Pastoralist communities in Kenya’s arid north know how to eke out a living from inhospitable terrain, but the last few years of extreme climate disruption are accelerating changes to a lifestyle that dates back more than 10,000 years.
The drought-prone north is a vast area, home to 16 million people and 70% of Kenya’s livestock. Pastoralism – the herding of animals across the scrubby drylands – is an agricultural system attuned to the harsh conditions, providing both a living and an environmentally sustainable way of life.
But over the past two decades, the region has been hit hard – both by recurring and longer-lasting droughts, and by more frequent and intense flooding during the rainy seasons.
“Drought is your brother; it’s someone you know,” community leader Tumal Orto, who traces his pastoralist lineage back to the 1750s, told The New Humanitarian in Marsabit, a bustling town on the edge of the northern desert. “But we no longer recognise this [weather] – it comes in a different way.”
Failed rains in Kenya between 2020 and the end of 2022 – one of the worst droughts on record – killed 2.6 million animals and left 4.4 million people short of food. That disaster has now been followed by an El Niño event, with pounding rain and flash flooding drenching the region. The extreme weather is expected to last well into December, taking a further toll on remaining livestock and economically exhausted communities.
As climate leaders meet in Dubai for COP28, countries like Kenya, on the front lines of climate heating, are being forced to address key questions around food security, land use – and the way forward for pastoralism.
Asking the wrong questions
Pastoralism is an under-appreciated and under-resourced production system. It provides the bulk of the meat consumed in Kenya, and conservatively contributes to 20–30% of total GDP. Yet it has long been viewed – since colonial times – as anachronistic; a practice that both governments and development partners argue should be transformed through market-based alternatives.
As the impact of climate heating becomes more evident, those doubts are increasingly being aired.
“What you hear at every [development] meeting is: ‘What’s the future of pastoralism? Can pastoralism survive? Shouldn’t people shift into farming?’,” said Diba Wako, a regional livestock expert with the aid agency Mercy Corps. “But the drylands cover an area that’s 80% of Kenya – what are they without pastoralism?”
And if there’s any production system that can cope with the uncertainty of climate heating, it's one that specialises in unpredictability – that can produce value out of the most marginal of environments.
For decades, NGOs have been flocking to the north to work on market-based income diversification “resilience” projects – but all too often these fail. Critics argue that they’re based on standardised donor-driven, box-ticking initiatives that tend to ignore the knowledge of the people that actually live in the drylands.
“Western development approaches are about controlling/preventing, but not everything can be predicted,” Rahma Hassan of the research-centred Rights and Resilience in Kenya Project, told The New Humanitarian. “Pastoralists have learnt to deal with that unpredictability.”
Often top-down and labour-intensive, these projects can inhibit the mobility central to pastoralism. And work burdens also disproportionately fall on women, with new research suggesting the time taken away from childcare is a factor in high rates of child malnutrition.
“There are so many NGOs, but their projects are based on wrong assumptions – they misunderstand the logic of the pastoral system,” said Achiba Gargule, a research coordinator with the Feinstein International Center, a US-based food security think tank. “Pastoralism has an in-built resilience, a way of transforming and recovering from shocks.”
Yet beyond episodic climate emergencies, structural challenges are also undermining pastoralism, researchers point out. Among them are constraints to mobility – crucial to the health of livestock, and by extension, pastoralist households. Movement allows the rangelands to regenerate, and is a key adaptation strategy to manage the risks and uncertainty of the drylands.
Pastoralists' knowledge and skills are critical to mobility. Their close reading of the environment allows them to navigate between patches of pasture and water. The routes – carefully scouted and planned ahead – are based on the seasons and available vegetation; the composition and strength of the herd; and potential hazards ahead.
Yet there are increasing barriers to free movement. These include the gazetting of land for nature conservancies; the blocked off zones of new green wind farm projects; the expansion of settled farm communities; and the potential for conflict with rival groups when scarcity bites.
There are several traditional land use management systems designed to mitigate resource conflicts and preserve pasture. The most sophisticated is practised by the Borana, an ethnic group that straddles the Kenyan/Ethiopian border. Known as dedha (pronounced “detha”), it divides pasture into three zones: “wet” when water is plentiful, “dry” after the rains, and “drought” – to be used only in emergencies.
But these systems need strengthening. “Traditional governance and range management systems [like dedha] are trusted, and therefore can be important to protect mobility,” said Hussein Wario, with the Centre for Research and Development in Drylands. “But they are informal and need to be backed at the formal government level, so people that breach [their provisions] are taken to court.”
Losing a generation
Bona Duba, 24, rides a “boda-boda” motorbike taxi in Marsabit. Two years ago, he owned more than 50 cows, but they are now all dead, taken by the drought in a slow-motion disaster.
He earns about $2 a day riding for the bike’s owner, yearning for his previous life but knowing it’s probably over. “I miss my independence, being able to buy what I wanted – it’s a life I knew and understood,” he told The New Humanitarian.
Herding is facing a growing labour shortage as young men are forced out by livestock losses and head to towns looking for work or aid – or are sent to school by their parents as a hedge against climate uncertainty. It’s another structural change that could have a long-term bearing on pastoralism’s sustainability.
“All my children have gone to school,” said Maximilian Galway, a member of the Marsabit County government. “I’m sure the young man herding my animals will one day send his children to school as well.”
Mobile schools – to improve educational access for pastoralist children – would be a helpful fix if properly promoted, noted Gargule. “Pastoralists shouldn’t have to choose between their livelihood and education,” he said.
Yet pastoralism remains supremely adaptable. Despite the pressures its faces, “at least 70% of people in the drylands still get 100% of their livelihood from livestock,” Gargule told The New Humanitarian.
Do no harm
Traditionally, pastoralists see livestock as much more than an economic asset. The animals are also cultural capital, tied to the customs and ceremonies integral to pastoralist life. When sold, it’s usually to cover immediate household needs.
Hassan extols the pastoralist ethos of communal solidarity – distinct from the privatised individualism of the market. “There are rules and informal ways that strengthen the meaning of belonging and identity,” she said. “These principles of reciprocity and support create the bonds of kinship and community.”
The community’s response to crisis is often based on local networks of brokers that pastoralists call on in times of need – so-called “reliability professionals” – who can provide quick cash, or knowledge, and who, studies show, are trusted far more than NGOs and government officials.
Increasingly, however, urban-based livestock owners like Galway are absent pastoralists, hiring young men to herd – a wealth divide reflecting the increasing commercialisation. Rather than large herds kept for prestige, these often white-collar men and women are investing in breeding animals for the market.
“Pastoralism can be overly romanticised,” said Wako of Mercy Corps. “An increasing number of pastoralists, like myself, see it as a lucrative business. It’s a cultural phenomenon, but also people have to make a living. That’s the way pastoralism is going.”
Yet markets and value chains are weak in the north, the legacy of historical under-investment in a region perceived by successive governments as far less valuable than the cash crop-producing south. How pastoralism develops in the future – whether it becomes more commercially driven, or stays largely traditional – will depend in large part on levels of market access, said Galway.
A bit of both
Despite their resilience and systems of coping, pastoralists were pushed to the wall by the recent unprecedented drought, and people are now learning to adapt to a potentially difficult future.
Turbi is a small settlement 120 kilometres north of Marsabit. The community was hit hard by the five seasons of failed rains – losing on average 90% of their livestock. When The New Humanitarian visited in October, they were preparing, as best they could, for the heavy rains expected with the approaching El Niño by moving their surviving animals to higher ground.
But they have also been experimenting with a market garden, diversifying away from a strict reliance on pastoralism. None of the men and women from the surrounding villages had farmed before. As they initially had no tools, they used sticks to prepare their beds of carrots, spinach, watermelon, and maize – irrigated by an old pump connected to a borehole that provides water for their animals.
Turbi’s bottom-up farming experiment is an attempt to reduce the risks of pastoralism, not supplant it. “People still see a future in pastoralism, but it’s going to change,” Isak Hurti said, as he showed off the vegetable garden. “Everyone fears another drought, so people will keep fewer animals and diversify into crops and business.”
Such attempts to adapt pastoralism – to make it work better in today’s more challenging times – badly need more government support as it is, after all, the only production system that really works in this environment, according to Hassan.
Regardless, change is happening. “It’s transforming on its own, taking a different form as both a livelihood and cultural practice, but it will remain recognisable,” she added.
Edited by Andrew Gully.