Challenges and Opportunities in Kenya’s Macadamia Nuts Industry: A Gender Perspective

13 June 2017

The macadamia nuts industry is a promising sector for Kenya’s economy, but because of gender-related constraints, men and women do not enjoy the same opportunities in the value chain. What are the challenges that women face, and how can they be tackled?

Agriculture is the dominant sector in the Kenyan economy, accounting for 26 percent of the country’s gross domestic productin 2015,  75 percent of the labour force and 50 percent of revenue from exports.[1] Tea and coffee have remained among the top export earners in Kenya’s agricultural sector. However, trends are changing as more coffee farmers turn to growing what is now being referred to as the “new green gold” due to the good return it provides to farmers: macadamia nuts.[2] Demand outstrips supply, with rising global prices of kernels impacting on prices of nuts in shell. For example, in Kenya in 2002, prices shot up from US$0.07 to US$0.23 per kilogram of nuts-in-shell (unprocessed nuts) at the farm gate. The prices have continued to rise consistently, reaching US$1.5 per kg at the factory gate in 2017. Even though more and more farmers have planted the trees, the growing of macadamia is still at a very low level and only about 100,000 farmers are involved. The potential to reap benefits from farming macadamia nuts is still to be fully exploited.

Production and supply chain of macadamia nuts

Even though macadamia nuts are a very promising high-value crop, the benefit does not always reach the farmer as the supply chain is long, with many brokers and subagents intervening, each squeezing a margin from the final price. Farmers who sell from the farm gate and who are mostly women tend to lose out on the price. Those who deliver to the factories or to buying centres tend to benefit more. In macadamia farming by smallholders, duties and roles are not equally shared in the household. Women are largely involved in planting, pulling down the nuts from the trees with the help of their children, and de-husking the green seed coating from the nuts, mostly by hand and using crude tools. This is a reflection of how women generally participate in farming activities, being involved in the labour-intensive aspects. In some cases, processors have made de-huskers available to households, and in these instances men tend to be found in de-husking, typically intrigued and attracted by the efficiency it brings to the process.

Marketing of the nuts

In marketing the produce, men dominate the distribution chain. They take the role of transporting the produce to the buying centres, usually by bicycle, wheelbarrow or motorcycles, and get paid for what they have brought after the quality and weight of the produce has been checked. Women will not usually get involved in what is considered the hard task of transporting the nuts to the buying centres, and it is not usual for the man to take back and share the proceeds with his wife. In this context, many women report that they are happy working on the macadamia trees, as they are less labour intensive than other crops such as coffee or tea, but most often they are not able to reap the full benefits from their hard labour.

Among the reasons the women give for not being involved in marketing functions is that the business would require riding a motorcycle, a skill the women may not have or for whom it may be taboo, or driving a pick-up truck. They would have to travel long distances and be able to vet buying centres with keen security eyes, the nuts being high-value products. As the women are tied down with other household chores, they are unable to take on marketing functions that take them away from home. Some of their husbands will literally discourage them from doing so, and this will be reinforced by culture. The agents who buy from the farms will usually be men, and very often take advantage of the women, buying at low prices and using false weights. Women agents who might take on the role of aggregation are very few in number, mostly because the amount of capital required is very high for most women and it is challenging for them to access capital as compared to their male counterparts.

Employment conditions at enterprises

There are 23 licensed processors of macadamia nuts in Kenya, predominantly owned and managed by men. The processors have a combined capacity of 180,000 metric tonnes a year and employ about 13,850 people in industrial drying, cracking, sorting and grading. It is in this highly men-dominated and competitive space that we—three Kenyan female social entrepreneurs—have decided to establish the first macadamia processing company in Kenya solely owned by women. Here we narrate some of the challenges from our perspective in setting up an enterprise which has a potential to create 60 direct decent jobs and support tens of thousands of farmers. What is unique about our social enterprise is the fact that it is strongly built upon the principle of women’s economic empowerment in the value chain, and the directors are committed to demonstrating and making it possible for women to have equitable opportunities and benefits at the enterprise as well as along the value chain.

Through our own assessments and interactions with macadamia processing companies, it is apparent to us that though macadamia processing factories generally have employed large numbers of women, they are normally hired for the lower paying jobs, mainly as sorters and cleaners. The men are mainly employed for the management and supervisory functions in the factories and, hence, the women are always the lower earners. By the nature of the jobs and the intensity of production demands during the two peak seasons, employees have to work longer hours and sometimes late into the night or very early in the morning. Some work night shifts, depending on whether the factory runs round the clock. This weighs heavily on the women, who need to attend to other care work. And since the women are mostly employed as casuals, paid solely by daily output, it means that they cannot even afford adequate rest breaks as they struggle to catch up with the time they may have taken off to do care work. Reproductive roles are often seen to interfere with productive roles, as when women take maternity leave, their incomes fall significantly because they are out of production. They often come back before the babies are fully weaned because of their need for income.

Very few companies have established children’s nurseries and nursing rooms, but where this has been done, the women have been more productive and happier as they can watch over their children close by. Some companies also organise transportation for women sorters to get home, especially when they work late; this is good for their security, and makes their husbands more comfortable with them working. Paying staff through bank accounts, as opposed to cash, has assisted in financial management and given the control of income directly to the women. When the women are paid cash, they can be prone to overspending, or simply turn in the cash to their husbands. Our company, the Nawiri Nuts Ltd, is committed to addressing many of the issues identified here.

Specific challenges in the macadamia value chain

Access to finance

A huge challenge that processors and agents face is access to finance. The establishment of a processing plant requires substantial amounts of money, with the processing technologies being expensive and the cost of raw material equally high. The start-up capital is therefore at a level requiring formal financing. However, access to this is a significant barrier, particularly for women, as requirements are difficult to fulfil. For instance, financiers will require collateral in the form of property, and in many cases women do not own property, thus locking them out.

Seasonality of the harvest

Along the value chain, the seasonality of harvest and insufficient quantities of unprocessed nuts to match demand are a challenge which leads to cut-throat competition by the processors. Support is needed for the expansion of primary production of the nuts, in particular through increasing the availability of affordable seedlings. Seedlings can be grafted by groups of women through support from the processors, which also gives women alternative income streams to cover the low seasons between harvesting the nuts.

Unscrupulous traders

In Kenya, the export of unprocessed nuts was banned in 2009 under the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority Act (No. 13 of 2013). However; there has still been pilferage by unscrupulous traders who sell the unprocessed nuts to countries such as China. This has presented some challenges to the already competitive space of raw material sourcing. There are also cartels among older processors who would not like to see new processors established and usually create a hostile environment for new entrants.

Supporting gender inclusion in the macadamia value chain

There is a need to regulate and further tighten the surveillance mechanisms for ensuring laws such as the export ban on unprocessed nuts are adhered to. Farmers, and particularly women, can be encouraged to join macadamia producer associations. Traders and agents should also belong to sectoral associations, be licensed on that basis, and their supply licences based on specific contracts with local processors.

Processing companies should be encouraged to review their policies to ensure they promote equity in the workplace, and to specifically include gender aspects that will ensure better working conditions and decent work for women and men. The management and staff can be sensitised to and educated about gender-inclusion policies and practices, and their impact on company objectives. An example is the provision of a day-care facility which would enhance the productivity of nursing mothers.

Policies should facilitate access to formal financing for women and men entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector. Financiers should design products that are appropriate to the macadamia sector, which is a high cash industry, farmers being paid cash on the spot for their products. Appropriate products for start-up and for working capital should be innovative in a way that fits both women and men in their own right.

Authors: Jane Maigua, Managing Director, Nawiri Nuts Kenya Ltd; Loise Maina, External Relations Director, Nawiri Nuts Kenya Ltd; Charity Ndegwa, Marketing Director, Nawiri Nuts Kenya Ltd.

[1] Deloitte, Kenya Economic Outlook 2017: Joining the Dots. 2017.

[2] James Wanzala, “To Export or Not to Export? Why Question Has Plagued Macadamia Trade for Years,” Financial Standard, 30 August 2016.

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