Kenya: Tana Pastoralists Ditch Livestock for Cotton Farming


For decades, pastoralist communities in Tana River shunned crop farming, terming it unnecessary hard work and a waste of time.

They instead chose to stick to livestock for meat, milk and trade, a well-paying venture then but which has turned into their worst nightmare owing to climate change.

In a quick about-turn, they are now embracing crop farming, filling the slots abandoned by farmers at the Hola Irrigation Scheme.

After various engagements with the National Irrigation Authority personnel in Hola on farming, the community is becoming one of the biggest investors at the farm.

No doubt, they are minting hundreds of thousands of shillings in cotton farming, which is making a comeback nearly seven years since it ended.

“I lost 30 head of cattle in 2018 to drought. I was left with only six and was certain that they would not survive another drought in 2019, so I sold them,” recounts Mohammed Kuno

Kuno, 71, decided to venture into cotton farming, a gamble that had earlier been hurt by dropping market prices.

He sat through training on cotton production, courtesy of the National Irrigation Authority. He was the only pastoralist doing so then.

“I was not getting their English properly, so I followed the instructor after the training and, having seen I was the only pastoralist, he took me through the three-hour lecture step by step, answering all my questions to clear my doubts,” he recounted.

He would then put his first cash in the crop, investing Sh40,000 on a one-and-half acre farm for cotton.

Little money

Despite playing his cards close to his chest, he did not end up with the desired produce as the quality of the cotton was spoiled by pests and stained with the cotton stainer pest.

“I got a little money from the crop. I was happy to have made myself Sh70,000 even when I was expecting twice the amount; I learned a lot from the first harvest,” he says.

Though not much of a killing, his gains inspired other men in the community to try their hand at crop farming.

They sold some of their livestock, and like daring pundits, gambled it on cotton.

Kuno became the master of the art, guiding them on the dos and don’ts.

His skills and knowledge, guided by the scheme’s agronomist, eventually yielded fruit. His second harvest gave him nearly what he expected.

“I was very happy, spending Sh50,000 to get Sh210,000 made farming a gem compared with keeping a large herd of cattle,” he says.

For Ali Bare, 53, he is expecting more than Sh250,000 from a two-acre farm of cotton in a month’s time.

This will be his second harvest after a disappointing first one in which he made less than his investment.

“That was tragic, I spent Sh40,000 but made Sh31,000. That cotton variety was bad for business,” he says.

He chose not to give up, and instead put more money into the second attempt, only that this time, his efforts were guaranteed to succeed.

The National Irrigation Authority took in the farmers’ concerns about the cotton variety that was prone to pests and brought them a new seed, BT cotton, which is resistant to pests and drought.

Climate change

Bare’s farm is no doubt doing well, and so are his other farms where he has invested in maize, which is due for harvest, and bulb onions.

“Livestock keeping is a nightmare. Your life is dictated by climate change, which lately has not been friendly to our community,” he says.

He notes that, unlike livestock keeping, farming at the irrigation scheme is a guaranteed hustle and does not cause one unnecessary misery.

The herdsman has reduced the number of cattle and is investing his energy in crop production.

Bare holds sad memories about life as a pastoralist.

He lost a son to a snake bite as they were taking cows to the Tana Delta in search of pasture.

The tragedy was a wake-up call to ditch the trek and adopt something worthwhile for the family.

For the past two years, he has managed to raise more than Sh2 million from farming, and inasmuch as he can afford to buy cattle, he is thinking of venturing into dairy cows for milk to take advantage of the planned milk processing plant in Garsen.

“Every time I see children grazing here or heading to the Tana Delta with livestock memories of my son cloud my mind and I pity them. We need to change from this life as pastoralists and get more productive,” he says.

The community, traditionally and culturally known for keeping huge herds of livestock, is fast shifting its attention to farming for food production.

At the Hola and Bura irrigation schemes, pastoralists have become the lords of green grams, melons and onions, giving the farming communities a run for their money in the market.

Pastoralists are quickly taking over the Hola Irrigation Scheme as the farming community slows down its pace owing to a cash crunch.

According to Hola Irrigation Scheme manager James Kirimi, people from the community are persistent and determined.

“They don’t know much about the venture, so they consult a lot and engage with us a lot. You will see their desire to succeed in how they take care of their farms,” he says.

Farms expanding

Kirimi notes that the pastoralists are expanding their farms, putting most of the space that has been lying idle to use.

Their entry into farming has seen the scheme expand farming to over 3,000 acres.

At the Bura Irrigation Scheme, pastoralists have become the kings of onion and watermelon farming.