NAIROBI, Kenya – Esther Naserian, a 44-year-old mother of six, is trying to make a living from tourism in southwest Kenya.
She sells her crafts, which include Maasai multi-colored jewellery, beaded baskets and beaded shoes, in Narok, an entry town to Kenya’s Maasai Mara national reserve. It’s hard work, and she makes little from it.
“I have used all efforts possible to get access to sell my art crafts inside Maasai Mara hotels, but all in vain,” she says. “The few tourists who notice my work here end up buying cheaply.”
Inside Maasai Mara, a beaded necklace sells for $60, while a bracelet goes for $30. Outside the reserve, Naserian has to sell the same items for $10 and $5, respectively.
Naserian is just one of many women in the tourism industry who is struggling to make ends meet. A U.N. report, released last week, found the sector as a whole is booming, but women are missing out on the proceeds.
The report, from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), points to poor access to education, negative stereotyping and lack of infrastructure as some of the barriers women face in the industry. The authors recommend the industry engage more with individual businesswomen and smallholder farmers to ensure women are given a fair chance.
“If decent work is championed in African nations’ tourism policies, it will help in contributing to more equal opportunities and empowerment, hence enable women to make a greater contribution to the sector,” the report says.
The World Trade Organization has projected that tourist visitors to Africa will jump from today’s 50 million to 134 million by 2030.
But across the continent, tourism jobs held by men tend to be higher-earning and more stable than those held by women.
In 2015, the report cites, only 300 of Kenya’s 4,000 tour guides were women, while Botswana had only 66 female guides and Tanzania fewer than 10 out of 2,000.
Carmen Nibigira, regional coordinator for East Africa Tourism Platform, says that with housework being strongly stereotyped as “women’s work” in Africa, “female” positions in tourism are considered extensions of typical domestic work.
She also points out that the crowding of women into these limited professions increases competition and suppresses wages.
Across the continent, women represent significant portions of sectors that are directly linked to tourism, such as farming and crafts. It’s estimated that women provide approximately 70 percent of agricultural labor in Africa,
And with unpredictable weather patterns prevailing in many African countries, which affect the livelihoods of many of female smallholder farmers, seeking alternative income in tourism has the potential to cushion women against the worst effects of climate change.
The report proposes the tourism industry forge strong links with high-value agricultural sub-sectors such as horticulture and organic farming, which have been underexploited to date by the tourism sector.
Susan Chesayna, a former teacher who ventured into farming, says the current economic and food crisis in Kenya has threatened the supermarkets to which she supplies vegetables.
“The high-end hotels around that accommodate tourists rarely source fresh farm produce from smallholder farmers,” she says. “This is a ready and viable market which the government needs to streamline.”
Junior Davies, the chief economist for African affairs at UNCTAD, says creating links with horticulture can be a significant growth area. Launching the report, he said women already make up at least 50 percent of the horticultural workforce in Kenya, South Africa and Zambia.
“Leveraging on the ability of women to supply high-value horticultural products to tourism establishments and integrating it into tourism value chains can create a viable market for their product and more reliable high levels of income,” Davies says.
Nibigira agrees. She says tourism can also provide new options for those hit hardest by drought and other crises.
“The global and African craft sector is generally recognized to be a large employer of women and a sector that encourages female entrepreneurship. This has the potential to provide supplementary income during low farming seasons and expands in response to demand from tourists,” she says.
Access to banking is a further barrier to be overcome. While access to formal sources of finance is low across Africa for all adults, fewer women than men have an account at a financial institution.
“African governments should work on increasing female access to finance through local bank partnerships in selected countries.” Nibigira says. Across the board, she says, “national and customary laws still provide critical barriers for women.”
Esther Naserian and Susan Chesayna’s biggest challenge is getting tourist centers to work with them directly. For these women, just getting access to Kenya’s high-earning hot spots would be life-changing.