This is my open letter to Mr Ndititu Muriithi, the Laikipia County Governor. I believe that your in-tray is overflowing with policy challenges that come in via emails, snail mail, and files that have been retrieved from archives.
Mr Governor, you are now in the ‘hard choices’ zone – a term I have borrowed from a book that I’m reading, Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton, her memoir as the Secretary of State.
In her opinion, America’s agenda (then) was best served by the three legged stool of D’s i.e. Development, Diplomacy and Defense. The hard choices came in balancing and being cognizant of the fact that policies that lean towards development and diplomacy are more likely to be socially acceptable, have a long term effect and are cheaper to execute than the defense option. The 3 D’s and their application are not only true for USA but for any country/county where the aim of those who govern, in elected or appointed posts, is to improve its citizens’ life.
Let us now look at Laikipia County. You have 3 main constituents: the town dwellers, arable farmers and pastoral communities in the ASALs (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands).
Mr. Governor, I wish to give you and your team my unsolicited take on development in the Laikipia ASALs. I write this without the benefit of seeing your agenda for Laikipia but I want to believe that improving the livelihoods of the ASALs residents is at the core of your administration policy.
After 4 years of managing a commercial hay farm in Laikipia North, I am of the opinion that the only way to bring tangible development and improve livelihoods in Laikipia’s ASALs is to agronomically manage grasslands. This means using the best and most appropriate – scientific, cultural or biological practices to grow and utilize your grasses as crops, not as nyasi. By so doing you will enable your constituents to bring their livestock production skills to the level of other leading livestock producing economies, such as Botswana.
Why should your county (as well as the country) switch to managed grasslands in ASALs?
1) In ASALs, social development e.g. education, nutrition, health, housing, employment, lifting households out of poverty, etc., is based on livestock production, which is a ‘grass factor’ and can only be guaranteed and secured on managed grasslands, regardless of the land tenure.
2) The market imperative: We are not just playing in the local livestock markets, but also in the regional and international markets, which favour those who can produce quality livestock cheaper than their competitors.
3) Climate change and population pressure in the ASALs are diminishing the areas that were once designated as livestock zones.
4) Mobility of livestock feeds has changed the game of where livestock production takes place – zero grazing and cattle fattening do not necessarily have to be at ground zero of feed source. Their location can be in areas closer to the markets, where technical support is readily available or security is guaranteed.
Compared to other counties, you are starting off with a relatively big area of 9,462 km2. Compare that with Nairobi County’s 696 km2. However, in agriculture (livestock production), land by itself is not a resource until it has a productive value, which in Laikipia’s ASALs’ case equates to grass value.
Also in the livestock world, the measure of grass value has moved on from the numerical livestock head count in an area, to the scientific measure of weight gain per animal over time. The latter is based on, among other variables, the quantity and quality of grasses fed to the livestock either as standing fodder, cut-and-carry fodder or as conserved fodder e.g. hay or silage.
Where do you start?
From my limited travel in Laikipia’s ASALs, there are large tracts of land that are heavily overgrazed, degraded and/or colonized by invasive species e.g. cactus. These are grasslands that are in the stage of going, going and forever gone into a desert. Only urgent hands-on land reclamation championed by the county’s top leadership, can reverse this trend.
Fortunately, there is a precedent of this type of leadership like what we had in the 1980s when we had a national campaign to control soil erosion. This was then a daily national news affair. Laikipia needs a revival of this movement to save the grasslands.
Reseeding the grasslands
This is a twin to reclamation, as ASALs’ grasslands are in urgent need of reseeding, so as to increase their productivity and the feeding value. Use of local perennial grasses e.g. Red Oat and African Fox Tail – which do well even with limited rains, will possibly be better than using exotic grasses e.g. Rhodes Grass.
The pastoral community in the ASALs has a lot of cultural livestock management experience, as well as resilience, which can be leverage as the community transits to improved livestock production under managed grasslands. This is a big positive that you need to ride on.
Use of manure
Governor, this is your county’s gold and if manure was intentionally used to maintain soil fertility in grasslands, the livestock returns from increased grass value would be much higher than the price/truck that is paid for manure at the manyattas (homestead). I am not advocating that you should regulate the manure industry, but soil fertility is a critical factor in grass yields and nowhere is this more apparent than in ASALs.
Let me plug this – at Lukuai Hay Farm, we encourage that old barter trade whereby we take manure as payment for hay. This is a win-win for us and for our livestock-keeping customers.
Data on managed grasslands
What is the grass value from a well managed 1 acre in Laikipia’s ASALs?
What is the weight gain per cow per week in ASALs?
The above questions (and others related to grass production) will best be answered by data which needs to be current, credible and should be readily available for your administrative use, as well as for your constituents who want to have a go at managed grasslands.
A tip on grassland data: Other than data from research institutions, there is a lot data that is in private hands. People are willing to share data, if assured there is a greater common good that will be gained.
Bench-marking foreign trips field trips
Leadership is about learning and you get good at it if you learn from the best. Possibly this is the basis on which elected officials (countrywide) spent a great part of 2013 on a whirlwind of bench-marking trips abroad. Well, until the foreign embassies said: “Stop this charade!” I am not implying that you are drawing up an itinerary for a bench-marking tour abroad, but Governor anything you and your team would wish to learn about managed grasslands is right here in Kenya’s ASALs.
Start with the work done by the local office of NDMA (National Drought Management Authority). Tap the Baringo Governor and get an invite to see work done by the RAE Trust (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments). Visit individual farms, as Team IGAD/ICPALD did for experiential learning at Lukuai Farm. Grant it these field trips are not glamorous, but your team gets practical knowledge that is adaptable to the area. With appropriate foot wear, kofia (hat) and drinking water – you are ready for the lesson.
Branding/Marketing of conserved fodder (hay)
While any surplus conserved fodder (hay) from Laikipia’s ASALs has a ready market in the neighboring counties of Nyeri, Muranga, Kiambu, Nairobi and Meru, marketing it can be difficult. These counties have a preference for exotic grasses, such as Rhodes Grass, which are not well-adapted to ASALs. What measures will your government take to market the hay from Laikipia’s indigenous grasses, such as Themeda triandra (Red Oat Grass), so that they can be known as equally good grasses and not as hay of last resort?
A tip: You have cattle ranches in Laikipia that are renowned for quality herds, is it possible to enlist some as your grass brand ambassadors?
How are the other Governors in the ASALs counties, e.g. Kajiado handling the grass value issue? How about the Woman Reps? Since women’s issues – such as income generating projects, table banking, girls’ education and reproductive health – can all be linked to grass value, your Woman Reps should be involved in advocating for managed grasslands. The same goes for the MPs and MCAs – while lobbying for physical infrastructure and delivery of services is in order, the satisfaction that your constituents will derive from any service will be by a large measure determined by the welfare of their livestock which is based grass value.
Whichever way you choose to write your legacy, I hope that you and your team will consider managed grasslands as the right step to improve the livelihoods of the people in ASALs. By doing so, all the other things that you envision for Laikipia, such as peace and security, will be easier to achieve.
Anne Munene is a commercial grass farmer in Laikipia North and a trainer on grasslands improvement in the ASALs (Arid and Semi Arid Areas) https://lukuaihayfarm.com