With farming still a taboo among pastoralists, the switch has been culturally tough - but rewarding, new farmers say
By Sophie Mbugua
ABAQDERA, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The drought of 2011 that afflicted the Horn of Africa was the last straw for Abdulahi Ali. The pastoralist from Abaqdera, a village in Northern Kenya's Garissa County, lost almost his entire herd of cattle.
"I had 50 cows and only three remained, and out of 30 goats only six remained after the drought," he said.
Lukia Muhamud, Ali's wife and a mother of seven, said even now droughts remain "more frequent nowadays. Most of our animals have died while the ones that survive are too weak," she said.
Such pressures are what have driven the family to forsake pastoralism for agriculture - a radical move in a community where livestock confer social status.
Ali's family is one among 20 that, despite strong disapproval from the rest of the community, have embraced farming and registered the Tawakal farmers group in Garissa County.
Yusuf Abdi, chairman of group, says the nomadic community had little choice but to change its ways.
"Our animals have died in huge numbers. We had to find an alternative," he said.
In 2011, more than 13 million people in parts of Ethiopia, Northern Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia were affected by failed rains, and many have been hit since by worsening climate change-related dry spells.
The region's erratic weather underscores how many pastoralists live on the edge of crisis, facing the loss of livestock and ensuring hunger and malnutrition. Frequent droughts and flooding have left the community dependent on food relief.
SWITCH TO IRRIGATED CROPS
Seeking an answer, African Development Solution, a Nairobi-based international nongovernmental organisation, introduced "agro-pastoralism" in 2013 as an alternative means of livelihood for communities such as Ali's.
Abshir Mohammed Abdi, senior programme officer for the project called Resilience and Economic Growth in the Arid Lands - Improving Resilience (REGAL-IR), argues that dependence on livestock is not sustainable as a result of increased population, climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources and increased water demand.
To start the farming project, each member of the farmers group contributed 1,500 Kenyan shillings (about $17) towards the costs of clearing 7.5 acres (3 hectares) of bush, and toward buying a water pump and registering the group. Each member is responsible for a half-acre plot.
Samal Lokuno of REGAL-IR said that the farming group identified business opportunities and developed a business plan. Group members now contribute part of the costs for things like seed and fuel for the irrigation pump, while REGAL-IR picks up the difference.
As well as receiving training in business skills, farmers are linked up with government agricultural departments, Lokuno said.
The new farmers are growing watermelons, tomatoes, chilies, capsicums, maize, bananas and onions. Irrigation comes from the Tana River, the only permanent river in the county, which rises in the Aberdare and Mount Kenya ridges of central Kenya and runs through the arid and semi-arid lands in Kenya's east to the Indian Ocean.
Lokuno argues that using Tana water for farming is sustainable as the river is not prone to dry up in droughts and is not overused by the irrigation scheme or by several dams upstream.
Under an agreement with the county government and local water users association, which is responsible for ensuring equitable access to water, irrigation is limited to 12 hours each day.
THE FARMING TABOO
Farming is considered a taboo among the pastoralist Kenyans of Somali descent who live in the north of the country. It is traditionally considered the lowest possible economic venture one can undertake.
"I was seen as someone who had lost hope in life. But I had lost everything. What is a man with three cows? What else was there to lose?" asked Ali. "All I needed was to feed my family."
His wife was initially opposed to her husband's proposal to give up pastoralism.
"I was disappointed when he said that he wanted to venture into farming. That was the lowest thing he could do. It was a shameful thing at the moment," Muhamud recalled.
Now, however, he is in his third season of farming maize, watermelon and chillies on his half-acre of land. His best harvest so far was in August, when he grossed $370 from sales of his produce.
Muhamud now works late on the farm and is always the last person to leave their plot.
Gedi Sambu, a member of the Tawakal oversight committee, says that profits from the project have helped the community build residential quarters for teachers to encourage them to remain at the school in the remote area. Plans are now underway to expand classes.
The former pastoralist families, who moved to Abaqdera during the 2011 drought to access food relief, are no longer dependent on aid and say that both their families and the few livestock they still own have sustainable sources of food and water.
Malnutrition and anemia have both declined since the agriculture effort began, families and officials said.
"We depended on milk, meat or relief maize. Now, my children eat fruits and vegetables, something we never had before. Frequent hospital visits have reduced drastically too," Muhamud said.
(Reporting by Sophie Mbugua; editing by Laurie Goering)
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