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The changing face of pastoralism

Martha Lebasale, a resident of Marsabit district in northern Kenya, who has abandoned pastoralism for hawking
(Noor Ali/IRIN)

Along a small seasonal stream in Ewaso Nyiro village in Narok, southwestern Kenya, Leleseina Nkoitoi sells vegetables from a stall whose bright colours contrast with the parched landscape.

“I decided to use the water from this small stream to make my small vegetable farm,” said Nkoitoi. 

“Walking long distances to look for pasture was not helping me with anything; now I make my money and I can buy little things for myself and my children.”

In the past, Nkoitoi, like other rural women from the predominantly pastoralist Maasai community, looked after a small herd of livestock, the home herd, which is left behind for the family’s sustenance when the rest of the herd migrates with the men in search of pasture. 

Recurrent droughts and subsequent livestock deaths, as well as the closing off of important migration routes due to privatization of sections of the drylands for large-scale agriculture, are forcing pastoralists like Nkoitoi to diversify into agriculture and the market economy.

Pastoralism is estimated to account for about 10 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 95 percent of family income among pastoralists, according to estimates from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture. Experts, however, say the economic contribution of pastoralism to national economies could be higher, if its indirect benefits were taken into account.

“The failure of national statistics to calculate the Total Economic Value of pastoralism - figures that are collected focused very narrowly on direct benefits [milk, meat, hides and skins] failing to calculate the huge indirect benefits pastoralism brings to the wider economy,” said Ced Hesse, a senior researcher on drylands at the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

From the sale of her crop of cabbages, Nkoitoi told IRIN that she now earns up to 2,000 shillings (about US$24) a day.

“Every day, I make good money and I am able to save. Now I even have a bank account and I keep my money there,” she said. “Now even if drought comes, I can go to the bank and get money to buy food for my children.”

Women are playing a key role in pastoralists’ diversification, according to a recent report published by the Regional Learning and Advocacy Programme (REGLAP).

"In the past and simply put, men tended to have more roles in and responsibility over livestock, and women over household tasks and childcare. Today, some key changes can be seen," the report says.


Katherine Bundra Roux/IFRC (p-DJI0104)
Pastoralist communities in the Horn of Africa are some of the hardest hit by the drought. They rely on livestock for income and food, and the lack of water only increases their existing vulnerability
Dimanche, octobre 23, 2011
The changing face of pastoralism
Pastoralist communities in the Horn of Africa are some of the hardest hit by the drought. They rely on livestock for income and food, and the lack of water only increases their existing vulnerability

Photo: Katherine Bundra Roux/IFRC (p-DJI0104)
Pasture is becoming harder to find (file photo)

Besides taking up agricultural activities, pastoral women are also migrating to work as domestic servants, in restaurants and breweries, for example in Uganda’s Karamoja region, leaving the men to work in the homestead plots, adds the report.

Forced to be innovative

According to the coordinator of Narok’s Ewaso Community Development Organization (ECDO), Paul ole Lenges, dwindling livelihood opportunities are forcing many people, in particular pastoralist women to be innovative. 

“Pastoralist communities love their culture but if there is one thing that will make them adapt to changing realities, it is climate change,” said Ole Lenges. “Drought means you [do not] have enough pasture for huge herds of livestock and you have to reduce [the herd size] or move into something else… As these communities adapt, they need to be guided and helped to have sustainable livelihoods” he added. 

ECDO has trained some 1,000 women on good soil management, seedling management and crop handling. “Getting into crop production is one thing and getting something better out of it is important,” he said. 

Alternative livelihood sources could help reduce resource-based conflicts in pastoral areas, he said. 

“Pastoralists are always migrating, but because resources that they used to share are reducing they constantly fight over them because people are becoming more individualistic as opposed to communal. Many people are now using their farms for agricultural production.”

According to Ole Lenges, women can help to improve food security and the economic situation of pastoralist communities if they are well trained.

“If climate and other factors will upset the traditional source of food for these pastoralist communities, then women can, with adequate training on agricultural production, lead their families out of perennial food insecurity,” he said. “Women change and adapt more quickly and I believe they will transform agricultural production among their people over time.”

Outmoded strategies

While drought is not strange to pastoralist-inhabited regions, its impacts have become greater because of externally driven factors which have rendered strategies used by pastoralists to respond to droughts ineffective, experts say.

“The impacts of drought, in particular, are much greater than they used to be in the past, not because the droughts are… any more intense than they used to be, but because of a range of externally driven factors that mean the strategies used by pastoralists to respond to droughts are not as effective. Pastoralists have lost access to strategic areas of land they used to use in drought years, mobility of livestock has been seriously undermined due to borders, regulations, controls as well as the spread of rain-fed crop farming into the rangelands,” the IIED’s Hesse, told IRIN.

The issue was less about how pastoralists can adapt to climate change, and more about how policy can support pastoral strategies that allow them to continue producing high value protein foods in areas that cannot be used sustainably by other food-producing systems like irrigation farming, he said.

Pastoralism remains the most sustainable economic system for arid and semi-arid lands in which it thrives; the economic contribution of pastoralism to countries’ economies have been significantly underestimated because it was believed to be backward, he added.

Pastoral women tie their milk jerricans to a waiting truck. Jijiga, Ethiopia

Nena Terell/USAID
Pastoral women tie their milk jerricans to a waiting truck. Jijiga, Ethiopia
Mercredi, septembre 1, 2010
Pastoralism against the odds
Pastoral women tie their milk jerricans to a waiting truck. Jijiga, Ethiopia

Photo: Nena Terell/USAID
Dwindling livelihood opportunities are forcing many people, in particular pastoralist women to be innovative (file photo)

“Pastoralism, if it is allowed to function properly and in response to the dynamics of the arid and semi-arid lands… is the most sustainable economic system for these areas that will support millions of pastoralists directly, many more millions of people indirectly through the value chain of its products [like] milk, meat, manure for farmers, coexistence with wildlife and thus the whole tourism trade,” Hesse said.

Pastoralism directly supports an estimated 20 million people in eastern Africa. In Ethiopia, for example, it provides 80 percent of the country’s annual milk supply, and 90 percent of the meat consumed in east Africa.

Improve or eradicate?

According to Enoch Mwani, who teaches agriculture at the University of Nairobi, most government policies across the region have failed to focus on putting measures in place to ensure better livelihood outcomes for pastoralists, choosing instead to preoccupy themselves with how to eradicate it.

“Many government policies view pastoralism as a problem and are more preoccupied with changing it or replacing it, instead of striving to put measures in place to make it better”, said Mwani.

Hesse said it was due to this preoccupation with eradicating pastoralism that many governments had continued to underestimate its economic contribution to their economies.

“It is politically expedient to under-value something you wish to change and whose land you want to alienate for private profit or for other reasons,” Hesse told IRIN.

A 2011 study by Weber and Horst entitled Desertification and livestock grazing: The roles of sedentarization, mobility and rest concluded that "management systems be re-considered and supplanted by more inclusive planning processes focused on better managing the spatio-temporal aspects of grazing (animal impact and the duration of grazing periods) as one step toward improving rangeland ecosystems through the use of livestock as a solution to the problem of land degradation. Such an inclusive planning process will need to take into account not only livestock grazing, but the entire livelihood of the pastoralist and the environment in which he/she lives.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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