In the 1990s, before I became an academic anthropologist and researcher, I worked for about seven years in community development in Northern Kenya. The bulk of my work involved facilitating participatory development processes among communities of pastoralists in Samburu district. We tried to engage a broad swath of the community in self-analysis, identification of priority issues, planning and the implementation of interventions to improve their situation. The guiding principle was that local knowledge should be prioritized. We believed that the herding communities knew best about their own context and that their ideas should be used as the basis for community-led development projects.
Samburu communities had seen their herds—and quality of life—decline dramatically as a result of marginalization at the hands of colonial and postcolonial regimes. Exacerbating these declines, a severe drought in 1991-1993 had led to big losses of livestock and widespread reliance on relief food. The Ministry of Livestock responded by promoting the introduction of exotic (non-native) cattle breeds, but did very little to realize this plan. The few people I observed who tried to raise these animals often had bad experiences—the cows died in a short time, generally from disease. It turns out that non-native cows, while they have the genetic potential to produce huge amounts of milk, are poorly adapted to the semi-arid and drought-prone environment in Samburu. They need a lot of grass and often grain as well. They need lots of water. They can’t walk very far. They aren’t resistant to the local diseases. Without the right conditions, not only will they produce little milk, but they might not survive at all.
Observing these poor outcomes, I became skeptical about the prospects for improving livelihoods by introducing new breeds. Instead, my colleagues and I took the advice of livestock experts who suggested maximizing existing Samburu herds by improving the conditions for the local breeds. This we did by responding to community requests for better access to veterinary drugs and services and by encouraging people to grow grass and fodder trees as food for their livestock. Improving vet services and access to drugs was quite successful; people knew generally how to use these drugs and services, and they were willing to pay for them because healthier animals are more productive. The idea of growing fodder, however, did not catch on. Samburu people were not used to growing grass (or anything else), and supplies of grass seed and fodder tree seedlings were difficult to find and maintain.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s. Now as an academic anthropologist, I was conducting research on changing property rights, particularly the shift from communal land tenure to private tenure among a community of Samburu people. After five years of research in this community, I began to feel both a nostalgia for my earlier development work as well as a bit of pressure to do something to “give back” to the community that had worked with me in the research (for no rewards, really).
Around this time, I heard about a project elsewhere in Kenya where high-yielding dairy goats (Toggenburgs, originally from Switzerland) had been introduced among small farmers. Of course, I was immediately skeptical—wasn’t it just another case of introducing an exotic breed that wouldn’t be well-adapted to the local ecology and management system? I decided to see for myself (I’m from Missouri, after all) and went to Meru district, on the slopes of Mount Kenya, to visit the program. I was impressed. The NGO that had started the program, Farm Africa, had recently withdrawn from the community after seven years and successfully handed over the program to a local goat-breeders association. After starting with fewer than 100 households, the goats were now kept by more than 5000 families. Every farmer I visited manifested the success of the goats—high milk production (up to 10 times what Samburu goats produce); high market value; effective management (after considerable training); manageable disease problems; and improvements in family well-being. The association had just opened a dairy facility in the town and was selling milk and yogurt. As I studied their experience, my skepticism began to give way. Maybe these goats could work in Samburu, at least in the highlands,where my study site was and which is climatically similar to Meru.
I discussed the idea with thirty households in the community who had been most involved in my research. They were interested; they really wanted to see goats that could produce as much milk as a Samburu cow! It took a few years for me to find some seed funding for the project (thanks to an internal grant from Washington University!), and in 2010 I took a group of community members to Meru to learn about the goats and to purchase an initial breeding stock. They too were impressed by what they saw. To implement the project, my Samburu collaborators agreed to make certain adjustments to their management practices: They built elevated houses for the Toggenburgs and kept them separate from their other goats (to decrease disease transmission and also control breeding). And they formed small groups of five or six households that would work together to care for the breeding stock. To my good fortune, they also agreed to participate in yet more research so that we could systematically evaluate the effects of the goats on household nutrition, income, and social status and standing. We even have a control group in another community that agreed to the research without the goats—though the idea is that they will get access to goats eventually.
I just returned from Kenya two weeks ago and was pleased to find that the project is still on track. In two years, the number of goats has more than doubled and only one of the ten original breeding stock died. Moreover, milk production is good (about 3 times that of local goats) and all the participating households remain active. In fact, a number of other community members have crossed their goats with the Toggenburgs, and the community members are happy with the direction of the project and with their goats. There are some areas that need improvement. Record keeping is a big constraint. This is not surprising given the low literacy levels in the community, but it needs to be addressed in order to keep track of breeding and milk yields. We also need a strategy to increase the rate of breeding and allow more community members access to the Toggenburgs. In their efforts to provide exemplary care for the goats, the participating households have been a bit hesitant to allow much cross-breeding. This summer, though, they agreed to lower the fee for breeding to encourage more participation. (This is a place where people have never before charged for breeding services.) Milk production is still not as high as we would like to see, and there hasn’t been a drought since 2010 so we don’t know how the goats will do in drought. Only time will tell, but with the level of commitment and interest from community members I’m now more optimistic than skeptical.
Lesorogol, C. 2008. Contesting the Commons: Privatizing Pastoral Lands in Kenya. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Carolyn Lesorogol is Associate Professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. As both a practitioner and scholar, she has long worked to promote socially and environmentally just development in East Africa.