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Maasai pastoralists in Narok diversify from traditional livelihood activities

By Robert Kiplagat | October 17th 2021
A section of the beehives owned by the Olderkesi bee keepers association. The pastoralists have now turned to beekeeping, bull fattening to boost income. [Robert Kiplagat, Standard]

Since time immemorial, communities around Maasai Mara Game Reserve depended on livestock keeping and land leasing to earn a living.

Long before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, tourists used to throng the park and nearby wildlife conservancies for vacation, earning the locals who lease land for conservation income.

But with the pandemic, foreign countries banned international flights, leaving the park almost deserted for nearly a year. The villagers had to think of alternative sources of income.

In a bid to earn extra income, the community, made up of pastoralists, has now ventured into alternative economic activities such as beekeeping, bull fattening and dairy farming.

Olderkesi Wildlife Conservancy, along the Mara River banks, is now lined up with over 100 modern beehives, heralding a new economic activity.

David ole Ntaiya, an official of the Olderkesi Bee Keepers Association, expresses optimism in the new venture. The association has 50 members.

"We used to depend solely on livestock keeping and earnings from leasing land for tourism activities, but last year we learnt a hard lesson. We had no tourists, and despite having livestock, there were no buyers," Ntaiya said.

However, he says the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature-Kenya, a conservation organisation, introduced them to the beekeeping project.

He says the sight of the newly installed modern Langstroth beehives donated by the organisation exudes a bright future.

"We embraced beekeeping because, unlike livestock that is affected by drought, bees are resilient, and demand for honey is constantly high," he said.

He noted that, as a group, they are targeting at least Sh2 million annually from the sale of honey and its products.

"Livestock keeping has many disadvantages. We suffer huge losses when drought strikes and when wildlife attacks our animals," he says.

At Orpopong'i, at the same conservancy, Margaret Lekeni is venturing into dual-purpose Sahiwal cattle rearing.

"In Maasai culture, cows belong to the man, but milk traditionally belonged to women. We used to drink the milk and share with neighbours, but I'm now selling the extra to hotels at Olposimoru trading centre at the border of Kenya and Tanzania," says Lekeni.

According to Lekeni, she sells 10 litres of milk daily at Sh50 per litre. She says the money has been sustaining her family.

Lekeni, the chairperson of the Enyorata women group, says the 20 members have a Chama where they contribute Sh1,000 each to buy dairy cows.

"It used to be an abomination for women to own cows, but we are determined to ensure that each of us owns at least one dairy cow," she adds.

With the establishment of the 3,000-litre capacity milk cooling plant by the WWF, the women now focus on improving milk yields.

Lekeni has called on the local leadership to support the pastoralists get improved breeds for high yields.

"We do not want this project to die. We want to get quality breeds that can enable us to fill the cooling plant," she said. 

With the shrinking land sizes due to the growing population, some community members have ventured into fattening steers for better income.

Kaisakat ole Sukut, one of the farmers, says he buys young bulls, fattens them for two years, then sell them at a profit. "I buy at least ten steers of Sahiwal breed. This breed thrives in this semi-arid." 

He says the venture supplements his income from leasing his 100-acre piece of land for tourism.

Mr Sukut says he buys the steers at Sh30,000 and later sells them at Sh100,000 to Sh150,000.

"It is a good venture. I do not need to buy feeds. All I do is rotate the bulls in the paddocks," he says. 

The alternative sources of income initiatives are being undertaken in all the 16 community wildlife conservancies to cushion the locals against unforeseen circumstances such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

According to Daniel Sopia, Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA)Chief Executive, the association supports conservancies in other economic activities.

"With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the tourism sector, the landowners had no money. We encouraged them to venture into other initiatives such as beekeeping, bead-making and bulls fattening, which they have since embraced," he said.

Recently, the German government gave Sh600 million grants to conservancies in Masai Mara to support community conservancies. 

About the Maasai Mara Game Reserve

Masai Mara Game Reserve protected area is around 11,000 square kilometres, located in the far Southwest of Kenya.

It is a vast grassland savanna and home of the Big Five and other animals, including the wildebeest, whose annual migration to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is considered the eighth wonder of the world.

The reserve is named after the native Maasai, where the word Mara means dotted in the local dialect.

The Masai Mara was established in 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary, and today it encompasses an area greater than 370,000 acres, with no fences between the park.

The national reserve is only a small part of the Greater Mara Ecosystem, which also includes group ranches, community land and private conservancies.

Resident wildlife in the reserve is the Big Five (although there are not many rhinos) and huge herds of plains game, hippos and crocodiles in the rivers and more than 500 bird species.

From July to October, it is peak tourism season in the Mara. Millions of gnus cross the Mara River to Tanzania, attracting local and international tourists.

Two major rivers, the Talek and the Mara cut through the Masai Mara National Reserve, splitting it into three; the Sekenani, Talek and Musiara.

Around the park are 16 community-owned wildlife conservancies.

The park is managed by the Narok County government, and it is the leading revenue earner for the county generating over Sh2 billion annually.

As one of Africa’s most popular safari destinations, the Masai Mara gets very busy, especially from June to September and during the Christmas holidays.

The busiest region of the park is in the southeast, near the Talek, Sekenani and Olumuna gates, where large hotels are located. The central part of the reserve is also particularly full during the Great Migration.

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