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The school fees burden: Smallholder farmers and redefining the problem

When I first met Mama Carol, I had just walked through her farm. My translator John had explained the different plants to me as we passed maize and macadamia trees. My eyes had been filled with a sea of green, especially the bright green of tea trees that is commonplace in this part of rural Kenya.

Mama Carol spotted us from a distance and started the ascent from amongst the leaves, a splash of red and white amongst the green. On her back she carried the basket in which she collects her leaves. It sat high above her head and swayed as she walked. Mama Carol harvests once every two weeks, but prunes daily, picking out the leaves that will not be good enough for sale. At that first meeting she greeted me like we were old friends, with shyness in her manner but strength in her stature as she stood in front of her livelihood and looked out across the valley.

We sat under a tree and I asked her about her family and her farm. She is married with two daughters and when she spoke of her daughters’ futures, her eyes glistened with tears. Her tears seem laden with immense hope, and also, immense fear: her daughters’ situation is full of potential, but precarious. “Education, if it is possible, is the best (for my daughters) because the piece of land I have is not enough to share with them.”

The AppLab Money Kenya team spent over three weeks travelling across Kenya to better understand smallholder farmers. Kenya is a country rich in fertile lands, so agriculture is in some way part of every Kenyan’s life. In fact, 80 percent of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood and about 10 million Kenyans actively work in the agricultural sector. We interviewed 43 smallholder farmers in seven different languages and across eight districts. They allowed us into their homes and on their farms and shared their hopes and dreams, worries and fears, so we could better understand their wants and needs.

Mama Carol is not alone in her struggle to educate her children. During our time with smallholder farmers across Kenya we found a dominant and almost all-encompassing burden of secondary school fees on smallholder families. School fees are one of the highest reoccurring expenses for most smallholder farmers and takes priority over all other expenses. Farmers choose to spend their income on their children’s education even over buying food.

Another smallholder farmer, Mary, shared a similar story. She was left to pay for her grandson’s education when his father went away. She struggles to pay school fees every term and constantly battles with the school to wait for payment until she gets money from her tea or maize crops. “I took all the money I had, the little money I made, and then took it to the teacher to not send my child away from school because of the lack of school fees. I vowed to pay whatever amount I get, whenever I get it, to the teacher. I would bring it little by little.” The burden of school fees on smallholder farmers is an all too common problem.

Data from the 2005 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey (KIHBS) shows that household’s expenditures on a primary school students averaged approximately Kshs 3,000 per year, while expenditures on a secondary school student averaged close to Kshs 25,000 (an eightfold increase). These secondary expenditures account for approximately 55 percent of annual household expenditures.[1]

With a large proportion of household income spent on education, the burden of school fees is inextricably linked to agricultural sustainability and productivity. We must look at school fees as part of the agricultural ecosystem. Funds that should be funnelled towards inputs, fertilisers and storage of harvests are often redirected to pay school fees. This in turn reduces crop and livestock yield, the amount paid for crops due to early sales, and subsequently reduces the farm’s income, exacerbating the difficulty of paying for education. If we find a way to relieve this burden through a financial product or solution, we can help farmers become financially independent in the long run. With enough capital at the start of each term, farmers will have the leg up they need to start reinvesting in the farms, and in turn, their children’s futures.

[1] Access and Quality in the Kenyan Education System: A Review of the Progress, Challenges and Potential Solutions, May 2011