How are Kenyan pastoralists coping in the time of COVID-19?

Published by:
Focus Region:
Sub-Saharan Africa
Focus Topic:
Agricultural Value Chains / Agri-Businesses
Health & Diseases
Market / Trade
Gender / Youth / Social Inclusion

As the world experiences the harsh effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are concerns about how it is having an impact on the poor in rural areas in Africa. In March 2020, the Government of Kenya took measures to contain it. These focused on reducing people’s movements and gatherings all over the country. People tend to discuss how these measures affect the livelihoods of those in urban areas, but how is COVID-19 affecting the rural people in Kenya, such as the pastoralists?


In the last weeks I have been talking to pastoralists in Kenya’s Samburu county. These have included government officials, livestock owners and herders. All comment that the COVID-19 measures considerably add to pastoralists’ challenges. They explain that the cessation of movement has frozen many activities that support the daily livelihoods of the pastoralists. It is a central part of pastoralists’ lifestyles to move into neighbouring counties and countries in search of pastures and markets, basically knowing no boundaries.

The COVID-19 measures restricting movement therefore make it more difficult to respond to climate change-induced droughts, which diminish pastures and animal watering points. The measures also compound the stresses arising from the recent desert locust plague, which has resulted in loss of grassland, crops and so had major impacts on livestock and ultimately human lives.

The dawn-to-dusk (7.00 p.m to 5.00 a.m) curfew affects the ability of pastoralists to move their livestock during the night in search of pastures or markets. Pastoralists travel over long distances, and this requires movement of livestock during both daytime and at night. Lack of movement reduces pastoralists’ income from livestock, further reducing household incomes. Some pastoralists have resorted to changing their meals to milk and blood only, as these are available without the need for cash and going to shops.

The government has closed many livestock markets where people gather to sell or buy livestock. These are now considered as high-risk zones for the spread of the virus. This lock-down threatens pastoralist families’ livelihoods further. To many pastoralist families, animals are the ‘household ATM.’ When they can no longer sell their animals, they have no money to use in times of need. Indeed, Kenya Markets Trust reports that many livestock keepers depend on the sale of small stock to cater for their immediate family needs, with livestock accounting for 12% of Kenya’s GDP. At a national scale, Kenya sells approximately 500,000 heads of small stock per month valued at KES 2.527 billion (equivalent to 25 Million US dollars). With the cessation of movement in and out Nairobi, this livestock market chain has been greatly affected.

Social distancing is another preventive measure that contributes to disrupting trade in livestock. These measures prevent buyers and sellers from close interaction. In markets where discussing prices and market conditions is essential and sales are often related to social exchanges, this is very disruptive. Social distancing has also disrupted the organisation of cultural functions. A central feature of pastoralists’ lives are annual circumcision ceremonies. These usually take place in April-May, but all have been cancelled. Ceremonial gatherings of morans (young men), wedding ceremonies and other rites have all been stopped, undermining community cohesion.

The COVID-19 containment measures also have a number of indirect impacts. Non-governmental organisations in Samburu county report that containment measures have slowed down the process of implementing the community land law and other processes of securing tenure and protecting pastoralists’ land rights. Some pastoralist communities are in the process of converting their group ranches to community land, but this has also stalled. Furthermore, the land registries are closed, and most of the land offices function only minimally. The pastoralists are increasingly worried about what will happen to those who have not yet completed the process.

Pandemic control rules prescribe frequent handwashing, but this is hardly feasible for most of the residents in the rural areas.  Samburu pastoralists perennially face extreme water shortages and, although the ongoing heavy rains have been a relief for watering animals, pastoralist households are not likely to get access to clean running water for handwashing in the short-term. Most of them have limited or no access to sanitisers and soap. The health infrastructure is almost absent.

Any outbreak of the virus amongst pastoralist communities in the northern parts of the country will be hard to contain and will cause grave consequences to pastoralist families. Evidently, COVID-19 threatens global economies and affects everybody from pastoralists in the lowlands of Samburu to the inhabitants of the capitals of the most developed countries. However, the universal measures put in place to contain the virus currently affect pastoralists negatively – and to date far more than the virus itself.

As our respondents explain, most pastoralists in Samburu are doing the best they can to adapt to the changes. Some have found new ways of selling their livestock through contacting local business people, or selling the animals from their homes or in the grazing fields. However, this option is not readily available for all pastoralists. Some of them reside far from the main market centers where roads are impassable for buyers to reach sellers. There is an urgent need for the government to customise the containment measures to suit or even support pastoralists’ lifestyles, rather than further worsen their livelihood challenges.

Rahma Hassan, PhD Fellow at The University of Nairobi and The University of Copenhagen, affiliated to the Rights and Resilience Project in Kenya funded by DANIDA. Contact her at: [email protected]
Patrick Lempushuna