James Shakita had raised cattle for more than 30 years when he decided the only way to save his livelihood was to break with generations of tradition and swap some of his cows for crops.
The Maasai herder, 43, used to keep about 180 animals until a severe drought hit southern Kenya’s Kajiado County last year and decimated his herd, leaving him with fewer than 80.
“I just gave up,” he sighed, directing his remaining cows into a field for grazing.
In the past, the nomadic Maasai tribespeople shunned crop farming for livestock-keeping.
But as worsening drought linked to climate change destroys the pastures they depend on to feed their cattle, a growing number are turning to agriculture for extra income.
Shakita, realising he could no longer rely on cattle for a living, sold a few of his cows last year and used the money to sink a borehole for irrigation. Then he devoted a third of his 30-acre (12-hectare) farm to planting kale, onions and tomatoes.
His first harvest made him more than Sh2 million ($19,333).
That allowed him to support his family and gave him the flexibility to better manage the size of his herd by buying and selling cows in line with Kenya’s increasingly erratic weather.
“Pastoralism is not treating me well at all. Losing animals year after year has weighed me down over time,” Shakita said with a weary smile. “I feel crop farming is my salvation.”
More than 232,000 livestock died in Kajiado County alone during the 2017-2018 drought, most while in search of pasture, Moses Ole Narok, former county executive committee member for agriculture, told reporters in April last year.
Government data shows that figure represents almost a quarter of the total number of cattle in the county.
As drought and a boom in housing development eat away at available grazing land, the number of Maasai herders taking up crop farming has grown by 40% over the past decade, said current county committee member for agriculture Jackline Koin.
“The frequent droughts have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of farmers in Kajiado. More crop farms are sprouting all over the county,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Koin said the country had registered more than 5,000 farmers who were previously solely herders.
Down the road from Shakita’s farm, another herder Brian Kikon, 30, also grows onions and tomatoes on a small piece of his family’s expansive 45-acre (18-hectare) farm.
Kikon said integrating livestock and crop farming brought in extra money and had let his family reduce the number of cows they keep, meaning fewer to feed.
“I saw some of my neighbours practicing agriculture and I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’ It was new, but with a little help from my neighbours, I got the hang of it,” he said.
Kikon has the right idea, according to Wilfred Subbo, a professor of development anthropology at the University of Nairobi, who said all Maasai herders should be shrinking their herds if they are to survive Kenya’s frequent droughts.
“Pastoralism is becoming unsustainable in this day and age,” he said. More Maasai should also consider rearing hybrid cattle, such as the Holstein-Friesian dairy cow, he added.
One of the most popular breeds of hybrid cattle in Kenya, Friesians are zero-grazing cows, meaning they live on farms and eat hay and fodder instead of travelling around with herders looking for pasture, Subbo explained.
Harry Kimutai, principal secretary for livestock in Kenya’s agriculture ministry, believes the effects of climate change will eventually force all Maasai to change their ways.
But convincing them to move away from herding is not easy, he said in an interview.
“Among the Maasai community, without cattle you are literally a nobody,” he said. In Maasai culture, a community member’s wealth and social standing is measured by how many heads of cattle they own, he explained.
“So saying the Maasai will substitute cattle for crop farming is far-fetched. But definitely they will cut back on their livestock and complement it with crop farming.”
To encourage pastoralists to make the move, the Kajiado government has constructed 500 water pans to harvest rainwater for use by herders to irrigate crops, said county official Koin.
The new pans are narrow, making it harder for animals to drink from them and take the water meant for farms, she added.
The county has also started supplying herders with high-yielding crop seeds and training farmers on sustainable cultivation techniques, including more efficient water use.
Shakita, however, believes the answer lies in a government-run abattoir.
During a drought, herders rush to sell their livestock, leading to a meat glut in the market, the Maasai farmer said.
Private butchers are often unable to accommodate all the herders who need their meat processed, leading to waste and lost income, he added.
At the same time, many butchers exploit the pastoralists’ desperation, paying far below the market price for their cows.
With its own abattoir, the government could help stabilise the market and allow herders to sell their cattle at the going rate, Shakita said.
That way, the Maasai could preserve their centuries-old way of life, he concluded.
“I will not stop rearing livestock, I love my cattle,” he said. “But I will integrate (herding) with crop farming. I need a livelihood - I have mouths to feed.”