Five survival strategies for drought-affected livestock herders in East Africa

Community EmpowermentEnvironmental sustainabilityLivestockNatural ResourcesResilience

For many people in East Africa, the current drought is the worst in living memory. Pastoralists have been hit particularly hard by this drought, which has left many of them without most or all of their livestock. In many of these cases resilience isn’t necessarily the answer as people are not able to go back to the livelihoods they used to have.

The recurrent and worsening droughts are forcing changes to pastoralists’ lives and livelihoods. Against this backdrop, research published in December 2017 by Tufts University, based in Massachusetts, United States, demonstrates growing inequality among herders as they struggle to respond to the droughts and weather unpredictability. In particular, it draws attention to five key ‘pathways to resilience’, or strategies to better cope with the conditions without falling into crisis.

A woman with her weakened cow caused by drought in Didadi Village, Central Marsabit, Kenya. Photo: Ralph Hodgson


There is a need to diversify income streams. As an alternative to sheep and goats, cows could be introduced in wetter areas and camels in drier areas. Livestock production is not about to disappear but more and better ways to benefit from animal products are needed – such as production of milk and yoghurt. It is also important to maximise value in country, rather than relying on the export market. 


There is a need to improve access to markets. For example, through better price and demand information, better linkages between buyers and sellers, and clear product quality expectations. Ultimately, it is about livestock herders making higher and more consistent income from their animals as well as choosing and having the means to buy and sell according to price and climate forecasting. With increasingly frequent droughts this may mean buying more drought-tolerant breeds or selling animals while still healthy before they become weak from lack of pasture. 

Better natural resource management 

Increasing commercialisation is leading to more private control of pasture land and breakdown of communal environmental management. Strengthening institutions that govern communal and sustainable access to grazing land and water is a way to help smaller herders and the land they depend on. For example, encourage meetings between existing institutions' committees, local livestock herders and local government with responsibility for livestock and the environment. This allows them to hear each other's issues and decide what they want to do differently. A committee that is not really working can benefit from meeting another that is functioning well in the same country, to ask questions and learn. This has worked successfully with self-help groups in Somaliland.

Pastoralist communities such as these in Sabawanaag village, Somaliland, rely on the meat and milk from their sheep, goats and camels. Drought causes huge numbers of livestock to be wiped out or become weak and susceptible to disease. Photo: Colin Cosier

Meeting allows them to hear each other's issues and decide what they want to do differently.

Mobile phone use 

As mobile phone networks have increased coverage and the cost to own and use phones has come down, phones have become more important for herders. By using simple SMS (text messaging), key information is available about access to water and pasture land, as well as weather forecasts, the location and cost of veterinary services, and outbreaks of violence to avoid. 

Education and skills training 

Better education and practical skills make getting a job or starting a business more likely. This enables the diversification of income streams mentioned above. General literacy and numeracy seem to be important – in helping to communicate clearly and understand opportunities as well as to underpin business skills. The type of vocational skills needed will depend on local demand and often on which jobs are seen as appropriate for men and women to carry out in a particular context.

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Chris McDonald
Chris McDonald is Global Risk and Resilience Lead at Tearfund. Email: