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After drought, Kenya's herders hammered by coronavirus curbs

by Wesley Langat | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday, 27 June 2020 07:00 GMT

A herder tends his cattle near the village of Erankau in Kenya’s Kajiado County, June 19, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Wesley Langat

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Livestock-keepers had been hoping for a good year to help them recover from drought but have struggled to sell their animals as pandemic disrupted markets

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By Wesley Langat

KAJIADO, Kenya, June 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Peter Olankai, who keeps cattle, sheep and goats, has struggled to buy and sell his animals in Kenya's Kajiado County as the coronavirus pandemic closed markets and ushered in movement restrictions and curfews that have eaten away at his income.

"Our livelihood is reliant on livestock - we sell these animals to get money to buy food and other family needs, but now we can't," he said earlier this month.

Olankai, 46, lives in Kisamis village in remote Maasai territory where there is no road network and connecting with buyers is a challenge.

Now at home with his four teenage children, the family's daily spending on food has gone up significantly.

In 2018 and 2019, their community was hit hard by drought but this year, they have had a lot of rain and the livestock are healthy and in good condition.

Olankai replenished his herd and hoped to fetch a decent price for his animals - but his plan has been ruined by market shutdowns aimed at stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"Sometimes when I need money, I call one of the livestock buyers but it's hard for them to come because of movement restrictions," he said.

"We are the most disadvantaged as a community."

As COVID-19 cases in Kenya continued to rise, and community transmission became more common, the government tightened control measures, including further restrictions on movement in and out of Nairobi, for another 30 days until early July.

This has made business tough for James Mburu in the town of Kiserian, 27 km (17 miles) southwest of Nairobi, who buys goats from the Maasai community to sell in the capital.

"Since the market closed, I have lost about 300,000 shillings ($2,800) and getting goats for slaughter is very expensive," he said.


The COVID-19 response has disrupted the livestock marketing system in the area, with many of the brokers who drive animals from the bush to the markets halting their activities for now.

Traders like Mburu have had no choice but to go into Maasai country to collect livestock from individual keepers. "Before... the pandemic, I used to buy about 100 goats per week but now getting even 20 goats is hard," he said.

He hires a pick-up van and drives for almost 80 km to buy goats, which leaves him with a loss because he pays two youths to come with him, as well as about $10 for fuel.

Mburu also owns two butchers' shops supplying meat to the town's biggest hotels but has had to close them and send home five employees due to the dwindling supply of goats for slaughter.

A 2019 report on the future of Kenya's livestock sector by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization showed that about 3.6 million households keep cattle, contributing 40-73% of their income.

A herder tends his cattle near the village of Erankau in Kenya’s Kajiado County, June 19, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Wesley Langat

Leonard Leakey Ritei, Kajiado County Chief Agriculture Officer, said the livestock sector supports more than 300,000 households in his county, with animals kept to pay for essentials rather than making a profit.

"Our county is predominantly a livestock area and big fractions of the population are dependent on livestock trading. For people to get food and meet other family needs, they have to sell these animals," he said.

But following Ministry of Health guidelines to control COVID-19 meant closing open-air markets, leading the county government to incur losses averaging nearly 549 million Kenyan shillings ($5 million) in revenue collection per month.

It is now planning a phased reopening of major livestock markets from Monday, after ensuring they can comply with coronavirus prevention protocols, Ritei added.

The government is also providing food aid to vulnerable residents to cushion the financial blow, he noted.


The pandemic is further complicating recovery from the losses communities suffered due to serious drought a year ago.

Olankai's neighbour, cattle-keeper Moses Saninko, said he lost more than 100 cows to the drought. He worries he might not be able to afford to pay for his children's education.

"When the markets open, everyone will be selling their animals and the market will be flooded - hence it will be a double loss, and getting money to pay school fees will not be easy," he said.

The incomes of livestock-keeping communities are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic, said Ameha Sebsibe, head of livestock and fisheries at the IGAD Centre for Pastoral Areas and Livestock Development, which covers East Africa.

Sebsibe flagged the negative consequences of the pandemic for the region's market in livestock products, noting that the price of cattle, sheep and goats in Kenya's Samburu County dropped 40-60% in April from a year earlier due to low demand.

The IGAD centre has prepared a regional COVID-19 response plan, which it has submitted to donors, recommending the use of online marketing, easing of restrictions on animal movement, and awareness-raising on COVID-19 control for pastoralists.

($1 = 106.4000 Kenyan shillings)

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(Reporting by Wesley Langat; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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