Mukutan Conservancy, a bandit's haven no longer

Mukutan Conservancy director Sveva Gallmann. [James Munyeki, Standard]

Ironically, sometimes the most beautiful, pristine, and remote natural places in the Rift Valley often harbor the very worst human beings.

The gorges, dark, and tangled forests provide cover and a haven for bandits. So it was with Mukutan Conservancy, formerly known as Laikipia Nature Conservancy in Laikipia County.

For long, armed raiders operated from the gorges in the vast conservancy, taking strategic positions and ambushed security officers who pursued them whenever they attacked farmers in Laikipia, stealing their livestock.

But slowly, and over the past two years, the management of the conservancy and the local communities are turning the tide.

This is because residents are now benefiting from the resources of the conservancy owned by renowned conservationist and author Kuki Gallmann.

This is after the introduction of a program dubbed Mshipi, in English a belt. The program is meant to unite the six communities surrounding the conservancy. Among them are Tugens, Kikuyus, Ilchamus, Pokots, and Turkana.

The program aims at supporting them in various ways to ensure that they benefit from the projects to ensure they earn a living to uplift their lives.

The conservancy aims to be a catalyst for the economic empowerment of Mshipi communities. This has so far reduced cases of insecurity in the region that has in the past been rocked by banditry attacks.

Among the projects that have been started are community livestock promotion, wild avocado farming, beekeeping, sustainable eco-charcoal production, construction of health facilities, and promotion of education, among others.

Sveva Gallmann speaks to some of the bee-keeping program beneficiaries. [James Munyeki, Standard]

Amongst the beneficiaries are the pastoralist communities surrounding the conservancy. In a mutual agreement, they have since been allowed to graze in the conservancy at a small fee.

A fattening program to allow their cows to be groomed at the conservancy has so far been started. This includes dedicated grass banks for community livestock and wildlife showcasing Mukutan’s holistic conservation commitment.

"So far, we have over 4000 heads of community-owned cattle grazing at the conservancy under a structured agreement with the pastoralists who previously were fighting over water and pasture. Since this program started, we have seen cases of insecurity drop drastically" said Sveva Gallmann, one of the directors of the conservancy.

In the last year, over 500 head of cattle have been fattened and sold at Mukutan.

"Once we fattened and sold them, the project generated 26 million for the local community owners. Some individuals got as much as 800, 000- 1m. Many have used this money for school fees and other livelihood investments,” said Ms Sveva.

The program, she said, has so far employed 90 community members, who are managing an additional 4000 breeding stock.

"The youths are no longer engaged in cattle rustling. They are now actively involved in looking after cattle and earning a dignified wage. We are glad that the Mshipi program, which unites all the communities is taking shape," she said.

They are now also enjoying NSSF and NHIF services from Mukutan Conservancy. Beyond funding, Mukutan provides essential support, including medications and cattle spraying, ensuring community and livestock well-being.

For Mr Peter Ngugi, an avocado farmer at Matuiku village, things have now changed for the better after the launch of the program. He is now walking all the way to the bank.

Avocado farmer Peter Ngugi. [James Munyeki, Standard]

This is after the first harvest of Hass avocado, from seedlings grown and supplied by Mukutan Conservancy.

"I earned over two hundred thousand shillings in my first harvest. The narrative that Mukutan Conservancy has been a bad omen in our community has changed. We are now earning a living from it" he said.

Mr Francis Mwai, an agronomist employed by the conservancy said that one hundred and ninety farmers have so far benefited from the program. Each farmer has a minimum of 80 trees, and Mukutan distributed a total of 20,000 high-quality Hass seedlings.

These are drawn from Matuiku and Wangwachi regions. These are areas that have been experiencing banditry attacks.

"This year, we are targeting to harvest over 20 tonnes. This will be a major boost to our neighbouring communities' said Mr Mwai.

Ms Sveva said that among other projects they have started are distribution of bee hives that have so far benefited over one thousand households.

This she said had been distributed to all the communities through the Mshipi program.
The establishment of the Land of Hope school has also been a success.

"So far, we are taking care of some 70 children in the pre-primary school. This is now boosting the education level in the community," noted Ms Dolphine Maburi, the project lead.