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As extreme weather drives rustling, pastoralists turn to farming

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 April 2013 23:30 GMT

Former pastoralists Joseph and Pauline Elila and their family thresh sorghum harvested from their fields in Nambeyo village in Kenya's semi-arid Isiolo County. ALERTNET/Isaiah Esipisu

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Personally, I have given up on pastoralism. I think farming is much safer," says one former herder in northern Kenya

ISIOLO, Kenya (AlertNet) – In Nambeyo village in Kenya’s semi-arid Isiolo County, former pastoralist Joseph Elila and his wife Pauline are busy threshing sorghum to remove the grain from the stalks. The couple has been converted into smallholder dry-land farmers after they lost their entire animal stock to cattle rustlers two years ago.

The area is well known for pastoralism. But this kind of livelihood is threatened by worsening banditry, something experts say is a result of more extreme weather.

Herders living in areas where animals have died due to drought and related disasters have long been tempted to raid and steal animals from neighbouring communities to replenish their stocks. But as the disasters come more frequently and banditry rises, some hard-hit communities are abandoning herding altogether, said Hussein Abdullahi, a pastoralism research scientist for the Future Agricultures Consortium and a lecturer at the Kenya’s Pwani University.

In Isiolo, hundreds of families have made that change, with support from the government and non-governmental organizations that are equipping them with farming skills and giving them other support.

“We have now settled for farming. At least this way, we will avoid conflicts with neighbours who are always out to steal our animals,” Elila said.

Simon Edonga, the area chief for Burat location in Isiolo West, applauds the residents’ switch to alternative livelihoods. But community leaders, with support from local government authorities, also have been holding meetings with neighbouring communities, aimed at brokering peace in the area and stemming the raids.

“We will use all means available to ensure that Isiolo is once again a peaceful area. So far, some bandits have been arrested and are awaiting judgments,” Edonga said.

Figures at the Isiolo district peace and conflict resolution committee offices indicate that some 298 people have been killed by bandits in the county since 2009, and more than 25,000 animals stolen.

Elila recalls the month of September 2010, when armed bandits raided several villages in Isiolo and stole hundreds of animals, injuring herders in the process. Among the stolen animals were 20 cattle, 18 goats and four sheep belonging to him and his father.

“That is all we had. And stealing the animals meant that our livelihood had been taken away,” the 30-year-old father of three told AlertNet. “I have witnessed many other people suffer ruthlessly in the hands of the bandits. I have seen people die. And I have seen houses go up in flames. For that reason, I do not wish to keep animals any more.”


The former pastoralists have organised themselves into 16 groups, with 25 members each, to form what are known as Farmer Field Schools.

The schools offer adult education, based on the theory that “farmers learn optimally from field observation and experimentation,” according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.

In Kenya, the educational drive has been taken up by several organisations who help farmers learn from each other on how to solve food insecurity problems in different ecological conditions. In Isiolo, for example, ActionAid International Kenya supports the schools, with backing from the government.

Elila made his first effort to grow maize immediately after his animals were stolen. But the crop did not withstand the 2011 dry spell in Kenya’s North Eastern region.

Now, however, after learning about drought tolerant crops through Nekone Farmer Field School, he has planted a fast-maturing sorghum variety known as gadam, and had much more success.

“I have already harvested 25 90-kilogramme bags of sorghum. I’m now looking ahead to selling some of it,” he said.

One of the ready markets for sorghum is East African Breweries Limited, which has expressed interest in buying the grain for beer making.

Other former herders have moved to different agricultural activities, from fish farming to poultry keeping.


“We thought of fish because there are no chances that anybody will raid our homes, torch our houses and kill people with a primary objective of stealing fish,” said John Losunye of Meritapen Farmer Field School in Kalili village, in the outskirts of Isiolo town.

“Personally, I have given up on pastoralism. I think farming is much safer. With the few resources available, I am convinced that I will be able to feed my family without worrying about bandits,” Losunye said. 

His group has introduced 1,000 tilapia fingerlings in their first fish pond, and expect to have their first harvest in four months.

On his three-hectare piece of land, Losunye also has introduced drought tolerant crops including millet, beans, and onions.

The changes fall within a Kenyan government effort known as Vision 2030, designed to boost the country’s economy by encouraging Kenyan farmers to invest in agricultural activities beyond rain-fed agriculture as a way of coping with climate change.

Farmer groups may be able to receive funding from the programme, though Losunye’s group has yet to present a formal proposal for funds.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist specialising in agriculture and environment reporting. (esipisus@yahoo.com)

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