New approaches helping farmers beat drought

Organizations working with herders in Kenya to adapt herd size to climate and collect hay

ALAGO ALBA, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Ibrahim Hassan would usually be preparing his livestock at this time of the year for a 100 kilometre trek toward greener pastures along the River Tana in northern Kenya.

Like many here, Hassan knows his livestock will die if he does not move the herd ahead of the looming dry season, which hits between January and March.

However, the 58-year-old has decided not to move this year. His reason is stacked in heaps of hay protected under a grass-thatched shed at his home in Alago Alba.

“When the rains have fallen and there is pasture, I collect as much as I can and then store it in bales to prepare for the dry season,” said the father of six.

“This saves me the long and dangerous journey in search of pasture.”

The old technology of cutting and baling hay is making inroads as a form of climate change adaptation in northern Kenya, where worsening droughts have increased the length and uncertainty of migrations to find pasture and at times led to worsening conflict over scarce water and grass.

The problems faced by livestock-owning families in northern Kenya is clear at a remote automated weather station at the Dertu Millenium Village centre, which shows that rainfall readings can remain at zero for many days during the dry season.

The solar-powered unit also shows that wind speeds can be as high as 40 km-h and daytime temperatures increasingly high.

The station operates as “a drought early warning system,” said Samuel Mbalu, a database manager at the station. Without such help, “herders lose their livestock to the drought while families flee their homes in search of food and water,” he said.

The Dertu Millennium Village is one of the communities testing ways to end extreme poverty through sustainable development.

The villages were established by organizations such as the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the United Nations Development Programme.

For the decade or so he has worked at Dertu, Mbalu has repeatedly tried to convince the community to reduce their herds to manageable levels when the dry season is about to set in. Few have been persuaded.

“The herders believe that reducing the livestock is taking away (their) livelihood and prestige in society,” Mbalu said.

“They would rather have their stocks die than sell.”

However, a few, like Hassan, have taken up some of Mbalu’s other ideas, including baling hay to get animals through the dry times.

Saving more animals in drought periods is having far-reaching effects in the community.

Classrooms at the Dertu Boarding Primary School are full of children busy with lessons, which is a change from the times when boys would have been home assisting their families with preparations for the migration in search of pasture, said Sofia Ali, the school’s head teacher.

She said the girls would previously have been married off to reduce families’ burden of coping with drought.

One of these would have been 13-year-old Halima Hassan, who is in Class 4. She is Ibrahim Hassan’s daughter.

“I was tempted to marry her off, but I am happy I did not. She is now getting an education thanks to a settled life,” Hassan said as he rationed handfuls of hay to his healthy looking cattle at his home.

Other changes are also underway.

Nunow Rage, 35, said her husband’s decision to reduce his herds and cut hay rather than migrating has allowed her to invest in a clothing business at the Dertu shopping centre.

“When my husband sells the livestock, he gives me a share of the money to buy stock for the business,” said the mother of four.

“When the drought is too much, I use the savings to buy food for my family.”

Nunow said a settled life has also helped reduce child mortality in the area, partly because she and other mothers can take their children to the Dertu Health Centre if they face problems.

Northern Kenya isn’t the only place where hay baling is winning converts. Youth groups at the Mwea irrigation scheme in central Kenya are baling dry rice straw and selling it as livestock fodder, said David Bundi, chair of the Kiratina Hay Product youth group.

He said a 14 kilogram bale of hay can fetch as much as $7, and some of the group’s production has been transported as far as northern Kenya to feed livestock dying of drought.

Bundi hopes the government will begin supporting such innovations, both to provide jobs for young people and help the country deal with worsening drought.


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