In Kenya, Access to Water Gives Women Time to Make Their Own Money

Having a clean water source close to home means women and girls no longer have to spend hours a day fetching water, and instead can focus on family, school and earning a decent income.

Written by Sophie Mbugua Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Women and girls around the world spend 40 billion hours a year fetching water. When they have easy access to clean water, they can use that time to spend with their families and earn a decent income. Sophie Mbugua

KWALE COUNTY, Kenya – When a man moved onto the land next to Zeinab Juma’s home three years ago and drilled a borehole to earn some side income, she had no idea it would change her life.

Suddenly, Juma and the other residents of Magaoni in Kenya’s Kwale County no longer had to walk several miles every day in search of clean water, paying her neighbor $0.02 per 20 liters instead. “I used to spend three hours fetching water from a seasonal freshwater stream often used by wild animals and livestock. I would wake up very early in the morning, prepare the children for school, then set out in search of water,” Juma says.

During drought season, the streams would dry up, forcing her to spend up to five hours a day walking to streams further away and standing in line to get water for her family. “We had to wait our turn, as everyone depended on that water,” she says. Those who couldn’t wait often had to get water from the polluted river.

After Juma started using the borehole next door, her children got sick less often, and she suddenly found herself with some free time. She noticed a money-making opportunity in selling fabrics, handbags, hats and clothing to women in the town center, so she launched a business in 2016 with $200 seed money from her husband.

“As well as being more available for my children, I have all the time to run my business, which I didn’t before,” she says. Now she makes a monthly profit of 5,000-7,000 Kenyan shillings ($50-$70), adding some to the family coffers and saving the rest. “I can finally save with a micro-saving group and helping out with development activities at home, such as contributing to land that we hope to build our future home on,” she says.

All in the Family

Research by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) shows women and girls in low-income countries spend 40 billion hours annually collecting water. Improving access to clean water not only helps reduce illness rates and gives girls more opportunity to attend school, it also dramatically reduces women’s workloads giving them more time for “productive endeavours” such as earning a decent income.

Working at a water kiosk gave Mwanaisha Mshimu the chance to re-open her fruit stall and make an extra income selling fries to the local residents and school children. (Sophie Mbugua)

Mwanaisha Mshimu has experienced that firsthand. Before the Kwale County government started supplying piped water to Mkwakwani village in 2015, she was a stay-at-home mother. She had previously run a fruit stall outside her house, but had to close it because it wasn’t making enough money.

When the pipes came, Mshimu volunteered to manage the water center outside the Mkwakwani primary school. She’s a member of a local women’s group, which, in cooperation with the water company, sells water to the villagers and uses the profits to lend money to group members. After a month, she saw potential in the steady flow of customers coming to get their water every day, so she reopened her fruit business next to the water kiosk.

She soon realized that being near a school offered her an even more lucrative business opportunity. “I started frying potatoes that attracted not just the children, but also the teachers and the neighborhood,” Mshimu says. Now she works from 5 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., earning around $20 per day and up to $30 during game days at the school.

“I am just grateful that my daughters have a source of income and now we can concentrate on educating the two still in school without much of a struggle.”

She has now given the fruit and vegetable stall to her two daughters, who use the profits to take care of their own expenses instead of depending on her financially. Mshimu can supplement the little income her husband gets from fishing, while their daughters are earning money and learning financial management skills.

“I am just grateful that my daughters have a source of income and now we can concentrate on educating the two still in school without much of a struggle,” Mshimu says.

Obstacles to Water Access

As Juma and Mshimu enjoy the new freedoms that access to water has granted them, millions of other women are still trapped in the cycle of fetching water every day, limiting their chances for dignified work. And getting water to them is a challenge.

Joshua Gaya, area manager for the Kwale Water and Sewerage Company Limited, says power shortages and other obstacles prevent the company from supplying water to all of Kwale’s 650,000 residents.

“We pipe water to the communities from shallow wells at the shores of the Indian Ocean and boreholes,” he says. “High power bills, vandalism of water pipes and [unpaid] water bills make it hard for the company to manage its production costs.”

Zeinab Juma, left, was spending up to five hours a day fetching water until a neighbor let locals pay to use the borehole on his land. With the time that freed up, Juma opened a clothing business. (Sophie Mbugua)

More than 90 percent of residents in Msambweni – the constituency where Mkwakwani and Magaoni lie – are not yet connected to the county water supply. To help increase water access to those not on the piped supply, charities such as East African Care are drilling boreholes and putting community members in charge of their upkeep.

East African Care builds its water projects on land donated by communities. Each community selects three people for operation and maintenance training. “Once the project is handed over to the community, these trainees maintain and repair the boreholes,” says Idi Ali Masemo, a water expert who was formerly leading training sessions for East African Care and is now an independent water consultant. Those who give land to one of the water projects do not get financial compensation, but they can use the water free of charge to irrigate their own farms. Masemo says around 1,350 women are currently participating in the water project.

After years of spending hours fetching water, many women say that – whether through the pipes or out of a borehole – having clean water close to home has opened up opportunities they previously never dared imagine.

“It’s unbelievable how things can take a turn around,” says Juma about her now-thriving clothing and accessories business. “I never thought I would ever be financially independent or even help my husband buy us land for a future home.”

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