Kenyan Women Are Trading Goat Herding for Beauty Products—and Making Big Bucks

Women in the country are finding success as aloe farmers, exporting the leaves to an international cosmetics brand.

Maasai women at a livestock camp in Kenya. (Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Maasai women in Laikipia County, Kenya, have typically earned a modest living growing crops such as maize and carrots, herding goats, or crafting beadwork to sell at local markets. But in recent years, a new cash crop is proving far more lucrative: aloe.

About six years ago, groups of Maasai women in the village of El Poloi began to plant Aloe secundiflora, a plant common to this arid, drought-prone part of Kenya, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The plants are first grown in a nursery, then moved to small plots of land —8,000 to 10,000 plants can grow on one acre—where they take about three years to mature. The plants are ideal for the harsh climate, as they actually protect themselves from the hot sun by forming an outer layer of leaves that provide shade for their green internal leaves.

At first, the women traded the aloe in exchange for goats from men, who took the leaves and crushed them to make a traditional fermented wine. But they soon discovered that growing aloe improved the soil; grass was growing in the aloe patches. So they began to charge the men for grazing their cattle on the land. Those activities proved to be lucrative enough to provide food for the women’s families and help educate their daughters. But another opportunity was about to bring in far more money.

Thanks to the Permaculture & Regenerative Enterprise Program at Kenya’s Permaculture Research Institute, a partnership was formed in 2013 with Lush, a U.K.-based cosmestics brand. Approximately 300 women in El Poloi have become the first in Kenya to be licensed to export the leaves for use in the company’s products. Lush, known for its organic and handmade bath and beauty products, works directly with six women’s groups and has created a chartiable arm known as the SLush Fund. The fund has already backed a number of projects, including putting up new fencing to keep animals out, fixing a water tank, launching a nursery operation to cultivate aloe and other plants, and teaching the women beekeeping skills.

The research institute’s enterprise program was created with the goal of establishing business ventures such as this one.

“Our aim is to support these farmers associations and women’s groups to set up as small ecological enterprises, providing a sustainable income and show that this can be done whilst regenerating the environment and providing food and nutrition security for the community,” says the institute’s website. “For economic resilience we are developing local as well as regional and international markets for organic, health, and cosmetics products.”

These women-run aloe groups are more than just small businesses. In a country where polygamy is legal, female genital mutilitation still occurs, and girls are still pressured into child marriages, they are also a means for these women to escape abuse and poverty and promote gender equality.

“Our lives have improved so much,” Rosemary Putunoi, a leader of the group Twala Cultural Manyatta Women, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We share the dividend among our members and use the rest to educate our 21 girls in boarding school.”

The Twala Cultural Manyatta Women already earn about $3,200 a year exporting aloe, a healthy amount considering the average monthly wage is $80. Along with other activities, such as leading tourist groups and selling their own soaps, body lotions, and shampoos made of the aloe sap, they can make as much as $25,000 per year.