Rosemary Atieno knew she wanted to find a way to relieve the struggles of daily life that she saw her mother and other women endure in rural Kenya. “We would see our mothers waking up in the morning to go look for firewood, come back with food. They have to wash the clothes. They have to make sure the children go to school. This was not a very exciting experience for us. So growing up, particularly me, I really felt that I needed to lift this burden off my mother’s back,” Atieno told me recently on my Electric Ladies Podcast.
“I kept asking myself, how can I do this better for women like my mother?”
While the powers-that-be talk about “net zero” and carbon emissions, and the impact of corporations on the environment, Rosemary Atieno and her group of extraordinary women are on the ground, door to door, in their rural communities doing the work . She is teaching rural communities how to solve their daily challenges, one basic need at a time, such as the dangers of not having clean water or the time-consuming need for firewood, in ways that mitigate climate change – and raising women’s standards of living and education, and that of their families and communities in the process.
The women and families in Atieno’s programs learn the connection between their daily choices and challenges, and climate change, and learn how to build a sustainable, financially viable micro-enterprise that enable them to educate, feed, and care for their families and grow their local savings.
Atieno is the Kenya Project Lead of Women Climate Centers International (WCCI) and Founder/CEO ohf Community Mobilization for Positive Empowerment (COMPE). She described WCCI as a, “OneStop center in our various communities, in areas, villages, where women would come and learn the various ways of mitigating climate change, where women would come to learn,” and get many basic needs met, from water to diapers. She brings her training and experience as an agricultural engineer to help women in rural Kenya, including her experience working in the Kenyan ministry of agriculture for over 15 years. She’s a graduate of the Bukura Agricultural College in Horticulture Development and Extension specializing in Agriculture and community engagement and of the Kenya Institute of management (KIM) in Project Planning and Management.
What “climate change” means to rural communities
Despite the significant political, structural and economic gains in Kenya over the past 10 years, including have one of the fastest-growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa at 5.7% according to a May 2021 report from the UN, 16% of the population lives below the poverty line of $1.60 per day, most of whom live in rural areas.
To help these rural communities, Atieno and her colleagues address their basic needs and challenges in ways that both empower women and mitigate climate change, one choice at a time.
“We say, climate change is affecting everything that we are doing. If it is water, it’s affecting water. If it is health, it’s affecting health. If it is food security, it’s affecting food security….It is food not coming on their tables because the weather is changing,” she explained. “For a local woman, it’s not about carbon transmissions. It’s about food on the table. Yeah. So the question is, why are we having less food? As the years go by our harvests are down. As the years go by. We are lacking some crops that we used to grow.”
Training to think differently, one daily need at a time – With multiple solutions that make money too
Through dialogue, including with their husbands, WCCI trains these women to think differently to identify resources, tools, strategies and people who can help them implement replicable climate-friendly solutions to their daily challenges.
Atieno stressed the importance of having their husbands on board, if they are married. “We try to get men to understand what we are really talking about. Understand that we are not here to compete you, but we are here to complement you,” and to enroll them as allies, she said.
For example, she connects the floods and droughts to the women using a lot of firewood. “Why are we having too many floods? Why is the drought becoming too much?…Because I have no other source of energy. I only have firewood. And this means I have to cut down trees for me to get fire,” is how she talks to them, she said.
Then she and her team teach them other ways to cook their food to use less firewood, such as with fireless cookers, which save time, firewood, and effort, freeing the women up to do more productive and profitable work.
Focusing these women on earning money – and building confidence
Atieno and her team ensure that the women understand how they can earn money from their endeavors, building micro-enterprises with solid business skills, building their confidence in the process as well.
“We are actually training the women that you should not do anything for free because your energy and your effort is very, very key for us,” she insisted. “If it is trip planting, then there’s an income generating aspect attached to it. So during the trainings….we have an entrepreneurship aspect attached to it,” for example, she explained.
Her team helps the women think about what it will take to build the solution; that is, how they will obtain the parts and the labor, what to pay for those and what to charge for the solution, such as a water tank or a tree-planting service.
“Everything must be attached to an income that is generated that flows back to the family, and then helps you to build yourself as a woman, because we want every woman to have money flowing in at any given point in their lives.”
Her mom would be proud that she’s transforming rural Kenya and reducing its massive poverty rate one woman, one community, one micro-business, one climate change solution at a time.