Can markets help build resilience of pastoralists against drought?

Food SecurityLivelihoodsLivestockResilience

In Kenya, pastoralists’ communities live in some of the harshest environments and their livelihoods have been severely hit by recurring droughts.

Women traders at Merille Livestock Market. Photo: Food for the Hungry
Women traders at Merille Livestock Market. Photo: Food for the Hungry

In late 2018, Food for the Hungry, supported by Tearfund, decided to explore what opportunities markets and market systems can create to build resilience1 among pastoralists in Marsabit, one of the major livestock producing counties in Kenya. The research is based on interviews with 388 pastoralists and will be published later this year. 

Market limitations

The research found that whilst markets and market systems can play a significant role in assisting pastoralists during the drought, in their current state, markets in Marsabit offer limited survival options for pastoralists to cope with droughts. 

Though some market structures exist in Marsabit, the use of markets there is still low. The access of pastoralists to markets is often limited; some pastoralists have too few livestock to sell and the research also found that many pastoralists in Marsabit prefer informal to formal markets. Ensuring pastoralists’ stronger participation in the development of markets could help to address their limited use of markets. 

The long distance to markets also led to low market participation, especially among pastoralist women, people living with disabilities and elderly traders. Inter-ethnic clashes, as well as livestock disease outbreaks, have further undermined pastoralists’ market access by leading to frequent market closures. 

Due to the reasons above, many pastoralists in Marsabit have failed to benefit from the markets. Among other things, the markets offer potential to generate income to purchase food and to provide employment and other important items not available in the local production system. They also serve as an outlet for the disposal of assets and local produce. These could have helped the pastoralists to cope better with the impacts of the drought.

Many pastoralist women have to travel a long distance to market. Photo: Food for the Hungry
Many pastoralist women have to travel a long distance to market. Photo: Food for the Hungry

Building resilience

There is need to reduce the vulnerability of pastoral households to recurrent droughts. Our research showed that only 17 per cent of the households received early warning information during the 2016/2017 drought and that only 4.1 per cent of the households did something to prepare for the drought. This indicates that early warning mechanisms should be improved – followed by more effective early action. 

More support is also needed to enable pastoralists to participate effectively in commercialised livestock production. This could be achieved by helping them to form livestock marketing groups and training them in business skills and financial literacy so that they can effectively utilise existing livestock market infrastructure. 

There is also a need to help pastoralists to add value to their livestock products. For example, they could work with development partners and the private sector. This would open up opportunities to support the development of milk, meat and skins value chains in the county. Both national and county governments should provide security to guarantee the safety of pastoralists as well as market actors from inside and outside the county. 

Finally, our research found that formal education matters a lot in drought-resilience building and reducing vulnerability. Therefore investing in education, school feeding programmes and raising awareness of the benefits of education is critical. 

As we are writing this, the drought conditions in the Horn of Africa are already evolving and nearly one million Kenyans are expected to encounter heightened food insecurity due to the failure of rains. As pastoralists are often marginalised and sidelined in policy processes, it is important to support relevant global initiatives. These include the push for a UN resolution designating an International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists (IYRP).


1capacity to cope with shocks and stresses without leading to crisis, and to recover quickly

Sini Maria Heikkilä, Jackson Wachira and Alex Mwaura
Sini Maria Heikkila is Senior Public Policy Analyst at Tearfund UK. Jackson Wachira is Lowlands Cluster Manager at Food for the Hungry-Kenya. Alex Mwaura is Programs Director at Food for the Hungry-Kenya