Donkeys: Beasts of burden transform lives in rural Kenya

Kirinyaga County is among regions where residents have greatly benefited.

In Summary

•Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (KENDAT) notes these animals are critical to households as a transport mode.

•Early this year, Kenya banned commercial slaughter of donkeys.

Mary Muthee, a donkey champion in Nguka, Mwea with her donkeys in a communal shelter built at her home supported by KENDAT following rampant donkey theft in Kirinyaga County/COURTESY
Mary Muthee, a donkey champion in Nguka, Mwea with her donkeys in a communal shelter built at her home supported by KENDAT following rampant donkey theft in Kirinyaga County/COURTESY

Animal drawn carts are common in rural Kenya where domestic animals remain a critical transport mode.

The lead agent in this is mostly the donkey, which has for long been used around the world as beasts of burden.

According to research by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), a donkey, on average, provides transport services worth Sh11, 400 per month.

They support livelihoods and generate income for the most marginalized households in rural Kenya, which explains why there were protests recently leading to the ban on commercial slaughter of donkeys. 

The trade in donkey meat and hide was legalised in 2012, but a report last year warned that the rise in their slaughter could wipe their population by 2023.

Despite their importance and efforts to save them, their social and economic contribution is overlooked in development policy.

According to Eston Murithi, CEO Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (KENDAT), these animals are critical to households as a transport mode.

They create economic security, social status, empowerment to marginalized groups such as women and the very poor, and provide a sense of companionship to their owners.

“It is time we shift our focus to the beast of burden and try and empower our rural people on the importance of donkey to the entire agricultural value chain,” Murithi notes.

Margaret Njoki, a donkey owner in Ndorome Village, Kirinyaga county, attests to how the beast has changed her life, since the day she purchased her first donkey.

These animals are common in the county often visible on roadsides pulling carts from rural areas to busy markets and town centres or carrying packs of firewood and goods on their backs to homesteads.

Less visible is the critical contribution they make to the development and support of people’s livelihoods in rural, peri-urban and urban areas across the country.

Here, donkeys provide transport, food security and income generation to some of the poorest and most marginalized households, yet donkey contributions to human livelihoods remain largely unexplored.

Their social and economic contribution creates a significant need to account for and represent these animals and their owners within practical development discourse.

“In our village, life was terrible since we would walk kilometres to fetch water carrying it on our backs. We could only manage a trip a day and the water was never enough for domestic use,” Njoki narrates.

But since KENDAT empowered the community on the importance of donkeys, she notes there has been a huge difference in her household income.

She owns two donkeys and have since been able to support her husband in caring for the family, where on a daily basis, one donkey fetches an income of between Sh600 and Sh1, 000.

“My husband uses one donkey in construction sites where the animal transports material and water while I will use the other one to fetch water and transport rice from farm to the millers,” Njoki explains.

“This has enabled us to educate our children with lots of ease. We have also bought a parcel of land on which we plan to construct semi-permanent rental houses. All these projects have been successful because of the donkey,” she adds.

Through KENDAT initiative programme dubbed ‘Heshimu Punda’ Njoki has been able to construct a donkey shelter for her animals.

KENDAT educated us on the importance of donkey shelter and this has improved the health status of our animal. They have also sensitized us on the need to treat the animal, feeding schedule and general donkey welfare, I must say that I have seen a huge different on the animals,” she says.

A kilomtre from Njoki’s homestead lives Mary Wambui, an owner of three donkeys.

“Owning a donkey in our village is considered rich since they are the driver of the village economy. Income from my donkeys has enabled me to construct a house and purchase other animals. My life has transformed since I started owning a donkey,” Wambui says.

But keeping the animal has not been that easy for one group of small holder farmers known as Ndorome Getuto Donkey Riders, as narrated by its chairman James Gachoki.

The 12 member group recalls how their donkeys could disappear when the slaughter houses were operational.

“The demand for donkey really fueled the theft of donkeys in Kirinyaga County and other parts of Kenya. You will wake up and find the donkey is gone, only to find the body parts in a bush,” Gachoki recalls.

In a week, the group could lose between 5-10 donkeys.

“This forced us to spend nights outside guarding our source of income,” he narrates.

He has since lauded the ban on donkey slaughterhouses that was put in place earlier this year by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, and Cooperatives.

Gachoki adds that since the ban, donkey owners are having peaceful nights not having to worry that they will wake up and find their animals gone.

“We deem the move to court by the abattoirs as a sign of bad things to come should they reverse the decision by the CS. This will greatly affect our only source of income,” Gachoki says.

KENDAT has been working with locals to sensitize them on the importance of donkey protection.

“Most of the locals here didn’t own a donkey shelter and the animals will be left outside the homes, sleeping on harsh weather conditions. This negatively impacted their health status, making them less productive hence low income,” KENDAT chief executive Murithi said.

“This is the main reason why as a player within the agricultural sector, we sensitize rural farmers on the importance of donkey shelter and how it has positive impact on the psychological aspect of the animal,” he adds.

He urges policy makers to realize that donkeys’ versatility cannot be overlooked.

“Donkeys all over the world support growing economic landscapes and are a part of the social and cultural fabric of human society,” Murithi notes.