Why growth interventions in Kenya's drylands fail

Goats feeding on a Mathenge tree. The tree is a disaster for pastoralists. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

It’s mid-morning in a small borderland village in Moyale in Kenya, but the temperature is already soaring. Globally, temperatures are rising due to human-caused global climate change. 

A team of researchers from the Centre for Research and Development in Drylands (CRDD), the Feinstein International Centre, Tufts University, and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Sussex is under a tree conversing with residents. They seek to understand how pastoralists’ knowledge, resources and networks can best contribute to effective humanitarian response and resilience. 

According to participants, the 2020-2023 drought caused the loss of up to 80 per cent of their cattle, precipitating extensive loss of valuable income, food and cultural identity. As a result of the severe drought, almost all residents rely on producing charcoal from the Prosopis Juliflora, commonly referred to as Mathenge, to earn an income. Yet, residents recounted how this tree has brought them untold miseries due to its rapid spread and suffocation of critical grazing and living areas.  

The production of charcoal from the plant has presented a new dilemma, as the communities traditionally regard it as an inappropriate activity. Moreover, charcoal production is burdensome and has extremely low returns. The many hours required to make charcoal further constrain female well-being and may reduce their ability to provide childcare.

So, while Prosopis Juliflora has been a disaster for pastoralists, it has opened up opportunities for others, mostly poorer women. However, this income opportunity is precarious, burdensome, illegal and frowned upon culturally.

The paradox associated with the introduction and subsequent spread of Prosopis Juliflora characterises many interventions undertaken in Kenya’s drylands. The genesis of these interventions can be traced back to the colonial era. 

Colonialists were keen to grow the economic wherewithal of their respective empires by capitalising on resource extraction and exploitation. Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands, which constitute up to 80 per cent of the country’s land mass were viewed as wastelands with limited economic potential to be worthy of any investments and therefore did not deserve the attention of colonial administrators. 

This explains the alienation of this region, consequently dubbed the Northern Frontier District. To fill the governance and development gap, NGOs, religious organisations and international development actors have rolled out programmes to enhance access to basic services and provide repeated emergency humanitarian relief.

Unfortunately, many of these programmes have worsened rather than enhanced the lives and livelihoods of pastoralists because of their inadequate understanding of pastoral production systems and range ecology.

At another location in Isiolo, a huge permanent building was built by the government to provide an office space for a local resources users association. Today, only a small space is utilised as an office, while the rest of the space is used to store surplus grass and fodder. 

Fodder storage is a crucial adaptation strategy for pastoralists, but improper storage can result in  compromised health and production or even death. As is the case with Mathenge, this shows how well-meaning development interventions in Kenya’s drylands fail and aggravate vulnerability. 

They also show how pastoralists adapt and exploit these failed interventions nevertheless. It is therefore imperative that partners genuinely integrate the knowledge, assets, and networks of pastoralists in the design of the development, resilience, humanitarian and early warning interventions. 

-The writers are researchers at Centre for Research and Development in the Drylands (CRDD)