Research boosts transition to climate-smart livestock management in East Africa

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Research boosts transition to climate-smart livestock management in East Africa

Livestock management and nomadism are the primary source of livelihood for nearly 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Some 40% of the land area of the continent is composed of arid or semi-arid areas which are not well suited to plant propagation but where livestock keeping is possible. In Ethiopia and Kenya, the share of livestock management of the gross domestic product generated by the agricultural sector is close to 20%. For centuries, nomads have had the capacity to adapt to challenging climate conditions by taking advantage of controlled grazing, but the spread of commercial agriculture, population growth, changes in land ownership and the increased prevalence of extreme weather phenomena brought about by climate change threaten the nomadic way of life and weaken the food safety of households practising livestock management.

The depletion of water resources, which are vital for livestock management, and the drying of grazing lands are the result of a change taking place in land use on the landscape level, with forests and bushes cleared into cropland and pastures as well as cut down for firewood. The disappearance of trees from uplands affects the hydrology of water catchment areas by reducing the capacity of ecosystems to catch and restore water, on which the agropastoral livelihoods of the inhabitants of lowlands and plains depend. The clearing of forests and wood consumption also generate greenhouse gas emissions, reducing the carbon stocks in the area.

At the same time, livestock management utilises a great deal of land area compared to how much it produces food for Africa where population growth is the highest in the world. Instead of a livelihood, livestock is often comparable to assets, as the name “live stock” itself suggests. Parts of the land area used for livestock keeping could be used for farming. Grazing cattle reduces biodiversity and, when consuming herbaceous plants, alters the temperature conditions of the ground surface and causes erosion by wearing out the plant life and soil.

The University of Helsinki’s Taita Research Station in Kenya and researchers from the Department of Geosciences and Geography are coordinating a four-year (2021-2024) project called ‘Earth observation and environmental sensing for climate-smart sustainable agropastoral ecosystem transformation in East Africa’ (ESSA) funded by the Development of Smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture (DeSIRA) development cooperation instrument of the European Union.

download - 2021-05-06T223147.150.jpegThe project aims to increase understanding of the interlinkages between tropical upland forest cover and semi-arid lowland landscapes as well as the dynamics of their multifunctional agricultural ecosystems, particularly in terms of water resources in Ethiopia and Kenya. In addition to water balance, ESSA investigates drivers of vegetation change, determines the carbon footprint of livestock management processes and develops remote sensing techniques for estimating cattle numbers and monitoring environmental change. As study subjects, the project focuses on people practising livestock management and aims to diversify their livelihood, on the basis of research-based knowledge, into, for example, beekeeping and the manufacture of plant-based products (e.g., baobab, Aloe vera and Prosopis juliflora). Beekeeping requires the maintenance of a nectar and pollen source, or acacia trees. Prosopis juliflora, an invasive species, is being developed as a source of fuel briquettes to avoid using indigenous woody vegetation in the production of charcoal, which is already prohibited by law in Kenya. These livelihoods pursued alongside livestock management can generate income opportunities especially for women and young people, consequently improving their status in nomadic communities. The project surveys the socioeconomic effects and application potential of these parallel livelihoods to investigate a broad-based transformation of the livestock management system in East Africa. The goal is to develop environmentally sustainable solutions that promote the maintenance of woody and grassy vegetation cover as well as support the adaptation of livestock management operators to the effects of climate change and changed land use.

The ESSA project is being carried out in Ethiopia and Kenya in cooperation with eight research institutions: the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), the University of NairobiAddis Ababa University, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Council Secretariat (EARCS) and the Regional Center for Mapping the Resources for Development (RCMRD). In addition to the University of Helsinki’s Earth Change Observation Laboratory, the other contributor from Europe is the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education from the Netherlands.

EU acting Ambassador to Kenya, Katrin Hagemann, said, “This programme will bring multiple benefits to the people of Kenya and Ethiopia. Firstly, the partnership between the University of Helsinki and various research institutes in Kenya and Ethiopia will enhance knowledge transfer and research capacity.

ESSA project is especially important for Kenya, where arid and semi-arid landscapes with main income in pastoralism make almost 90% of the country and involve almost 40% of the population. Diversification of livelihoods and sustainable agro-pastoral ecosystems are important tasks especially with climate change, states Katrin Hagemann.