James Shakita had raised cattle for more than 30 years when he decided the only way to save his livelihood was to break with generations of tradition and swap some of his cows for crops.
The Maasai herder, 43, used to keep about 180 animals until a severe drought hit southern Kenya’s Kajiado County last year and decimated his herd, leaving him with fewer than 80.
“I just gave up,” he said, directing his remaining cows into a field for grazing.
In the past, the nomadic Maasai shunned crop farming for livestock-keeping.
But as worsening drought linked to climate change destroys the pastures they depend on to feed their cattle, a growing number are turning to agriculture for extra income.
Shakita, realising he could no longer rely on cattle for a living, sold a few of his cows last year and used the money to sink a borehole for irrigation. Then he devoted a third of his 30-acre (12-hectare) farm to planting kale, onions, and tomatoes. His first harvest made him more than Sh2 million ($19,333).
That allowed him to support his family and gave him the flexibility to better manage the size of his herd by buying and selling cows in line with Kenya’s increasingly erratic weather.
“Pastoralism is not treating me well at all. Losing animals year after year has weighed me down over time,” Shakita said with a weary smile. “I feel crop farming is my salvation.”
More than 232,000 livestock died in Kajiado County alone during the 2017- 2018 drought, most while in search of pasture, Moses Ole Narok, former county executive committee member for agriculture, told reporters in April last year.
Government data shows that the figure represents almost a quarter of the total number of cattle in the county.
As drought and a boom in housing development eat away at available grazing land, the number of Maasai herders taking up crop farming has grown by 40 per cent over the past decade, said current county committee member for agriculture Jackline Koin.
“The frequent droughts have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of farmers in Kajiado. More crop farms are sprouting all over the county,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Koin said the country had registered more than 5,000 farmers who were previously solely herders.
Down the road from Shakita’s farm, another herder Brian Kikon, 30, also grows onions and tomatoes on a small piece of his family’s expansive 45-acre (18-hectare) farm.
Kikon said integrating livestock and crop farming brought in extra money and had let his family reduce the number of cows they keep, meaning fewer to feed.
“I saw some of my neighbours practising agriculture and I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’ It was new but with a little help from my neighbours, I got the hang of it,” he said.
Kikon has the right idea, according to Wilfred Subbo, a professor of development anthropology at the University of Nairobi, who said all Maasai herders should be shrinking their herds if they are to survive Kenya’s frequent droughts.
“Pastoralism is becoming unsustainable in this day and age,” he said. More Maasai should also consider rearing hybrid cattle, such as the Holstein-Friesian dairy cow, he added.
One of the most popular breeds of hybrid cattle in Kenya, Friesians are zero-grazing cows, meaning they live on farms and eat hay and fodder instead of travelling around with herders looking for pasture, Subbo explained.
Harry Kimutai, principal secretary for livestock in Kenya’s agriculture ministry believes the effects of climate change will eventually force all Maasai to change their ways.