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Linking early warning system information to response

The emergency livestock off-take programme, Isiolo district 1996-7

By Helen Bushell and Mike Wekesa

Isiolo - A trader admires the animals he has purchased

Helen Bushell is a consultant specialising in food security and with expertise in early warning systems. Helen has worked for the past 18 months as an early warning systems advisor with DPIRP* and in addition provides technical assistance to the Government of Kenya via their Arid Lands Resource Management Project. Mike Wekesa is a food security and dry land development expert working with DPIRP. He was DPIRP's regional interventions advisor during the emergency livestock off-take programme in Isiolo in the 1996 - 1997 drought.

The semi-arid to arid district of Isiolo covers an area of 25,605 square kilometres and is one of 10 districts of Eastern Province in Kenya. Rainfall patterns are bi-modal with the long rains falling between March and May and the short rains expected between October and December. Isiolo town is the 'gateway' to the north and as such is home to a diverse population from the Borana, Somali, Turkana, Samburu, Meru and Kikuyu ethnic groups. The majority of Isiolo however is home to the Borana people. The district has an estimated population of 90,000 people with a growth rate of 4.8% per year, among the highest in Kenya.

Nomadic pastoralism remains the dominant livelihood for the people of Isiolo, dairy farming and limited crop production is also practised on a small scale. A long history of insecurity in the region and the resulting loss of livestock and declining herd sizes characterises the high levels of vulnerability in the district.

Isiolo district map

A drought began to affect Isiolo district in mid 1996 and continued into 1997 with three successive droughts. By the first quarter of 1997 the divisions of Merti, Garba, Tulla and Kinna were already categorised as being in the alert/alarm stage of the Drought Preparedness Intervention Recovery Programme (DPIRP) early warning system.* Overuse of grazing reserves and boreholes had resulted in inadequate pasture and an acute water shortage for livestock. An estimated 40,000 people (7000 households) were at risk.

Early warning signals like livestock mortality, low birth rates and weakening of livestock continued to show widespread and substantial deterioration in Isiolo. The deterioration eventually began to adversely affect human health and welfare by the beginning of the first quarter of 1997 when malnutrition amongst children had risen to 35-40% as measured by MUAC surveys. The DPIRP system uses MUAC measurements on children to monitor nutritional trends. A MUAC of less than 135 mm is taken to indicate malnutrition.

In March 1997, DPIRP received a letter from a group of elders representing the Boran community living in Merti Division. The community requested assistance to dispose of their livestock in the face of depleted grazing and water resources in the area and in view of impending crises in the coming months.

In May 1997, the District Steering Group, a sub-committee of the District Development Committee, sent out a rapid assessment team to the drought stricken areas to ascertain and verify the magnitude of the crisis. The team reported that high livestock mortalities particularly in cattle were already evident, while livestock prices were falling by as much as 50% compared to normal seasonal prices. The team also reported that despite the low prices, approximately 40% of the remaining cattle, were in moderate condition and could still be marketed and fetch reasonable prices. The pastoralists believed that of this 40% about half could survive even if the expected short rains later in the year failed as there would be enough pasture to support this population of animals. Thus, the DPIRP estimated that 5000 head of cattle would need to be purchased from the community. This type of intervention is known as a livestock off-take programme, whereby the selling of at risk livestock by the community is facilitated by subsidising traders' costs. This makes it more cost effective for traders to buy livestock while stabilising prices for the pastoralists. Pastoralists are experienced in selecting which animals to sell during a stress period and which ones to retain as breeding stock for the future. The timing of the intervention is therefore crucial as the programme should aim to stabilise prices and locate livestock that are still in a fair and saleable condition.

Loss of livestock by pastoralists among the Boran community is equivalent to loss of identity. A pastoralist family that loses its animals loses its sense of cultural self as well as becoming destitute. Hence the success of a relief operation for this type of community should not just be measured in terms of declining levels of malnutrition but also in terms of preserving the buoyancy of the pastoralist community.

Objectives of intervention implemented by DPIRP

The main objectives were:

Although it is often necessary to complement livestock off-take programmes with cereal price stabilisation, this was not necessary on this occasion as aggregate production of cereals in the country was stable so that cereal prices were affordable during the crisis

Procedure for the Intervention

A number of steps were necessary:


The implementation steps were as follows.

DPIRP provided a 40% transport subsidy to every trader who went out to market centres with a lorry to buy livestock. The subsidy amounted to 20,000 Kenyan shillings per lorry. This subsidy was given to the implementing agencies to administer.

Both NGOs discussed with the community when livestock market days would be held, venues and the data to be collected for monitoring purposes.

Livestock off-take committees consisting of elders from the communities were established to:

  1. discuss general pricing of animals for each market day,
  2. record all transactions taking place during the market days,
  3. authorise by co-signing the letter for payment of the subsidy to ensure that only eligible traders received the subsidy, and
  4. collect a levy of 100 kshillings from traders for each animal bought. The respective communities used this levy to fund community projects.

The district veterinary officer provided livestock movement permits at the site once the screening for various livestock diseases was complete.

Isiolo - Veterinary staff examining and taking samples from animals presented for sale. This is part of the disease control

The two NGOs arranged to pay traders the agreed subsidy at their respective offices.

Two elders and one officer assigned by the NGOs at the market site followed the transactions during market days in order to confirm the validity of subsidy claims.

The officer paying the subsidy had to physically see the animals loaded onto a lorry before making the payment. This was to avoid recycling of animals already bought for purposes of claiming the subsidy.

Limitations of the programme

Pre-prepared plans like the livestock off-take programme were not available during this drought, so that prior implementation arrangements were inadequate and took time to be agreed upon.

Most agencies operating in the districts had no budget for disaster mitigation activities. DPIRP was the only agency with funds at district level at the time.

Due to increased pastoral mobility in search of pasture and water, those households that moved far away from the market centres did not benefit from the intervention.

Impact and lessons learned

The DPIRP EWS proved invaluable as it signalled the need for drought mitigation activities.

Contingency plans are vital as they reduce the time lag between approval of the intervention and the actual start of the programme.

Involvement of community groups like elders proved invaluable in certain activities, e.g. scheduling market days, monitoring the transactions and endorsing subsidy payments.

Cereals were bought with the monies raised through the sale of 2913 cattle valued at over 9.5 million Kenyan shillings.

Malnutrition rates (based on MUAC measurements) fell from 35% to 25% during the intervention. Although cause and effect could not be proven, there was a consensus amongst those involved that the reduction in malnutrition was at least in part due to the improved food security brought about by the livestock off-take programme.

Selection of animals to be sold by households ensured that strong breeding stock remained, which maintained the integrity of the pastoralist community and prevented eventual famine.

For further information: Contact at Arid Lands Resource Management Project, Office of the President, Nairobi, Kenya - don't know post-code or email Helen Bushell on

Show footnotes

*The Drought Preparedness Intervention and Recovery Programme (DPIRP) is a community based drought management programme of the Government of Kenya and is supported by technical and financial assistance from the Netherlands. The objective of DPIRP is to foster self-reliance among pastoralists and agro-pastoralists and to enhance their capacity to withstand the negative impacts of drought. The programme has a drought monitoring component.

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Helen Bushell and Mike Wekesa (). Linking early warning system information to response. Field Exchange 9, March 2000. p18.



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