It’s six o’clock in the morning. The sun is just rising and we’re already out on the road. We’re heading to the town of Kimanjo, located in northern Laikipia County, Kenya, to visit its market.
As part of a joint World Agroforestry and EcoAgriculture Partners research team that is funded by the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation, we are trying to figure out how food is flowing into, out of, and within Laikipia County and what challenges both consumers and traders face, so that we can help improve the food system for vulnerable people in the area. We heard that this bimonthly market is essential to feeding 20,000 local people located in this predominantly pastoral area, while serving as a significant source of livestock for butcheries in Nairobi (260 km away), and we are excited to understand what types of food are flowing into the market and from where, what types of food are flowing out of the market and where they are going; but we have to get there first.
This bimonthly market is essential to feeding 20,000 local people located in this predominantly pastoral area, while serving as a significant source of livestock for butcheries in Nairobi (260 km away).
The road to Kimanjo from Nanyuki (the closest big city) starts off paved, but quickly turns to dirt. Soon our Land Rover is careening over rocks, navigating through ravines, and dodging potholes that look like small craters. We pass several other traders, with sacks of potatoes, maize, and cabbages strapped on the top of their vehicles, trying desperately to make it to the market without dropping their produce in the road. We also pass large empty livestock trucks, making the long trek to the market to pick up loads of goats, sheep, cows and camels. After 60 kilometers and over 2 hours of exceedingly hard traveling, we finally arrive. As I get out of the car, I realize even my brain feels a little shaken up!
The market is bustling: traders from nearby cities have started to lay out their produce on the ground, local women are arriving and sifting through available goods, and livestock sellers from all over northern Kenya have amassed with their livestock and are already beginning to bargain with brokers. It’s quite a scene! We’ve already selected the products we want to focus on, based on a survey we did of the foods most frequently consumed in the area, so our research team sets out to start our interviews before the sun gets too much hotter. I’m off to interview people selling Irish potatoes, maize, bananas, and cabbage.
The first person I find is a cabbage seller. He gets his cabbage from farmers in Meru County (140 km away) and pays a vehicle to transport them up to Kimanjo. He tells me the most significant challenge he faces is the insecurity on the roads and at the market. Sometimes bandits will rob traders at the market or on their way back home. The only way to make the trip up to Kimanjo worth it, he says, is to increase the prices he charges in the market.
The second person I interview is a woman selling potatoes. She also gets her potatoes from Meru County during the rainy season, but during the dry season she has to go all the way to Nyadarua County (to which there is no direct road). Fortunately, potatoes don’t spoil easily, but she still complains about the poor road network and how difficult it is to access this market.
Then, I find a man selling maize. He tells a similar story about transportation problems, and I learn that the county has been working on constructing a bridge that would open up a new route to the western part of the county (where most of the maize is grown). This would make accessing and transporting maize significantly easier and cheaper. But it’s been over 3 years since they started construction, and the locals are starting to wonder if it will ever be completed.
Finally, I find a woman selling bananas. She tells me how difficult it is to sell bananas in these conditions, pointing out the direct sun and lack of any market infrastructure for shade. She says between the difficulties of transport and selling, she loses 20-40 percent of her bananas.
After a couple more hours of interviews, the large research team, composed of 2 investigators, 2 field assistants, and 3 translators, reconvenes to compare our findings. We learn from the team member charged with interviewing livestock buyers and sellers that on a good day 10 million KES in livestock can be traded at this market, with livestock sellers coming in from the neighboring counties of Samburu, Isiolo, Baringo and Marsabit, to sell to the large group of buyers who come from Nairobi, Nyeri, Kirinyaga, and Nanyuki. Amazingly, over 40 percent of the livestock sold in this market is transported all the way to consumers in Nairobi.
She says between the difficulties of transport and selling, she loses 20-40 percent of her bananas.
But, during the months of August-September and January-March, when it’s dry, less than 1 million KES is traded per day, as the supply of livestock and demand from buyers drops dramatically. What’s more, livestock brokers frequently take advantage of pastoralists, who are desperate to sell animals quickly, by offering exceedingly low prices. Pastoralists become especially food insecure during these dry times when they are unable to sell their animals or can’t get good prices, because they depend almost entirely on the livestock trade to buy staples like maize and beans.
What does all of this mean for improving the food system for vulnerable people in Laikipia County? We’re still trying to figure that out! In addition to this site, we have looked at 2 other vulnerable sites in different regions of the county and are slowly trying to piece together the “food flow” picture. Because of the complexity, we’re using every technique we can think of to analyze the system, including mapping food flows using GIS and good old colored pencils.
What’s clear so far is that there are significant inefficiencies in the way food is traveling into, within and out of the county. Our next step is to take these data and display them, along with other primary and secondary data we’ve collected on land, water, infrastructure, education, health, and trade, as part of an interactive dashboard that will help the county government visualize and analyze these issues in a more systematic and multi-dimensional way.