Garissa, Kenya - Halima Omar nearly lost her livestock - and her livelihood - to the severe drought that battered parts of northern Kenya two-years ago.
Together with a community of farmers similarly impacted by the drought, she adopted agro-pastoralism, a form of farming that combines growing crops and rearing livestock. The experience was a life-changing one for her, and the family that depends on Halima for their survival.
"In 2012, I was in a bad situation that I never experienced in my entire life as a pastoralist," said Halima, 33, a mother of three. "Perhaps, it was the worst season for every pastoralist in this part of the world."
The severe drought that affected the entire East Africa region between July 2011 and mid-2012 was described as the worst in 60 years. It caused a food crisis across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djiboutithat threatened the livelihood of 10 million people.
I was never prepared for such scenarios in life but my predicament was actually a blessing in disguise because afterwards, I learnt the lesson of a lifetime.
After losing her livestock, Halima migrated from the drought-hit rural areas and into a small settlement near Garissa - established by aid agencies to assist the destitute population recovering from the tragedy.
"I was never prepared for such scenarios in life," Halima said, "but my predicament was actually a blessing in disguise because afterwards, I learnt the lesson of a lifetime."
Halima is referring to agro-pastoralism, which lessens the dependence on livestock farming as a sole means of support. By growing grass and leguminous plants as animal fodder in sufficient quantities to sustain the animals in the farm, the pastoralists are able to keep livestock in zero-grazing mode. Fruit and vegetables are also grown on separate fields for family consumption, and surplus is sold at the market for extra cash.
Along with other pastoralists who lost livestock, Halima formed a local group that pools their resources to undertake the initiative. For many in the group, it was a difficult decision, but one that would prove successful a year later. Although livestock production is a significant part of the region's economy, the increasing frequency and severity of drought have made the pastoralism lifestyle no longer sustainable for people such as Halima.
The northern part of Kenya has a semi-arid and hot climate and rarely receives rain. Perennial, unpredictable and severe droughts force pastoralists in the region to travel further afield for pasture, making them vulnerable to conflict over scarce resources.
But the region has access to the Tana River, the longest in Kenya that flows 1,000km across extensive wet and arid lands to the Indian Ocean. Pastoralists are now encouraged to take up irrigation-based farming along the banks of the river in a bid to reduce food-aid dependency and promote self-reliance through agriculture.
Local development partners such as Adeso - African Development Solutions - are among the few non-governmental agencies that help traditional pastoralists through a smooth transition into their new lifestyle.
"In northern Kenya, a large part of our work focuses on pastoralist dropouts - people who, because of recurrent droughts, have lost their previous source of income, or means of support. We work with these dropouts to find alternative ways of earning a living," said Helen Altshul from Adeso.
"Agro-pastoralism is one of these alternatives, whereby people engage in agricultural initiatives in addition to keeping some livestock."
With agro-pastoralism, families and communities can rely on two sources of livelihood, as opposed to one, which means they are more resilient and less vulnerable to shocks, Altshul added.
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Although agro-pastoralism can act as an alternative livelihood for devastated communities, pastoralists often still hold onto livestock for their cultural value. Many see it as pride and privilege within the society. But, for others, change is inevitable and they are taking up serious crop farming to sustain their pastoral way of life, because they can't just stop being pastoralists.
Aden Ahmed, 58, a father of six, was among the people affected by the recent famine. He has embraced the new idea of agro-pastoralism and said it holds the answer to food security for the drought-ravaged region.
"If I could take up farming at an early age, my livestock could at least have an advantage in terms of population of cattle and goat. I think with this initiative the region will be food sufficient, self-reliant, and still we can continue with our pastoral way of life," Aden said.
Unlike in previous years, farm produce has a ready market in the region. Everyday in Garissa's main market, sacks of fruits, vegetable and other produce are bundled into buses and pick-up trucks and ferried to different parts of the region including the refugee complex, Dadaab, where hundreds of thousands refugees are camped.
The available market has enabled agro-pastoralists to focus on food production and be less reliant on weather patterns to sustain their lifestyle. Authorities here are also keen on helping agro-pastoralists make a living out of the new initiatives.
"We have introduced the new farmers to the regional, marketable foods which are fruit, cereal, vegetable and dairy products that can generate quick cash for their sustenance," said Musyimi Kyalo, agribusiness development officer in Garissa county.
Our region is blessed with arable land and we can actually feed the whole nation. But most of us, the youth, prefer to look for work and ignore the fact that we can generate income from farming.
Musyimi said the local government is also focused on long-term measures such as building the capacity of the farmers in order to mitigate food scarcity and create jobs, which will help relieve the region of the burden of feeding hungry mouths every dry spell.
However, the biggest challenge that the new lifestyle is facing is a cultural attitude that depicts farming as a poor man's livelihood. Among pastoral communities, crop farming is often seen as an activity practised by the poor - culturally, rich people are those with large herds of livestock.
Furthermore, many young people in the region shy away from engaging in farming because of the stigma it carries in society, preferring to look for white-collar jobs . It's a decision that is having dire consequences in the fight against unemployment.
However, 23-year-old Mohammud Isse, a university graduate, has defied the odds. He opted to take-up farming instead of jostling for a position in the inaccessible job market in the country. He is on his third harvest of vegetables this year.
"Our region is blessed with arable land and we can actually feed the whole nation," he said. "But most of us, the youth, prefer to look for work and ignore the fact that we can generate income from farming."
Musyimi said it will take a holistic approach to defeat the stigma and get the region's population to adapt agro-pastoralism as a development tool.
"I don't see why there is a stigma. Our people should go out and see other counties and how they are progressing. A small piece of land can make someone achieve his/her goals," said Musyimi. "It's high time we see how other parts of the world are progressing in terms of agriculture."
Source: Al Jazeera