Widow Ahatho Turuga lost 20 of her goats to drought early last year, but the shopkeeper is planning to reinvest in her herd once she has saved enough money.
"I think I will start with four goats and see how it goes," she said, rearranging soap on the upper shelf of her shop in Loglogo, a few kilometers from Marsabit town.
She recalled how frequent droughts had left her on the edge of desperation, struggling to care for six of her own children and four others she adopted after their mother died.
But Turuga is finding it easier to cope since taking part in a rural entrepreneurship program run by The BOMA Project, a nonprofit helping women in Kenya's dry northern areas beat extreme poverty and adapt to climate change.
The U.S. and Kenya-based organization provides two years of business and life-skills training, as well as mentorship.
Groups of three women are each given a startup grant of 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($194.55) and a progress grant of 10,000 shillings to set up a business.
After graduating, they carry on operating their businesses — mainly small shops selling groceries and household goods — either together or on their own.
The women also club together in savings groups of at least 15 people, who put away anything from 400 shillings a month each, and make loans to members at an interest rate of 5 to 10 percent.
Habibo Osman, a mother of five who was in the same group as Turuga, has been able to support her family even after divorcing her husband.
The 1,200 shillings she earns each week from the shop she established as a BOMA business has enabled her to enroll her eldest child, aged five, in nursery school. She is now hoping to save enough to buy her own land.
No more aid
Ahmed "Kura" Omar, BOMA's co-founder and deputy country director, said his native Marsabit is one of Kenya's driest counties. It is often hit by prolonged drought, with many families losing livestock in its mainly pastoralist economy, he added.
"Given that there is no foreseeable end to these drought patterns, we need to stop relying on food distribution and aid money, and create more sustainable, life-long solutions," Kura told Reuters.
BOMA CEO Kathleen Colson said the program aimed to help break the cycle of dependency on aid, giving women power over their lives and the means to move out of extreme poverty.
"People need to be treated with dignity and be empowered to achieve self-sufficiency and effect change on a community level," she said.
BOMA asks villagers to help identify the poorest women among them to participate in the training. After completing the program, they help other women, a process that raises income levels across the entire area.
Bakayo Nahiro, a widow and mother of six, belongs to the Namayana women's saving group in Kargi in Marsabit. She has amassed 25,000 shillings in savings, but said profit margins go down in drought periods as people take shop goods on credit when they have no livestock to sell.
Money is power
Jane Naimirdik, a BOMA trainer and mentor, said communities in Marsabit are highly patriarchal, but the program helps women gain a voice in society.
The practice of grouping women in threes creates mutual accountability but also offers protection from husbands who may want to take money from them, she added.
"We once handled a case where the husband tried to take the wife's savings by force, but we approached [him] and told him the money did not belong to his wife but to the women's savings group and he understood," said Naimirdik.
Moses Galore, Kargi's village chief, said no such incidents had been reported to him, and men appreciated their wives' financial contribution to the household.
Magatho Mifo, a BOMA business owner, said her husband was happy about her commercial activities as she could now provide for her family while he travels for days in search of pasture for his herd.
Her neighbors' wives and children buy goods on credit when the men are away looking for grazing, and repay her when they return. This helps the community during lean times and generates more income for her business, she said.
"My husband sometimes gets angry when I attend the women's group meetings, because they can last a long time, but once I arrive home with a bag of food or something else, all is forgotten," said Khobobo Gurleyo, another entrepreneurship program member.
BOMA mentor Naimirdik said the women are also trained in conflict management to strengthen their business partnerships.
Ideally, each group includes women of different ages so as to benefit from the experience of older members and to make the program sustainable as it passes to subsequent generations, she said.
In addition, the women receive information about family planning and the importance of having small families, as well as child and maternal health and hygiene, she added.
The BOMA Project has reported positive results in the communities where it works in Marsabit County and Samburu East, with about 15,700 women enrolled in its program since 2008.
Data collected during a 2016 exit survey of participants found that after two years, 99 percent of BOMA businesses were still open.
Members experienced a 147 percent increase in their income, and a 1,400 percent increase in their savings, alongside a 63 percent drop in children going to bed hungry.
The BOMA Project plans to expand its program across East Africa's drylands by partnering with governments and other development agencies.
In Kenya, it is undertaking a pilot program with the government involving 1,600 women in Samburu, in addition to its existing work.
The project aims to reach 1 million women and children by 2022, said CEO Colson.