ALIMAO, Kenya, Aug 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a blistering hot afternoon, Zainab Omar Ali methodically sorts through freshly picked bunches of kale on her farm in Alimao village in northeast Kenya.
"I managed to sell most of my batch at the market this morning," she said with satisfaction. "I'll try to sell the remaining fresh ones tomorrow, and cook the rest at home."
Near her farm in Wajir County, women buzz around four greenhouses made of dark shade nets, watering vegetable plots and removing weeds.
Omar Ali and other women in this village bordering Somalia used to grow vegetables by fetching water from a hand-dug shallow well and keeping off pests with old mosquito nets.
But increasingly dry weather and rising temperatures damaged their already limited harvests and weakened their cattle, the women said.
Change is afoot, however. Since 2016, a project led by an international charity is helping women from Alimao grow vegetables like kale and onions under shade nets that protect the crops from predators and the sun's intensity.
A drip irrigation system is installed under the nets to use water more efficiently.
The "Kenya Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development" (Kenya RAPID) programme, implemented by World Vision Kenya, aims to improve 45,000 people's access to water and sanitation in dry northern counties.
REBUILDING AFTER DROUGHT
After losing all their livestock to drought in the 1990s, Omar Ali and her family left their village in northern Kenya and migrated to Wajir County.
"Life was hard without any meat or milk to rely on," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "My (six) children and I would sometimes go for two days without a proper meal and had to rely on wild fruits."
Experts say women bear the brunt of climate change in many developing countries, and are often more vulnerable than men when disasters like floods or droughts strike.
Richard Munang, climate change programme coordinator for Africa at UN Environment, said men in pastoralist communities control the main source of income - livestock – meaning women cannot take the decision to sell or slaughter an animal.
"That makes them more likely than men to have to go without food in times of need, while they must walk long distances to fetch water," he said.
With no stable income to rely on, Omar Ali and six other village women decided to pool their limited savings in 2013.
"We used to have weekly meetings where each member would give 200 Kenyan shillings ($1.93) to buy milk from livestock herders and resell it to town dwellers," she recalled, bending to water her vegetables. "But the milk would often spoil due to the heat."
Halima Qureysh, another group member, said the women then tried farming a small piece of land allocated by village elders, but the hand-dug shallow wells they used often ran dry.
Since last year, however, the women have used the shade nets provided by the Kenya RAPID project, which is funded by the U.S. and Swiss governments, to help protect their crops from extreme heat.
Last year they harvested 35 tonnes of kale, compared to just a few bunches each previously, which was barely enough for domestic consumption.
Omar Ali said the group's "healthy-looking" kale now fetches 50 shillings per kilo, instead of only 20 previously.
She now makes about 4,500 shillings per month – three times what she used to earn.
"I can take my children to school, cook balanced meals for my family and I have gained recognition in my community," she said.
"In our society, women are not normally allowed to speak in public forums," she added. "But given our group's success, men are now letting the members speak to the rest of the village and make decisions at a family level."
With support from the project, the group has also set up a borehole with a solar-powered pump to ease water shortages.
The women purify water from the borehole, store it in tanks and sell it to the rest of the community.
"We used to share dirty water with livestock in water pans – if there was water at all," said Omar Ali. "But the water we get now is clean."
Dickens Thunde, former country director at World Vision Kenya, said working with the community's existing ways of coping with climate extremes - rather than introducing a new system - had been key to the success of the project.
"This community was already managing its own natural resources - it just needed a sustainable water source to withstand shocks," he said.
However, challenges remain in reaching other vulnerable community members who aren't part of the women's group.
Hadabah Mahamoud, a project officer for sanitation and nutrition with World Vision, said a lack of funding has so far limited the project's expansion to other villages.
"Once established, these projects are easy to manage, but the initial cost of setting them up and sourcing the equipment like irrigation pumps is quite high," she said.
"Most people in this arid region still lack proper access to water, without which they cannot expect a healthy harvest or livestock," she added.
For now, said Omar Ali, the women plan to use the group's savings to offer training in sustainable farming to other women in the region, using their village as "a centre of excellence".
($1 = 103.7500 Kenyan shillings)
Reporting by Robert Kibet, editing by Zoe Tabary and Megan Rowling.
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