Meet proud Lamu donkey owners earning as high as Sh10,000 per day

Loaded donkeys in Lamu Island.

Photo credit: Kalume Kazungu I Nation Media Group

Ambacha ukucha punda uyao is a common phrase used on Lamu island.

But ironically, the reference is not shouted to warn pedestrians of an incoming vehicle but donkeys.

In Lamu, the islanders can identify the beasts of burden by their face or through branding.

Since the island has no motorised transport, locals rely on the animals for transport and to move goods.

And the job pays well.

Nation.Africa sought to unearth why the donkey transport industry in Lamu has in recent times attracted many people, including those with university and college degrees who have swallowed their pride and are fully engaged in the trade.

Ali Mohamed, a donkey owner and operator in Pamba Roho, started his donkey business in 2011 after completing college and failing to secure a job.

Since then, he has never thought of abandoning the work.

He owns 15 actively working donkeys that have enabled him to earn between Sh3,000 and Sh9,000 per day.

Their daily duties involve carrying construction materials, farm produce and other cargo within the archipelago.

“I was frustrated after failing to secure a job. It reached a point where I gave up and started the donkey transportation business. At that time, I had only two donkeys that I inherited from my father. I used to earn between Sh500 and Sh1,500 per day,” said Mr Mohamed.

He says today he is a proud and content man.

“Since I have made a name for myself in the industry, many clients always seek my donkey transportation services. One trip ferrying building blocks or bags of cement from Lamu town to Kashmir, for instance, costs not less than Sh600. With my 15 donkeys, if all are hired at once, it means I earn Sh9,000 in a single trip or day. I have no plan to quit this venture,” said Mr Mohamed.

Mr Omar Kidege, another donkey operator in the Kandahar area in Lamu Old Town, expressed disappointment over the misconception concerning donkey transport operators.

He said most of them are despised.

Mr Kidege, who has been in the industry for 35 years, reiterates that the donkey job has enabled him to educate two of his children up to university.

“Once you introduce yourself as a donkey operator, people have no interest in you anymore. Some don’t even respect you. But we understand that the society is used to recognising those working in offices,” said Mr Kidege.

“What they don’t understand is that most of us working in the donkey industry are getting good money. I have six donkeys and earn not less than Sh3,600 per day. 

“In a good month of working uninterrupted, I can earn up to Sh108,000. This has enabled me to educate my children and I have no plan to leave the industry no matter what.”

Abdulrahman Ali reveals that the work is admirable, interesting, and exciting.

“If respect is awarded depending on how much somebody earns, then donkey operators should be at the top of that list. I can attest this industry is amazing. I have been a donkey operator for the past 10 years and I don’t regret it,” said Mr Ali.

Alwy Ahmed lamented that society always looks down on people who do jobs that don’t involve office work.

“I have a colleague working in an office and earning Sh30,000 per month. And this friend is always required to report to the office by 8am, and leave at 5pm daily,” he said.

“As for me, I consider myself self-employed. I can decide to wake up today, work extremely hard and get not less than Sh10,000 just in that single day. I am content. Even in the lowest working month, I don’t earn less than Sh35,000 just by operating my donkeys.”

It is also worth noting that donkeys are expensive in Lamu and not everyone can afford to buy one.

A donkey can fetch between Sh30,000 and Sh100,000, depending on its kind, colour, and the duties it performs.

“For a working donkey, you can buy it for between Sh45,000 and Sh60,000. We also have donkeys that are for entertainment, including those used for various competitions, including donkey races and pageants. You can’t acquire such animals for less than Sh80,000. Some are sold for as high as Sh120,000,” said Yusuf Hussein, a donkey owner.

Donkeys are the major means of transport on the more than 35 islands in the Lamu archipelago. Lamu Old Town alone, for instance, has more than 3,000 donkeys.

The donkeys are part of the charm of Lamu Old Town, a Unesco world heritage site that continues to attract tourists.