Stories of change: Analyzing aspirations of rural women and men


by Mary Crossland, Ana-Maria Paez-Valencia, and Kai Mausch | June 11, 2021

Looking into the aspirations of rural people provides insights into how they earn, invest, make decisions within the household, hold government accountable, make technology choices, and engage in other future-oriented behaviors.

While aspirations-based theories in economics have largely focused on people’s ‘capacity to aspire’, or rather their level of ambition relative to those around them, we use the term ‘aspiration’ to refer to what people aspire to do, with specific attention to the livelihood activities with which they wish to engage. Gender and age play an important role in aspiration formation. While aspirations of young people in agriculture have been studied, desires and ambitions of rural women have largely been overlooked. Yet, the topic is becoming even more important as many men migrate in search of more lucrative employment opportunities outside their rural homes, and many women assume the role of primary farmer.

One region where this is happening at scale is the eastern drylands of Kenya. In our recent study there, we interviewed 88 women and 50 men of all ages to understand where they see their future opportunities and what role farming plays in their aspired future.

“Imagine your life in 10 years”

We started interviews with intentionally general opening question: “Imagine your life in 10 years’ time. Tell a story about how you got to that point from this present day.” (Figure 1). People were free to share stories related to farming or anything else.

We recorded the responses using SenseMaker© - a survey tool that asks participants to interpret the stories they just relayed about their imagined future along several predefined dimensions. It offers options like ‘dyads’ – a sliding-scale between two opposing statements (Figure 1) – or ‘triads’, where people are asked to balance the underlying driver of their aspired future across three concepts (one example in Figure 2).

We were especially interested in capturing these aspirations across different sub-groups to explore what differences emerge. So, we posed the same questions to two people within each household: the household head and either a spouse or a child (random selection). This led to a total of 138 storytellers. However, the same social dynamic we were intending to investigate – changes in livelihoods and opportunities – prevented equal representation of these sub-groups. Children were often at school and men had migrated or were working off-farm during the time of interview. This means that men and women who aspire to move out of farming, might have done so already and are therefore not captured in our sample.

Figure 1.

Interpretations to the stories provide a good bird’s eye view of what is valued in the community, and how aspirations change with age and gender (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Insights into dynamics of farming

Despite all stories being self-labelled as positive (98%), women saw fewer opportunities than men and were less confident in their ability to achieve their goals. Women also envisioned spending more of their time farming than men, yet both women and men indicated to a similar degree that they care about improving their farming practices and the productivity of their farms. This may reflect men’s intentions to return to farming when they retire.

Indeed, there were distinct trends in aspirational focus with age and gender. None of the men or women under 25 aspired to farm but rather focused on completing their education to secure employment or starting their own businesses. This changed for women aged 25-35 as most of them aspired to invest in agriculture and become “established” and “large-scale” farmers. Men of the same age still aspired to options outside of farming and saw farming as a secondary activity.

These findings challenge the notion that rural women are primarily interested in farming for home consumption (see here, here and here). We also found that men’s and women’s diverse aspirations re-converged with age. As older men started looking to retire, their aspirations turned toward farming and within the 45+ age group, both men’s and women’s aspirations coalesced toward agriculture.

Interestingly, while storytellers’ farming aspirations were diverse, the specific activities mentioned by men and women did not significantly differ (e.g., farm ponds or water tanks, more livestock or land, growing horticultural crops or planting fruit trees). Non-farming aspirations, however, were often stereotypically associated with their gender (e.g., women: hair salon or clothing business; men: transportation business, construction worker, mechanic).

Enhancing understanding through complementary methods

Given the apparent focus on farming by women across almost all ages, we wondered if this reflected an actual interest or the lack of a better option. To dig deeper, we held focus group discussions (FGDs) and talked to several men and women to explore recent changes in women’s agency as well as opportunities in agriculture.

The FGDs explored gender-specific migration trends and drivers and changes in women’s agency. We used an adapted version of the ‘Ladder of Power and Freedom’ exercise. The tool allows to assess the perceived level of power an individual has over his/her life decisions. Additional discussions with women that remained on the farm while their husbands were working elsewhere focused on their experiences in relation to their livelihoods and wellbeing.

Despite substantial gains in in women’s agency and involvement in household decisions, symmetries between men and women in terms of decision-making, workloads and opportunities persist,  with men still seen as the household head and final decision-maker. Social norms continue to limit women’s options to primarily farming-related activities – which corresponds well with the SenseMaker survey result (farming focus but a lack of opportunities). For example, men’s focus groups reported negative attitudes towards women migrating, particularly those who are married. The notion of being trapped in farming by social convention was substantiated by several women who framed their role in farming in a negative light, even stating that ‘women have no option but to work on their farms’.

Concluding thoughts

Our research highlights the benefits of approaching the same questions from different methodological angles: (1) The short stories helped identify the individual aspirations of household members. Living under one roof, they may still aspire to invest their time and resources in distinct ways. (2) The focus groups and in-depth interviews were then able to shed light on the negotiation and decision-making process in choosing between these different aspirations – showing how much aspirations themselves as well as the negotiation process are shaped by existent gender norms and constraints. (3) The SenseMaker method provided insights into similar dynamics but allowed us to do it at a much larger scale as it does not require the same amount of time and resources per respondent.

Overall, the value of including a diversity of voices into any form of survey has been highlighted. The idea that rural households do not aspire to invest in agriculture but instead wish to focus on off-farm sources of income may well be an artefact of the ‘household head’ bias of sampling. If researchers and development practitioners are to utilize aspirations to target rural households more efficiently with interventions and technologies, it will be critical to assess the aspirations of multiple household members and how these interrelate and are mediated at the household level.

Further reading

Project timeline:

Daum, T., Harris, D., Mausch, K. and LaRue, K. (2021), How young Kenyans feel about farming goes against conventional wisdom, The Conversation, 24.1.2021,

Mausch, K. and Harris, D. (2020), Not just farmers: understanding rural aspirations is key to Kenya’s future, The Conversation, 9.3.2020,

Mausch, K., Harris, D., Dilley, L., Crossland, M., Pagella, T., Yim, J. and Jones, E. (2021), Not all about farming: capturing aspirations is a challenge to assumptions about rural development, European Journal of Development Research, 33-4.

Dilley, L., Mausch, K., Crossland, M. and Harris, D. (2021), What’s the story on agriculture? Using narratives to understand farming households’ aspirations in Meru, Kenya, European Journal of Development Research, 33-4.

Crossland, M., Paez Valencia, A.M., Pagella, T., Mausch, K., Harris, D, and Winoweicki, L. (2021), Women’s Changing Aspirations Amid Male Outmigration. Insights from Rural Kenya, European Journal of Development Research, 33-4.

LaRue, K., Mausch, K., Daum, T. and Harris, D. (2021), Making Sense of Intergenerational Aspirations in Agrarian Households and their Implications for Technology Adoption: Evidence from Kenya, European Journal of Development Research, 33-4.

Mausch, K., Harris, D., Heather, E., Jones, E., Yim, J. and Hauser, M. (2018), Households’ aspirations for rural development through agriculture. Outlook on Agriculture, 47(2), pp108-115.

Verkaart, S., Mausch, K. and Harris, D. (2018), Who are those people we call farmers? Aspirations and realities in Kenya, Development in Practice 28(4), pp. 468-479.

Mary Crossland is a PhD student at Bangor University and Research Fellow at World Agroforestry (ICRAF). Ana-Maria Paez-Valencia is Social Scientist, Gender at World Agroforestry. Kai Mausch is Senior Economist at World Agroforestry. 

This work was undertaken as part of, and funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC), CGIAR Research Program on Policy, Markets and Institutions (PIM), CGIAR Research Program on Forest Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). Additional funding was provided by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). 

This story is part of the EnGendering Data blog which serves as a forum for researchers, policymakers, and development practitioners to pose questions, engage in discussions, and share resources about promising practices in collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data on agriculture and food security. If you are interested in writing for EnGendering Data, please contact the blog editor, Dr. Katrina Kosec.

Photo credit: AVCD/Muthoni Njiru