How to bring pastoralists into modern economy

Kenya’s 15 million pastoralists in the northern arid and semi-arid part of the country own 75 percent of our country’s livestock herd, which is valued at around $1 billion and contributes significantly to our GDP.

But we all know what a hard time these pastoralists endure, in areas that suffer from a serious water deficit and are disproportionately affected by below-average rains. Droughts occur there every few years, and climate change is exacerbating the problem.

2021 has been a year of below-average rains in Northern and North Eastern Kenya, but this follows good rains in the previous three years — which had led to a rapid increase in livestock numbers and hence now to massive overstocking. The downturn in tourism precipitated by Covid caused further distress, resulting in serious loss of income to many pastoralist communities and leading to them selling livestock for food.

By the end of this year, drought will begin killing off many more livestock, their prime asset base. And as we build up to the 2022 elections, all the ingredients are in place for a repeat of the 2017 politically-induced mayhem in Laikipia. Even now, so much of the violent conflict in northern Kenya is a result of clashes over water supply, with politicians still playing a far from innocent role.

Efforts by the government, development partners, NGOs and others are too often focused on costly last-minute humanitarian assistance. Not enough has been directed at building sustainability. Where it has, the dilemma between retaining cultures and traditions and integrating these into new economic models has not been adequately conceptualised.

In Turkana, the County Integrated Development Plan, supported by development partners, provides for initiatives aimed at improving the livelihoods of its pastoralists, including by engaging them in agriculture. It’s hard though, requiring a mindset transformation, as their culture is so fundamentally built around pastoralism.

Indeed, when a few young Turkanas sold off some livestock to buy boda bodas and earn a living that way in the Kakuma Refugee Camp their elders were not amused. “Who will look after our herds?” they posed, but more fundamentally they saw that the activity would not result in any asset growth. (We also know that the overwhelming number of all farmers in Kenya are deeply conservative and slow to adopt new approaches.)

Pastoralists are largely of an oral rather than a literate culture. But this does not mean they are at all uneducated in the context of their harsh environment. Quite the contrary. They are of course infinitely better suited to survive there than any outsider, however learned. Not being able to write does not preclude remarkable memory and numeracy skills. And improved memory skills are an essential trait of survival in oral cultures.

It’s good that we who live in a literate economic world should offer suggestions on how to stimulate the cultural change needed to bring pastoralism into the mainstream modern economy. But we must do more open listening to the pastoralists’ knowledge and experience, to their hopes and fears. And we must not do so patronisingly or otherwise insensitively, for this will inevitably lead us to fail.

We must practice the art of “humble inquiry” (to quote the title of Prof Ed Schein’s book – one of my favourites) and so build mutual respect and trusting relationships. Then we’ll be better placed to learn of each community’s true pain points, those beyond the obvious ones such as finances, health and education, corruption and bureaucracy, and youth unemployment.

The challenge for all of us together is to enable pastoralists to grow steadily as economic communities, while being buffered from the effects of drought on their livelihoods.

There is no simple or unique solution to the pastoralists’ plight. Rather, we must pool our ideas and develop an array of approaches, ones that are compatible with existing cultures and that may well vary by community.

The initiatives should also enable not just the pastoralists but the whole country to benefit from the opportunities thus created, now and into the future.

It’s time these marginalised communities — in which one finds plenty of great leadership — are engaged with more actively, innovatively and practically, so their livelihoods can stabilise. If this comes about, the vulnerability to droughts, the aggressive competition for water, and the vulnerability to manipulative politicians, will be transformed.

What the new Kepsa leadership promises

Towards the end of last month I logged in to Kenya Private Sector Association (Kepsa’s) 17th annual general meeting, and what an impressive event it was.

CEO Carole Kariuki Karuga reeled off the highlights of the year’s activities and achievements, and as we heard them all listed together we could hardly believe that such a wide array of issues had been handled or that such a significant positive influence had been brought to bear on the wellbeing of not just the private sector but of Kenyans generally.

It’s not surprising that we learned lots that we had not been aware of, as so much of what Kepsa does happens quietly behind the scenes. As I wrote in one of these columns a few years ago, much of Kepsa’s work can only be effective if it is done behind closed doors and in small groups or one-on-one . So many are unaware of what it is doing (which all too often leads quite a few to assume that it isn’t doing very much), and it’s not always appropriate to shout about it.

As one of the founding directors of Kepsa back in 2003 I am proud of how successive leadership teams, at both the board and the secretariat levels, have continued expanding Kepsa’s circle of influence. No wonder it is the envy of private sector umbrella organisations around Africa and beyond.

The other element of the AGM I wish to highlight was the report by Lee Karuri of Kepsa’s Nominations Committee recommendations for the incoming board. For a number of cycles now this committee (composed of some of the organisation’s past leaders – including me) studies the upcoming board needs and selects a balanced array of men and women from different sectors and professions; some new, some renewed. Our proposals are then put to the members at the AGM for ratification.

This managed democracy has worked extremely well – avoiding the kind of over-the-top campaigning and politicking seen in other institutions and ensuring the best mix of directors and the smoothest transitions.

To take over from chair Nik Nesbitt and Vice Chair Rita Kavashe (both of whom have performed outstandingly) we had put forward the names of Flora Mutahi as Chair and Jas Bedi as Vice Chair, having earlier ensured that if proposed they would be prepared to serve. Happily they were.

In Flora Mutahi’s acceptance speech she looked forward to Kepsa engaging more with small businesses, which I remember her trying so hard to promote when she chaired the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). It’s quite a challenge, I know, as leaders of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises are so operationally committed that it’s difficult for them to make the time to either contribute to or benefit from such members’ organisations. But like KAM, Kepsa has been working hard at finding viable ways of engaging them. (Some wrongly accuse Kepsa and KAM of only being interested in big business.)

She also looked forward to unlocking the potential within counties and regional economic blocs, and here synergy with the Chamber of Commerce and its county branches will be key.

Many Kepsa members would like its leadership to be more aggressive and outspoken in confronting government over issues such as corruption and bureaucracy; high taxation; and other impediments to doing business. But as I wrote in another article nearly a decade ago, we saw that a confrontational style rarely succeeds. Rather, constructive engagement, however less glamorous, is far more effective.

“Above all,” I wrote, “we found that you can’t beat sitting together in the same room, tackling common opportunities and problems. This is what builds trust and respect; this is what builds relationships. And as we got to know each other personally, our respective labels of ‘public sector’ and ‘private sector’ faded from our identities. We became just Kenyans, seeking a better Kenya.”

I noted then that “many businesspeople were so consumed with outrage over some government abuse that they found us far too polite, too compliant, and that we were just wasting our time. But I believe that in the long run the give-and-take, win-win approach of Kepsa and its members has paid off handsomely.” I am convinced that this is as true today as it was then.