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Kenyan herders switch to farming as droughts worsen

by Gitonga Njeru | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 7 July 2011 10:13 GMT

As worsening droughts bring more hunger and poverty, the government is helping pastoralists transition to agriculture

NAIROBI, Kenya (AlertNet) – Frequent droughts are causing a share of Kenya’s cattle herders to abandon their longstanding tradition of livestock farming in favour of growing crops, in an effort to increase their income.

Poor rainfall over the past several years, likely related to climate change, has resulted in increasing levels of hunger and poverty in the east African country, prompting President Mwai Kibaki to declare a national disaster on May 30.

To cope with the changing conditions, the government, in partnership with the World Food Programme, has developed a programme called Njaa Marufuko Kenya (Kenya Hunger Halt). Through education and assistance, it aims to help a share of the country’s six million pastoralists switch from herding to crop production.

“With a high incidences of severe drought in pastoral areas, we are working closely with the communities in sustainable agricultural activities. They are continuously losing their cattle herds and many have in the past not known crop farming,” said Philomena Chege, head of the new programme.

The herders are switching primarily to farming wheat, millet and maize, as well as fruit, mushrooms, and some crops for cattle feed.


Narok County, in the southwest of Kenya, has seen the biggest uptake of the livelihood-switch initiative since it began in early 2010, according to Chege.  As many as 35,000 Narok pastoralists and their families are participating, and a further 20,000 herders in other parts of the country have so far signed on.

The government says the annual cost is nine billion Kenyan shillings ($100 million).

Justus Ole Ngruone, 34, lives and works in the capital city of Nairobi but farms one hectare (two acres) of land in Kajiado, an hour’s drive away.

“Livestock farming in a drought-prone area was a big risk,” said Ole Ngruone. “I lost three-quarters of my cows during the 2009 drought. It was a major heartbreak. I depended on them for milk and also income derived from the milk sales.”

Now, however, government assistance has enabled Ole Ngruone to invest in planting crops on his farm, where his wife and daughter live. He grows millet, wheat and maize, and keeps a few milk cows and rabbits. His cows feed on calliandra, a drought-resistant tree rich in protein that helps them yield more milk.

The program is also helping introduce irrigation technologies to drought-prone areas, and encouraging primary and secondary schools to grow food on their land to teach pupils about agriculture.

At Ongata Naado Primary School in Narok, pupils have planted crops on about half of the school’s 22 hectares (54 acres), part of an effort to teach them the importance of food security. Pupils eat the harvest crops, something government says encourages them to attend school, and the extra food alleviates hunger and helps them to concentrate on their studies, school officials say. 


However, while some Kenyans are beginning to accept crop farming as part of their daily lives, many ethnic Maasai families – traditional herders - are reluctant to participate in the programme. Maasai culture views livestock as both a sign and source of wealth, and some farmers resist selling their herds.

Mzee Ole Moyoi Sankale, 81, is a herder who has refused to venture into crop farming on his 5-hectare (13-acre) piece of land. Sankale, who has four wives and more than 25 children and grandchildren, regards his 60 cows as a crucial asset. 

“When my sons marry, I use a few a cows to pay the family of the bride,” said Sankale “If you don’t pay the bride price, your son remains single. It is very important to have several cows.”

In spite of their traditions, however, an increasing number of Maasai farmers are giving crop farming a try, in some cases while retaining their herds.

During drought conditions this year, pastoralists in Narok have been relatively little affected as many had already switched to growing crops and were no long reliant solely on their herds.

Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.

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