Building resilience among pastoral communities in the wake of crises
Dr. Githaiga Kamau, Action Africa Help International &
Kim Kariuki, Busara Center for Behavioral Economics
A number of economic sectors in Kenya have experienced adverse effects as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. And pastoralists too are feeling the heat of a global pandemic that surges ahead, with Kenya recording over 4000 cases by mid-June 2020.
Although no cases have been confirmed in Mara, Narok West Sub-count, where Action Africa Help International (AAH-I) have on-going projects, the impact of the COVID prevention measures has disrupted a number of livelihoods activities in the area. Over the last two months, AAH-I has been closely monitoring how these disruptions have affected the lives and livelihoods of the community.
AAH-I has worked in the area since 2004 and for the last five years has actively supported the community on livelihood improvement initiatives targeting the key value chains the community is engaged on. The current project is supporting the organizing of producer groups into formal Cooperatives and CBOs, with 4 cooperatives and 1 CBO actively engaged in supporting their members to reduce costs of production, adapt to climate change effects, enhance marketing, and diversify into alternative value chains. 3 youth groups and 27 women groups are actively supporting each other to learn basic literacy, create a saving culture as well as improve their incomes, and build their asset base. AHH-I use of its immersive approach and participatory design has managed to achieve the seemingly impossible task of driving behavior change among pastoralists by:
- Interrupting the status quo, and challenging social norms around what are “male” and “female” roles
- Increasing agency for women and youth, enabling them to participate fully in income generation activities
Through these interventions, women in the Mara actively participate in livestock value chains – an activity that is culturally primarily dominated by men. To avoid competition, women groups purchase livestock at the markets, fatten these, and sell at profit to bulk purchasers. In addition, financial support to increase capital to lend each other in women and youth groups has resulted in an acceleration in the growth of micro-enterprises owned by women and youth. A project evaluation carried out by the Busara Center for behavioral economics revealed that women’s decision making at household level was directly correlated to their increased incomes from the micro-enterprises, indicating a significant impact on women empowerment.
Livestock rearing that is a traditional mainstay of the Maasai has previously been plagued by the community’s inability to adapt to the changes in their environment, leading to major losses in total numbers as well as value. The community has shown great ability to learn after exposure to modern production systems leading to the adoption of new and improved management approaches to cope with climate change like management of grass banks and seasonal grazing, as well as improved breeds that both tolerate the climatic conditions as well as return higher value in the market.
By learning to organize through groups and Cooperatives, the community has created a platform through which various gender and age demographics are able to acquire new skills, increase incomes and build their asset bases, thereby boosting the overall community liquidity and economic productivity.
The outcome of this is a community with an increasing sense of its own agency acquiring power for decision making both internally as well as externally and therefore increasing its ability to influence and access resources from county and national government structures.
AAH-I has been monitoring these changes within the community in the last five years and has gradually adapted its interventions to target emerging challenges as it facilitates learning within the community to be able to build resilience and sustainable community structures. However, the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic has thrown a new twist to this reality.
Life among pastoral communities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic
Before COVID-19, communities were actively engaged in the weekly market days, where pastoral communities would exercise agency on what livestock classes are offloaded (and when) to maximize profits.
Tourism formed a major source of livelihood for Maasai people by either working directly or indirectly in the Maasai Mara national reserve. The peak seasons are normally between the month of June and October with over 118 hotels fully booked.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in all these activities grinding to a halt with markets closed, tourism business all but collapsed and the hotels closed in the first half of the year. The impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of the Maasai community has therefore been massive and shocking.
It has been interesting to watch how markets quickly adapted to the new reality with traders initiating informal markets where they reach out to the farmers directly, aggregate the livestock and organize for these to be transported to major slaughterhouses in Nairobi. As expected, the adaptation mechanisms are yet to find an optimum balance. Currently, the market is distorted in favor of the buyers leading to poor prices for the farmers as supply outstrips available buyers. In addition, transportation of the animals has been hampered by poor aggregation thereby increasing costs as buyers have to collect animals in dispersed areas. This has been exacerbated by heavy rains experienced in March – April 2020 period that led to flooding, significantly affecting the existing infrastructure. With bridges being washed away, there’s a high potential for further supply-side disruptions.
The collapse of international flights has led to a near-total collapse of the tourism industry with all the hotels having shut down leading to a serious disruption on tourism-related incomes for the community. The extent of the losses has not yet been fully understood but its impact as an alternative source of income for the Maasai community in the greater Mara ecosystem is significant.
Observing the adaptive capacities of the women-led micro-enterprises has also shown that as a relatively new and weak sector, it is still very vulnerable to unexpected disruptions. However, it has been encouraging to see a number of women selling some consumer goods from their homes to their neighbors and set up selling points along the main roads and in small towns. This is an indication of developing resilience in many of these women who were previously fully dependent on their husbands for their income and household consumption.
For many of these women, the women groups have been a critical platform for learning and access to capital for running their businesses. The stoppage of meetings because of the necessity for social distancing has been very disruptive to them. The high levels of illiteracy mean that the new imperative for use of mobile money and virtual meetings has become a major hindrance for them to access this social support mechanism and brings to the fore the necessity for County and National Government to prioritize adult education. COVID control measures are likely to widen the marginalization gap for women among pastoralists due to illiteracy and it is essential that policymakers are made aware of this if we are to leave no-one behind in the drive to achieve the global SDGs.
One of the more worrying trends that are emerging in the area and indeed Country-wide is teenage pregnancy. Closure of schools is exposing the inadequate protection of girls in their homes. Girls are exposed to sexual exploitation and gender-based violence which puts them at risk of health and reproductive crises as well as early marriages and continues the cycle of women marginalization in many communities. For instance, two cases have been reported to the local administration in the Naikarra ward; one case of teenage pregnancy while another case concerning early marriage. COVID-19 is, therefore, amplifying the issues of girl-child vulnerability and the need for protection. This is now an urgent imperative at intervention both at the policy as well as local level.
Dr. Githaiga is the Country Director for Kenya and Somalia programs of Action Africa Help International. He has experience working in fragile and marginalized communities in East Africa that spans 17 years. He is passionate about building resilience and sustainable development among communities.
Kim is an Engagement Director at Busara with an interest in supporting individuals to exercise agency today for better outcomes tomorrow. The focus of his current project portfolio is to drive uptake of digital financial services, improve agricultural practices, and enhance the usage of clean energy solutions. He is passionate about youth, gender, employment, and resilience among under-served communities.