For Kajiado Maa farmers, cows are their new bank


One of the water pans built by the National Irrigation Authority at Emboojo village, Kajiado County. [Courtesy]


The zeal with which 22-year-old Reuben Mayani, has dived into tomato farming would make one think that the affinity the Maasai has long had for their livestock is finally fading away.  

If “civilisation” can never grow up on the move, as Jacob Bronowski, the late Polish-British mathematician and philosopher, puts it, then you would expect this community to have abandoned nomadism for crop farming.

However, the residents of Emboojo village, Kajiado County, have decided to keep on with economic activities, growing such crops as tomatoes and maize while someone else moves around with their cows looking for greener pastures.   

But they are not yet ready for zero-grazing, which would help them easily kill two birds with one stone.

Instead, those with farms like Mayani’s family have opted to employ a herdsman to look for pasture for their cows while they remain behind to do the farming as their children go to school.

“We, the Maasai, love cows so much,” says Joel Leiyan, a farmer and member of a committee that takes care of the Olookil Water Pan.

Built in 2019 by the National Irrigation Authority (NIA), the water pan—a small reservoir of open ground used to collect and store surface runoff from uncultivated grounds—provides the water for the growing of tomatoes.

With a shuka wrapped around his upper body, Mr Leiyan says that the profit they get after selling tomatoes is used to buy cows.

 “We can’t stop keeping cattle. That is our bank,” said Leiyan.

Among the Maasai, you are rich as the number of cows you own. That is still true today even among the younger generation like Mayani.

The difference is that the new generation is not only putting a number—monetary value— to this wealth, they are also consciously growing it.

With the water pan, the community has been able to turn a dry land that is littered with rocks of all sizes into farmlands.

Even when there is a little downpour, the farmers are still guaranteed some decent returns- provided they keep down costs such as pesticides and fertiliser, and the prices in the market are good.

The good returns, however, have not dissuaded them from livestock keeping. If anything, they have acquired even more cattle since they started growing and selling tomatoes.

Where a typical farmer would have taken their earnings to the bank (after taking care of all the other needs), these farmers have instead bought more cattle.

That is what Mayani did in 2019 when after three months of farming tomatoes, he earned Sh110,000.

It was his first attempt at tomato farming. And for a boy who had stayed without work for two years after finishing high school, it was a perfect shot at farming.  

He immediately bought five cows. He has since added two calves, pushing his tally to seven cows and several goats, he says.

“We take money to the bank, but a cow has more returns than putting money in the bank,” says Mayani.

Farming has hastened the hands of time for Mayani.

Normally, he would have waited to inherit cows from his father or grandfather.  

“And you are not supposed to sell the cows you inherit,” says Mayani, who has since put aside some money to go back to college and learn more about farming.

This restriction does not apply in the present case. This has resulted in some sort of a symbiotic relationship between crop farming and livestock keeping, where the sectors help each other.   

Mayani says that he recently sold one of his cows and used the money to lease and prepare land for farming.

The decision to reinvest the sales of tomatoes into cows is not any different from that made by many other Kenyans who are always shopping for a way to grow their meagre earnings.

Rather than park their money in banks where they earn very little interest, a lot of Kenyans have tried to multiply their wealth by channelling their earnings into high-yielding investments.

Sometimes, it has ended in premium tears, but in other cases, great entrepreneurs have emerged.   

Mayani says that you could buy a cow for Sh30,000 and after two or three months sell it at Sh70,000. That is a return on investment of 133.3 per cent.

However, putting the same money into a savings account will earn you an average interest of 2.5 per cent, according to data from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK).

Fixed deposits will attract an average of 6.61 per cent, a far cry from what Mayani got.  

And unlike putting your money in a bank, there is the risk of losing the cow to drought, to rustling or disease.

Rather than swapping livestock for farming, growing crops has helped these Maasai to own more cows.