The socio-economic transition of Somali pastoral communities in Northeastern Kenya

By Amina Aden Maalim


Somali Pastoral populations of Northeastern Kenya have lived for centuries in the semi-arid and arid regions of Northeastern Kenya. These groups have traditionally led a nomadic lifestyle, depending on their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels for economic well-being and food. Nonetheless, these settlements have undergone a substantial socioeconomic shift in recent decades due to a complex interaction of variables including market forces, government regulations, climate change, and environmental degradation (Nymwamu, 2009). The numerous facets of this continuous change will be examined in this essay, along with its effects on the livelihoods and lives of the Somali pastoralists in Northeastern Kenya.

The Traditional Pastoral System: Obstacles and Drives for Change

Part of the culture and practices of Somali pastoralism, their herds are the center of their lives. Livestock yields sustenance, such as meat and milk, as well as hides, skins, and other goods that can be traded or sold. Their nomadic way of life enables them to make effective use of the enormous rangelands by relocating their herds all year long to regions with access to pasture and water. Strong bonds of community, resilience, and awareness of the delicate habitat they live in have all been cultivated by this approach.

Conventional traditional pastoral systems face many difficulties. Reduced rangeland productivity and water shortages are the results of climate change-induced increased frequency and severity of droughts. Because of this, the quality and capacities of land has significantly decreased, making it more challenging for pastoralists to manage sizable herds. Moreover, overgrazing adds to environmental degradation, which intensifies as a result of population increase and the influx of non-pastoralist groups. Both developments also led to an increase of conflicts between pastoralist and non-pastoralists as well as amongst pastoralists.

These changes are compounded by government policies. In the past, the government promoted sedentary agriculture and frequently ignored the rights and demands of pastoralists. Furthermore, even with the best of intentions, government responses in times of drought occasionally resulted in unintended outcomes, such as overgrazing near feeding stations. Furthermore, the lives of Somali pastoralists is increasingly influenced by market pressure. Although an improved infrastructure has increased their access to markets, Somali pastoralists heavily rely on intermediaries and market fluctuations leave them vulnerable to exploitation. Traditional livestock markets are now highly rivaled by imported animal products and commercialized agribusiness (Nyamwamu et al., 2012).

Adapting to a changing socio-economic environment

Facing market integration, globalization, and shifting consumer preferences together with the outlined challenges, Somali pastoral communities in Northeastern Kenya started adapting and changing their sources of income. The following are some significant trends in this transition:


First, many traditionally nomadic groups are increasingly adopting semi-permanent or fully sedentary lifestyles (Merryman, 2019). This change is driven by a desire for easier access to essential services like healthcare and education, often concentrated in permanent settlements. Additionally, resource depletion pushes some to relocate near trade and water sources. While this shift represents a break from centuries-old nomadic customs, this transition also offers potential benefits. Improved access to services and livelihood options can improve the overall well-being. Additionally, investments in water infrastructure like boreholes make communities more resilient to climate challenges by ensuring water security during droughts.

Diversification of sources of income

Second, although keeping livestock is still essential to pastoralists' identities and economies, they are progressively broadening their sources of income to reduce risks and take advantage of new opportunities.  A lot of pastoralists are working in unconventional jobs other than raising livestock. This includes petty trade, beekeeping, small-scale farming, wage labor work in towns, and charcoal production (Barrett and Swallow, 2006b). This diversification helps coping with the unpredictability of pastoral income from livestock products.

Emerging new entrepreneurship skills, and education

Third, entrepreneurship and education are two important factors that influence the economic development of Somali pastoral communities. Especially young pastoralists now have the knowledge and ability to pursue a variety of job pathways outside of traditional herding because of the increased access to formal education. Young pastoralists are becoming more employable in sectors such as technology, agriculture, and livestock management, thanks to vocational training programs backed by non-governmental and government organizations. This creates new economic prospects. What is more, a variety of these skill sets are becoming more and more necessary as communities integrate deeper into the market economy. A good example of this is the pilot camel milk and meat value chain of Garissa and Wajir County pastoralists supported by Mercy Corps and USAID’s ACDI-VOCA. Through this, the pastoralists are currently able to export their value-added products to Saudi Arabia in addition to sales in Kenya and other African countries.

Series of photos showing SAAFI women’s Milk Group at Garissa being trained on Camel milk value addition by USAID through ACDI-VOCA Program and selling the value-added milk at Garissa market. Source: Mr. Yassin from Mercy corps and Livestock Marketing System’s office in Garissa County, Kenya

The availability of mobile technology and access to digital platforms allows pastoralists trade and financial activities even in remote places. By connecting rural communities with urban markets, these technological advancements broaden their economic perspectives and build their ability to withstand economic fluctuations.

Community-based rangeland management is another approach to empower pastoral communities and assist them to adapt in times of transition. Organizing in cooperatives may improve market access and cattle prices. To reduce losses during dry spells breeds resistant to drought may be introduced.

Conclusion: A balancing act

Somali pastoralists in Kenya face various challenges in balancing tradition and modern demands. Their way of life is evolving and has to deal with environmental and market challenges like resource scarcity and inadequate services. On the other hand, pastoral communities can adapt and flourish if they welcome change while honoring their culture, if they have access to essential resources such as healthcare, education, and markets. Moreover, social changes that go along with this transition need to be addressed. Questions of cultural identity may come up and social cohesion may break down as people move away from traditional lifestyles. Other obstacles may arise from shifting gender roles and a greater reliance on outside resources. The key is to build a future in which they can both flourish and safeguard their environment.


Barrett C, Swallow S (2006b). An ordered Tobit model of market participation: Evidence from Kenya and Ethiopia. Am. J. Agric. Econ., 88(2): 324-337

Merryman, J. L. (2019). Pastoral nomad settlement in response to drought: the case of the Kenya Somali. In Involuntary Migration and Resettlement (pp. 105-119). Routledge.

Nyamwamu B (2009). Factors influencing the shift from pastoralism to agriculture and its impact on soil quality in Kajiado. M.Sc Thesis. University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya

Nyamwamu, B., Okello, J.J., & Kironchi, G. (2012). Drivers of the transition from pastoralism to vegetable farming in Africa’s arid and semi-arid areas and implications for soil fertility management: The case of Kenyan pastoralists. African Journal of Agricultural Research, 7, 2273-2282.


About the author

Amina Aden Maalim is a Senior Research Scientist at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) with expertise in agroforestry/agroecology, climate change adaptation, and sustainable development. She is based in the arid Northeastern region of Kenya where she collaborates closely with pastoral and agropastoral communities to implement innovative strategies for resilience-building and sustainable land management.