As the coronavirus pandemic has dried up vital tourist dollars for Kenya's Maasai, one entrepreneur is finding ways to diversify sources of income for a community-run conservancy
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By Nita Bhalla
NASHULAI MAASAI CONSERVANCY, Kenya, Aug 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Nelson Ole Reiyia first tried to get his Maasai community to plant kitchen gardens around their mud-and-thatch homesteads, clean up a nearby river and make honey, hardly anyone listened.
The 2,000 Maasai living next to Kenya's most famous wildlife reserve were already making a living from their cattle, as they have for generations, and from hordes of safari-going tourists.
"They had their livestock and the tourists, so they didn't have the time and weren't really interested," said Reiyia, founder of the community-run Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, bordering southern Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve.
"Then COVID-19 happened. The livestock markets and slaughter houses closed. The tourists stopped coming. Now they are more open to suggestions and we have started a number of projects, from making hand sanitisers to growing kale and spinach."
Like many indigenous communities that depend on tourism, Kenya's semi-nomadic Maasai living in the vast savannah by the reserve have seen their livelihoods devastated by the new coronavirus pandemic.
The Maasai Mara is most popular in July and August when millions of wildebeest, zebra and other herds migrate northwards into Kenya from Tanzania's Serengeti - but visitor numbers have plunged this year.
Vital tourist dollars earned from lodge and camp stays, game drives, village tours and handicrafts have dried up, but 46-year-old Reiyia has turned the crisis into an opportunity and found other ways for the community to earn an income.
"We started the conservancy with the aim of doing three main things: conserve the wildlife, preserve our culture and reverse poverty in our community," he said.
"The pandemic messed things up, but we are trying to find ways through it. We have seen how tourism has a soft underbelly and is susceptible to shocks so we also have to look at living more sustainably."
Since Kenya detected its first coronavirus case and sealed its borders in March, Reiyia was quick to teach the Maasai about the importance of social distancing, handwashing and masks - and to raise money for poor families hard hit by the virus.
"We started crowdfunding to help us provide weekly rations of food items like oil, sugar, beans, maize flour to some of the most vulnerable families," he said.
"But we realised we had to find ways for them to generate some income."
The conservancy decided to train villagers in beekeeping, growing vegetables to eat at home or sell to neighbours, and taught women to make soaps and hand sanitisers for the community and sanitary pads to sell in the local market.
Established to help landowners and communities sustainably manage and conserve the wildlife and their habitat, Nashulai is one of 15 conservancies located around the Maasai Mara which collectively provide income to about 100,000 people.
The conservancy - five times the size of New York's Central Park - was founded by Reiyia in 2016 and is unique in the Mara as the Maasai herders and their livestock live alongside wildlife such as giraffe, zebra and antelope.
Since he was a young child herding cattle in the open grasslands around the reserve, Reiyia said he had seen how Maasai land had been slowly sold off to outside buyers for tourism purposes.
The first boy in his village to go to secondary school and then later to college in Nairobi where he studied hospitality and tourism, Reiyia returned to set up Nashulai to preserve the land of the Maasai and their identity.
"For the Maasai, our land is a very important part of our way of life and culture, but growing up in the Mara I had seen the community selling their land to outsiders due to poverty. Before too long, I felt we will have no land left," he said.
"We wanted a conservancy which was 100% owned and managed by the people, rather than by foreign safari operators who have made people leave their land after buying them off. If we continue like this, where would the Maasai go?"
The conservancy employs 100 people in jobs such as rangers, lodge staff, tour guides and provides income through lease payments to the Maasai landowners who are shareholders, collectively benefitting some 2,000 people.
Since its establishment, the community has taken down more than 25 km of fencing, re-opening the land to native wildlife, including ancient migratory routes and birthing grounds for elephants and bringing back endangered African wild dogs.
Profits from eco-tourism have built two primary schools for 300 children, increased access to clean water, and sent 100 girls to boarding schools. The conservancy also has a centre training youth in tourism and conservation.
In January, Nashulai won the Equator Prize 2020 - a prestigious United Nations award which recognises indigenous community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
During the pandemic, Reiyia has even found time to begin a new environmental project - restoring the health of the local Sekenani river, which wildlife, livestock and people depend on.
Overgrazing, illegal sand harvesting and logging have caused soil erosion and reduced water levels so community members have planted tree saplings along its banks and removed tonnes of plastic waste and rubbish from the river.
"The pandemic has made life difficult for the community, but we are also seeing people are more willing to try other things to earn some extra money and improve their lives," said Reiyia.
"Sometimes good things can come out of bad things and I believe we must use this time as an opportunity to make our communities stronger."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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