household may differ in their preferences and priorities, household members often own and manage resources collectively and make decisions together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes (Doss and Meinzen-Dick 2015; Doss and Quisumbing 2020). In our study, men’s and women’s diverging and converging aspirations with age likely reflect gender- and age-dependent divisions of labour and familial responsibilities, and even a negotiated household strategy. For example, there is a sense that children are expected to focus on their education so that they can secure employment and provide their families with long-term financial security. For married women, responsibilities shift towards caring for the household, raising children and managing the farm, while men continue to engage in off-farm income activities, either locally or further afield, until their retirement. Furthermore, migration was seen as part of a household strategy, with a migrant’s decision to leave often reported to have been discussed and decided on as a household.
Given women’s stated agency and increased involvement in household decisions in recent years, one could speculate that these gender-differentiated roles and responsibilities reflect a negotiated, and even preferred, position for women. As argued by Archambault (2010), while the term 'left-behind' designates rural women as passive actors in their husband’s migration and residency decisions, rural women may also choose to remain out of their own volition. In their study on rural women’s autonomy amid male outmigration in north-eastern Tanzania, Archambault (2010) found that women may chose to remain given increased autonomy over their labour and work schedule. Similarly, in central Kenya, Nelson (1992), report that women may remain for a variety of reasons, including increased personal and economic autonomy in the absence of their husbands, a feeling of being appreciated by their families and seeing farming as their way of contributing to their household's welfare, as well as an aversion to urban life and the prospect of moving to the city, only to become a housewife.
Nevertheless, several women interviewees in our study framed their role in farming in a more negative light, even stating that ‘women have no option but to work on their farms’, and although women have experienced increased agency in recent years, it is evident that asymmetries in decision-making authority persist, with men still seen as the household head and final decision-maker. It is also worth noting that the women participating in our FGDs and interviews are those engaged in a land restoration project and unlikely to represent the heterogeneity of women within the community. For instance, the majority of women involved in the project are aged between 35 and 54, married and have access to land. Compared to younger women, especially those with young children, these women are likely better able to negotiate greater access to land, influence household decisions and have the time and mobility to attend project training events (Rietveld 2017). Although our Ladder of Power exercise focused on changes at the community level, its results likely hide considerable variation in the socially differentiated experiences of women and care should be taken not to overstate women’s increased capacity to exercise agency. An important avenue for future aspirations research is therefore to explore to what extent aspirations are negotiated among household members and what this means in terms of different groups of women’s actualized power to decide their own futures and that of their households.