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Encouraging the next generation of women to aim higher – Mary Mkonyi

Solidaridad is an international civil society organisation with over 50 years of experience in developing solutions to make communities more resilient. Mary Mkonyi leads this work in Tanzania. In 2020, Solidaridad began working with MARKUP in Tanzania, and Mary, as Tanzania Country Manager, has been spearheading the efforts to implement a holistic program with 21,000 farmer’s and communities across three commodities: coffee, tea and horticulture in the southern highlands.

“There are four main areas we are working on with our farmers to ensure sustainability. Environment and biodiversity, profit, so they can be assured of an income, workers’ rights, which includes health, fairness and equitable conditions in workplaces, and occupational health and safety, ensuring they understand they should be protected in their place of work too.”

Underpinning all of this however is also a dedicated gender and sustainability approach. “We look specifically at women and youth and try to create awareness among whole communities around rights, equality and the benefits of joint decision making and a joint future. We create environments where we discuss equality with men and women of all generations and it’s been inspiring to see the reactions – mostly positive – to this thinking.”

“We train at different levels of communities, but focus now is on a top level of lead farmers, who once they are capacitated teach and train others and share their new knowledge.” At least 40% of the farmers they work with are women, though in Tanzania the coffee and tea industries are still very male dominated, so there have been some challenges around this.

“We promote household decisions and creating incomes for women. So when we talk about gender equality and run education workshops in communities, we always include men in the discussions. Discussing openly how women being part of decisions and family incomes can raise families up, and help them reach their goals. Whether it’s to put their children through school, buy more land, a bigger house, whatever, raising women to equal status in decision making and earning capacity benefits the whole family.”

One of Mary’s favourite parts of the job is getting into the field and listening to women. As a strong working woman also raising a family she is setting an example and knows she is seen as a role-model almost everywhere she goes.

“I still juggle child rearing and office work, am working on a work life balance and “me” time as well as career development. My husband takes on an equal amount of the children and household load. I tell women and men when they tell me they want their daughters to grow up to be like me that it is possible and to give them the opportunity to go to school and make decisions about their future.

“Most women in Tanzania – and across Africa – don’t have the opportunities I did, or the support I have now. They grew up with barriers, whether not getting an education or having to shoulder household or farm or child rearing duties at an early age which limit their time to go to school or have time to revise at home. Living in a patriarchal society still means often they just aren’t listened to. It’s not that they aren’t smart and can’t do incredible things when given the chance, but if they aren’t given the opportunity to speak up and show their worth things will continue as they are.

“Through Solidaridad but also because I really believe in it, I want to encourage the next generation to aim higher. I tell women that when they are working they need to show their value. Whenever they are given an opportunity to take with both hands and prove what they are bringing in, the difference they are making, and how they are contributing and creating benefits for the whole community. And when men understand and see this too things do start to change.”

Photo:  ©EACMARKUP

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