In Kenya just like any other developing country, donkeys are the most common working equids (the family of donkeys, horses, and mules).
They are used for both commercial and domestic purposes, transporting goods and people in rural, urban, and peri-urban areas. Donkeys contribute significantly to both the national economy and household livelihood support.
Commercially, they are used in the agriculture industry, construction industry and for domestic purposes, the supply of essential goods and services like water, firewood, charcoal, garbage transportation and transport of household items for relocating families.
The reason why donkeys are so important for many communities in Kenya is that they are adapted and resilient in the different environments ranging from wet, cold and mountainous conditions to dry, hot and semi-arid areas with harsh climatic conditions.
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During droughts, for instance, donkeys are usually the last animals, after cattle, sheep, goats, and camels to get significantly affected by lack of fodder and water.
In the high agricultural potential counties in Kenya like Kiambu, Kirinyaga, and Nyandarua donkeys play a significant role in transporting farm produce to markets. In all the cases, donkeys are used to transport the produce from the interior smallholder farms where the road conditions are very poor to produce collection centres that are situated where there are all-weather roads.
Nyandarua County for example with a population of approximately 8,000 donkeys is the leading producer of milk in Kenya with approximately 317,000 heads of cattle that produce an estimated 250 million litres of milk annually.
About 27 per cent (67.5 million litres) of this milk is transported from individual smallholder farms to collection centres by donkeys. Milk transport is paid at an average of Sh3 per litre, meaning that donkey transporters in the county generate approximately Sh 202.5 million per year.
In Kirinyaga County, Mwea Tebere Irrigation Scheme is the leading producer of rice in Kenya producing about 80,000 tonnes per year. There are about 4,000 donkeys providing transport services within the rice-growing scheme.
About 80 per cent of the rice produced in the scheme is at some point along the value chain transported by donkeys. Household Economic study conducted in Kirinyaga County in the year 2016 by Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (KENDAT) and Brooke EA indicates that donkey owners and users household earn most of their cash, approximately 87 per cent , from donkeys by transporting various goods within the rice-growing scheme.
There are over 2,000 donkey owners and users within the rice-growing scheme and about 80 per cent of them are young men who have singled out transporting goods with donkeys as their employment.
This indicates the importance of donkeys in generating employment and incomes for households. It is this income that helps the donkey owners to take care of medical, education, housing, and social requirements for the members of the households as well as investing in other business enterprises.
Communities living in semi-arid areas of some counties in Kenya like Kitui, Makueni, Machakos, Tharaka Nithi among others, use donkeys to mainly transport water from water points to the homesteads, firewood from farms and forests to the homestead and merchandise to the markets.
In such areas, culturally, the duty of providing water and firewood for the household is designed for women, in addition to taking household merchandise to the markets. That is why donkeys in semi-arid areas in Kenya are mainly used by women. During the dry season, and especially when there is drought, the women and children have to walk with their donkeys for many kilometres to fetch water for the household.
In these areas, women who use donkey can save 90 per cent of time and energy that would have been used to transport water and firewood on their heads or backs. The donkey also saves the women from using their little finances that would have been used in sourcing for alternative transport such as bicycle, motorcycle, or vehicle. The savings are used to cater for other household requirements, mainly food.
Donkey owning communities have attested to the benefit of having donkeys in their lives.
These benefits have been attained directly or indirectly as a result of working with the donkeys. Donkey owners in the business of transportation using donkeys have seen a great impact in their lives. However, the donkey owning communities are now very worried by issues surrounding the slaughter of donkeys for skin and meat for export in Kenya, because it negatively impacts on their livelihoods.
An increase in global demand for donkey meat and skin led to the establishment of four donkey slaughterhouses in Kenya between the years 2018 and 2018. This trade fuelled massive theft of donkeys from most donkey owning communities in Kenya as well as the illegal slaughter of donkeys in the bushes because there was a ready market for the skins. In most cases, when donkeys were slaughtered in the bush, the skin was carried away and meat left behind.
Looking at the implications of commercial donkey slaughter in Kenya where 5.1 per cent (301,977 donkeys) of the total population was wiped out by the slaughterhouses alone during the period 2016-2018, the government needs to look at the plight of the donkey owners and stop the trade on donkey meat and skins once and for all.
Eston Murithi, CEO, Kenya Network for Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (KENDAT)