Pastoralist community shifts to farming

Climate changes and conflicts are leading to a paradigm shift

In Summary

• Thanks to the Walda irrigation project, Marsabit residents are changing their livelihood.

Marsabit Agriculture executive Hawo Shako chats with farmers when she visited Walda Irrigation Farm
Marsabit Agriculture executive Hawo Shako chats with farmers when she visited Walda Irrigation Farm
Image: Abdikadir Chari

Pastoralism is a socio-cultural and economic way of living that is reliant on the rearing of livestock. It’s the main source of livelihood for pastoralist communities living in the Northern part of Kenya for a decade.

Pastoralists depend on livestock and a bit of subsistence agriculture, depending on the environment in which they live. More often, pastoralist communities turn their livestock into an economic advantage, as there is an increased demand for meat and other animal products across the country and region.

In Marsabit, most residents believe livestock keeping is a valued and profitable way of life, with a rational explanation behind each action. They value it as expression of wealth and object of social prestige or status, and those with herds of animals are praised in every traditional song. Livestock keeping, according to them, is an insurance, as it provides social links through bride price. The raising and herding of livestock is a matter of life and death.

Pastoralists have perfected the art of survival, raising their livestock in some of the most harsh and unforgiving environments.

However, rampant conflicts over grazing land,water and animal diseases have become a problem to them. The scarce natural resources and unpredictable weather patterns, with rains that come after long intervals and prolonged drought, are increasingly becoming the norm.

But now, thanks to the Walda irrigation project, at least 124 households from Walda location in Marsabit county are transitioning from pastoralism to farming.

The project has not only changed their livelihood but that of the community in the county. Some 64ha under irrigation have produced various vegetables, including watermelons, kales and spinach. Locals are currently harvesting and making the county food-secure.

Kenya Red Cross liaison officer Samuel Sambat is optimistic that supporting pastoralist communities with climate smart policies, reducing vulnerability to drought and raising healthy livestock through timely vaccines are all necessary to adapt to the ecological harshness of the area.

He said bringing more water into the land will not only improve food production but allow farmers to move from subsistence farming to growing and selling greater quality of food crops. He said the irrigation project was supported by four boreholes.

Sambat said the project has enabled the community to grow fast-maturing vegetables like watermelons and spinach, and this has greatly improved food security.

He urged the county and national governments to note the link between the food production problem and social and climate difficulties, resulting in recurring famine.

Farmers who spoke on the benefits of the project said their lives have changed for better. They said they are feeding the rest of the county residents, and the prices of the vegetables have also gone down.

Wario Abdi said he is happy to have taken up farming. “Previously I depended on pastoralism, but over time, the rains are becoming less and less, and I’m unable to find pasture and water for my livestock,” he said.

The Kenya Red Cross and of Marsabit government give their support in terms of seeds, fertiliser, agrochemists, fencing of boreholes and teaching the community how to improve their resilience to cope with the negative impacts of climate change.