Market to Market: The Challenge for Land-Based Livelihoods

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"Livestock in East Africa Kenya farmer World Bank"

Livestock in East Africa (Photo source: World Bank)

Blog post by Brendan Buzzard

On the outskirts of Archer’s Post in Northern Kenya the mid-morning sun shines down on a busy market full of livestock too weak to walk. Cattle, having made long treks through the night at the urging of their tired owners, lie in the sparse shade inside the market corrals, unable to stand or move. John Apayo, like many of the other livestock owners, watches the scene with frustration.

“The animals are dying and people are hungry. There is no grass, no water, so I came to see if I could sell a cow. But the price is too low. The middlemen want to pay 1,000 or 1,500 shillings [US$13 or $19] and then they take them to Nairobi and sell them for 8 or 9 thousand. I cannot sell, it is like giving them away, and how long will 1,000 shillings last? I do not understand why the government is not doing anything about the situation.”

The pastoralists in these northern rangelands face a challenge common to rural communities throughout the world. Caught at a crossroad between a subsistence past and an expanding capitalist market system, old values are being deposited at the wayside at the cost of social integrity.

“They could have sold their animals months ago,” explains one of the truck owners that came to northern Kenya to buy livestock before taking them to the high value markets in the city. “They knew there was going to be a drought, and instead of just holding their animals they could have sold them when the prices were high. Now people come here with these dying cattle and expect us to pay full price.”

Organizations and governments are encouraging pastoralists to overcome traditional patterns of herd dynamics and ownership, limiting their numbers through sale and changing with markets and the weather. Things like early warning systems, livestock insurance programs, and animal purchase agreements in times of drought are all intended to address vulnerability by promoting integration within the market. The trouble with these programs, however, is the forgotten piece of the equation: every aspect of pastoral culture revolves around raising animals.

“People often come and tell us to sell our cows,” John explains. “The government came once during this drought and bought a few hundred livestock for a good price, so those that needed money sold [their livestock]. But we spend every day with these animals, we raise them and herd them and give them water. When my big bull died from falling in a pit because he was so weak, I felt like I lost a part of my family.”

Money does not measure emotions, and neither do the markets where this money changes hands.  Policies intended to lessen vulnerability among rural communities through markets should ensure that the relationship between culture and place factors into their equations. Sometimes value has meaning beyond money.

Brendan Buzzard is a contributor to Nourishing the Planet. A writer and conservationist, he works and travels widely while focusing on the link between human prosperity and landscape integrity. He has a degree in Geography and Environment from Prescott College.

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