Ideas & Debate

How to bring pastoralists into modern economy

herders

Samburu pastoralists. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Kenya’s 15 million pastoralists in the northern arid and semi-arid part of the country own 75 percent of our country’s livestock herd, which is valued at around $1 billion and contributes significantly to our GDP.

But we all know what a hard time these pastoralists endure, in areas that suffer from a serious water deficit and are disproportionately affected by below-average rains. Droughts occur there every few years, and climate change is exacerbating the problem.

2021 has been a year of below-average rains in Northern and North Eastern Kenya, but this follows good rains in the previous three years — which had led to a rapid increase in livestock numbers and hence now to massive overstocking. The downturn in tourism precipitated by Covid caused further distress, resulting in serious loss of income to many pastoralist communities and leading to them selling livestock for food.

By the end of this year, drought will begin killing off many more livestock, their prime asset base. And as we build up to the 2022 elections, all the ingredients are in place for a repeat of the 2017 politically-induced mayhem in Laikipia. Even now, so much of the violent conflict in northern Kenya is a result of clashes over water supply, with politicians still playing a far from innocent role.

Efforts by the government, development partners, NGOs and others are too often focused on costly last-minute humanitarian assistance. Not enough has been directed at building sustainability. Where it has, the dilemma between retaining cultures and traditions and integrating these into new economic models has not been adequately conceptualised.

In Turkana, the County Integrated Development Plan, supported by development partners, provides for initiatives aimed at improving the livelihoods of its pastoralists, including by engaging them in agriculture. It’s hard though, requiring a mindset transformation, as their culture is so fundamentally built around pastoralism.

Indeed, when a few young Turkanas sold off some livestock to buy boda bodas and earn a living that way in the Kakuma Refugee Camp their elders were not amused. “Who will look after our herds?” they posed, but more fundamentally they saw that the activity would not result in any asset growth. (We also know that the overwhelming number of all farmers in Kenya are deeply conservative and slow to adopt new approaches.)

Pastoralists are largely of an oral rather than a literate culture. But this does not mean they are at all uneducated in the context of their harsh environment. Quite the contrary. They are of course infinitely better suited to survive there than any outsider, however learned. Not being able to write does not preclude remarkable memory and numeracy skills. And improved memory skills are an essential trait of survival in oral cultures.

It’s good that we who live in a literate economic world should offer suggestions on how to stimulate the cultural change needed to bring pastoralism into the mainstream modern economy. But we must do more open listening to the pastoralists’ knowledge and experience, to their hopes and fears. And we must not do so patronisingly or otherwise insensitively, for this will inevitably lead us to fail.

We must practice the art of “humble inquiry” (to quote the title of Prof Ed Schein’s book – one of my favourites) and so build mutual respect and trusting relationships. Then we’ll be better placed to learn of each community’s true pain points, those beyond the obvious ones such as finances, health and education, corruption and bureaucracy, and youth unemployment.

The challenge for all of us together is to enable pastoralists to grow steadily as economic communities, while being buffered from the effects of drought on their livelihoods.

There is no simple or unique solution to the pastoralists’ plight. Rather, we must pool our ideas and develop an array of approaches, ones that are compatible with existing cultures and that may well vary by community.

The initiatives should also enable not just the pastoralists but the whole country to benefit from the opportunities thus created, now and into the future.

It’s time these marginalised communities — in which one finds plenty of great leadership — are engaged with more actively, innovatively and practically, so their livelihoods can stabilise. If this comes about, the vulnerability to droughts, the aggressive competition for water, and the vulnerability to manipulative politicians, will be transformed.