The arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) occupy more than 80% of the Kenyan land mass (464 000 km2). Most of these areas are un-urbanized and in most cases their natural resources are un-exploited. The said drylands ecosystems are composed of the savannah/woodlands, the warm desert and semi-desert.
ASAL zones are characterized by low, erratic and usually bi-modal rainfall of up to 1,000mm (and as low as less than 200 mm) per annum, periodic (often every 5 years) droughts and different associations of vegetative cover and soils, inter-annual rainfall can vary from 50-100% in arid zones and 20-30% in the semi-arid zones. The productivity of drylands is low compared to the high potential areas e.g. Plant biomass per unit area of drylands (globally) is about 6 Kg per sq. metre, compared to many richer terrestrial systems (10-18 Kg) per sq. metre.
In terms of absolute numbers, the net production of global drylands is 703 gm per sq. metre which is lower than for cultivated systems (1,098 gm per sq. metre), and the forest and woodland system (869 gm per sq. metre). While primary productivity per unit land area may be low (due to low rainfall, high temperatures and poor soils), the drylands are very large and can sustain extensive systems of land use, whether for pastoralism or dryland cultivation.
Indeed the economic pillar of vision 2030 aims to improve the prosperity of all Kenyans through an economic development programme covering all the regions of Kenya. Through livestock raring and other economic activities such as tourism, aquaculture, mining, rain-fed farming/irrigation, gum Arabic, renewable energy resources such as solar, wind and biofuel that provide alternative livelihoods, the arid lands can meet all their economic requirements.
Very little is seen on the ASALs despite heavy investment. The stagnation of animal production and marketing as well as under exploitation of alternative livelihood components in the region is evident everywhere one goes.
Since the ASALs are fragile ecosystems optimal exploitation is based on pastoralism. Pastoralism is concerned with the raising of livestock. It is animal husbandry: the care, tending and use of animals such as camels, cattle, goats and sheep. It may have a mobile aspect, moving the herds in search of fresh pasture and water.
Pastoralism is found in many variations throughout the world. The composition of herds, management practices, social organization and all other aspects of pastoralism vary between regions and among social groups. Many traditional practices have also had to adapt to the changing circumstance of the modern world. Ranches of the United States, Australia and Argentina are seen by some as modern variations. These economies are prosperous because livestock marketing plays a significant role in the livestock production value chain. This can also apply to the Kenyan livestock keeping groups.
The following scenario can be used to illustrate the potential wealth that obtains in the ASALs of Kenya. In a good year, an average pastoralist family could be keeping 400 goats, 400 sheep, 50 cows and 50 camels. In an event of a bad year looming, if this family sold half of their stock at competitive market prices, its total value would be Ksh. 5.5 million i.e. (200 goats @ Ksh. 5000= 1 million; 200 sheep @ Ksh. 5000 = 1 million; 50 cows @ Ksh. 20 000 = 1 million; 25 camels @ Ksh. 100 000 = 2.5 million). Would such a person require relief supplies at any time in their life?
Compare this to a middle-income earner of Ksh. 200 000 per month. Per annum, this person would have a gross value of 2.4 million. The net per annum would be almost half of this figure. The former scenario is akin to a person in formal employment earning Ksh. 460 000 per month. Yet these pastoralists would be looking up to the latter for alms and demand relief food in times of drought.
However, pastoralism as a source of livelihood has faced a myriad of challenges and balkanization of various regions, countries, counties and districts. Yet the system itself calls for the management of the environment using ecological dynamics with minimal human interventions. It is essential that cropping areas do not destabilize the livestock production systems and that stocking rates (increased productivity per area should) be improved as a significant intervention. In a nutshell, the ecology of these areas should be conserved optimally.
Prof. Thomas E. Akuja, PhD, a scholar and a Turkana Community Champion (2015)