Known as “Kenya’s philanthropy port” for many years, now communities in the arid and semi-arid Northern Kenya are shaping their future based on the desire to improve their lives.
Leading this perk of transformation are Samburu, Marsabit and Isiolo counties.
Listed among the arid and semi-arid lands (Asals), comprising the 80 percent of Kenya’s land mass, the northern rangeland has been characterised by prolonged underdevelopment due to insecurity caused by banditry, cattle rustling, and inter-clan and inter-tribal conflicts.
The volatility has often spilt over to neighbouring counties, including Laikipia, Meru and Tharaka Nithi.
However, the region has great untapped economic potential.
“After receiving support for a long time, we have decided to become our own transformative economy. The beginning is slow but the wind of change is blowing in the right direction,” says Isiolo County executive for Water and Sanitation Josephine Eragai.
“As leaders, we want to influence our people to embrace change and be responsible for ourselves and our generation’s future.”
Insecurity has been one of the impediments to progress for the region.
“However, we are addressing it by challenging the leaders to advise their respective communities to take advantage of devolution and interact with modern development,” says John Legei, a security adviser in the Isiolo governor’s office.
“If there is an early warning of a conflict about to occur, they should tone down their public comments that can fuel inter-community clashes and cooperate with security agencies to maintain peace.”
On Sunday, June 13, six morans were killed in a clash between two herding communities, the Samburu and the Turkana. The incident, which left several other people injured, occurred in the Buffalo Spring conservancy run by the Isiolo County government, about 10km from Isiolo town.
“There are pockets of violence contributed by infiltration of illegal firearms. We are conducting an interactive dialogue among community leaders, chiefs and security agencies to stop accepting to use illegal firearms and to surrender those they have,” explains Mr Legei, a former chief in Isiolo County.
“In one of the programmes being implemented by Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), the youths (morans) are acquiring vocational skills.
Apart from cattle rearing, they are applying the skills to do other jobs,” says Jane Jillo Katelo, Marsabit County deputy director for Tourism, Culture, Gender and Social Services.
Part of her role entails training and coordinating women’s economic and social welfare programmes such as beekeeping and beadwork.
“We need women to become conscious of their negative role in conflicts. They are not just victims of the conflict; they are usually the active inciters of their men. Occasionally you will hear a woman telling her husband, ‘Go and fight for our community, we will be exterminated’,” Ms Katelo remarks.
Regarding beadwork, 500 women have been trained on a market-driven approach.
“We missed out on the international market because of shipment delays or colour mismatches. European and American clients prefer different colours depending on the season, and timekeeping along the production chain is critical to reaching the market within a particular season,” says Esther Mwanyama, senior programme officer with the Ushanga Kenya Initiative in the State Department of Culture.
Community-driven economic activities
After many years of supporting basic needs such as food and water, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is one of the groups that have changed their approach.
“We realised that underdeveloped societies can emerge out of poverty if we provide them with skills to nurture, protect and manage their local resources for their own economic empowerment,” says Meshack Muga, FAO national project coordinator.
Based on this principle, the concept of Integrated Management of Natural Resources for Resilience in Arid and Semi Arid Lands (Imara) was conceived in 2018 in the four counties of Marsabit, Samburu, Isiolo and Laikipia.
In Swahili, ‘Imara’ means ‘stability’. “The aim of Imara is to combine community-driven economic activities with development agendas that are based on sustainable environmental resources’ management adaptable to each region,” says Dr Rocio Diaz-Chavez, SEI-Africa deputy director for the research, energy and climate change programme.
“In putting both conservation and economic gain at the centre of people’s hearts, families will see a better need to protect the environment since they don’t want to lose an income when resources are depleted. I have seen this approach work in Mexico, where I was born.”
One such project involves restoring community pasture lines to reduce grazing conflicts and animal mortality during droughts.
With financial support from the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), Imara is spearheaded by World Vision, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Northern Rangeland Trust.
It is run by a secretariat that meets regularly to review progress made under the five flagship programmes focusing on bee farming, indigenous poultry management, beads and eco-tourism, gums and resins farming, and pasture and livestock management.
One of Imara’s objectives is to restore deforested and degraded lands through promoting bio-enterprises in non-wood forest products (NWFPs) such as medicinal plants, gum and resin, dyes and tannins, palms and grasses and indigenous fruits and nuts. The plants are
major sources of food, medicines, fodder, gums, fibre, cosmetics and cultural products.
For instance, the potential production of gum arabic is estimated at 24,000 metric tonnes, which could fetch Kenya $60 million (Sh6 billion) annually. Gum arabic is used in pharmaceutical industries, food and confectioneries, adhesive works, paint making and printing.
Similarly, the annual potential production of resins (myrrh, hagar and frankincense) is put at 10,135 metric tonnes that can fetch the region $101 million (Sh10.1 billion).
Resins are used to produce cosmetics, flavours and medicines, insect and snake repellents, dyes and acaricides. The northern region is also home to 60 species of aloes, occurring mainly in the wild.
The 1992 UN conference on economic development underpinned the importance of NWFPs in supporting livelihoods. A 2014 FAO report stated that in 2011, Africa generated about $5.3 billion out of NWFPs, which is 0.3 percent of the continent’s GDP.
Lack of policies and regulations, inadequate data on resource distribution within Asal counties, lack of certified planting material, poor collection, limited market information and access for local communities are some of the challenges facing the gums and resins sectors.
“In all of the five programmes, formation of cooperative movements is assisting the communities to harness their bargaining power against unscrupulous marketers,” says World Vision programme manager Simon Mbuki.
Regarding cultural barriers, Irene Kanana, a bee farming trainer of trainers in Samburu and Isiolo counties, told a stakeholders’ meeting in Isiolo town that men from Isiolo, Samburu and Meru counties do not allow women to harvest honey because “it demeans a man”.
Women in some of the regions are not supposed to eat honey, let alone harvest it or keep beehives.
In cases where men harvest honey at night on behalf of women, it makes accountability a speculative issue. To overcome the cultural barrier, trainers have been incorporating men in women’s chamas, associations and cooperatives, to appreciate their income activities.
“Even then, convincing men that honey harvesting should be done during the day by somebody wearing a harvesting suit for quality standards is still an uphill task. I am referring to men who wear loose shukas and not trousers and who traditionally have grown to harvest honey at night!” she says.
Honey sector regulation should focus on quality that leads to product diversification to offer farmers a wide range of products for bigger market access, says Wycliff Nyakundi, a quality and standards manager at Bee Care Apiaries International Ltd.
Even with alternative sources of livelihood, says Northern Rangeland Trust CEO Vishal Shal, the nomadic and pastoral communities still depend on livestock, which they believe form the basis of their livelihood.
“We have created the ‘livestock to market’ business model that offers mutual benefits for both the NRT and the communities within conservancies where we operate.”
A policy is needed in counties that emphasises applying veterinary meat inspection on chicken slaughter and sale, to avert the risk of zoonotic diseases that could erode consumer confidence, says Denis Marangu, Kulamawe Poultry Industries managing director.