Many Cultures, One Kenya

Despite its relative size—less than two percent of Africa’s massive total area—Kenya boasts a rich array of micro-climates. You have the lush emerald grasslands of the Rift Valley; beachy coastlines along the Indian Ocean; the humid equatorial rainforest of Kakamega; and the hot, arid north. This beautiful East African country is also home to a large number of distinct cultures, each as different from the other as the desert is from the grasslands.

These unique tribes, says Dr. Troy Sammons, an American veterinarian who lived in Nakuru, Kenya with his family, are the first key to understanding the deep roots of beef culture in Kenya.

The most prolific and widespread of the cattle pastoralist tribes is the Maasai, notable for maintaining its rich individual heritage. “They tend to live much like they have throughout history,” Sammons says. Avoiding technology except for basic mobile phones and interacting little with other Kenyan tribes and Westerners, the Maasai live primarily in the idyllic, lush grazing lands of the southern part of the country. The Borana and Somali (Kenyan citizens with Somali heritage) live near the Ethiopian border to the north and Somalia border to the east, respectively, keeping cattle and camels and observing a lifestyle influenced by their Islamic heritage. While some Kenyan cattle-herding tribes make peaceful neighbors, others compete, especially in the rugged, famine-prone northern lands where the Samburu, a sister tribe to the Maasai, share close quarters with the Turkana. Cattle rustling is a major issue between the Samburu and Turkana, partially because the rangelands are open and unfenced, and tribal-owned grazing areas not always sharply distinct.

Cattle: A Long-Term Investment

A sizable proportion of Kenya’s cattle can be found on the least arable lands of the north. “Using low-production areas to feed Kenya is probably one of the biggest strengths of the industry,” Sammons says.

Therefore, the pastoralists keep a variety of hardy, indigenous Bos Indicus breeds, the most prominent of which is the Boran (named for the Borana tribe). The Boran cow is a water-efficient animal with a fatty hump, dewlap, and large ears for heat tolerance; thick skin that guards against the disease-carrying tsetse fly; and a white, tan, or grey coloring. A few white settlers and wealthier Kenyans raise British-origin Bos Taurus breeds on large beef farms with pasture practices similar to Western ranches, hiring men to tend to the cattle and graze them within or near the ranches in traditional pastoralist style.

A healthy calf can go for 10,000 Kenyan schillings ($117 USD), while a range cow without genetic potential will bring between 30,000 and 60,000 schillings ($350–700 USD). Genetics are an area of potential growth, as currently little cross-breeding takes place and bulls remain with the herd at all times. Generally speaking, the value distinctions of breeding, weight, or even dairy versus beef types are looser in Kenya, where the best kind of cow is one that is both good for eating and gives some milk, and is tough enough to handle the equatorial climate.

In terms of value, a cow in Kenya is seen mainly as a long-term investment and status symbol, Sammons says. For example, in the giving of a dowry, a festive celebration that also involves the bridegroom’s family offering gifts to the bride’s family, cows play a major role. “Dowry is measured in cows and camels, not sheep and goats,” Sammons says. Therefore, a father in Kenya would hold onto cattle for the upcoming wedding day in the same way some Westerners will tuck some of their own savings away in the bank for their children’s wedding ceremonies.

Eradicating Disease, Increasing Facilities

From the perspective of Dr. Josiah Mandieka, a Kenyan veterinarian currently based in Nairobi, “the greatest achievements in the beef industry in the last five to ten years are the eradication of Rinderpest and the development of a vaccine for East Coast fever.”

The fact that Rinderpest is now a disease of the past is a huge achievement for not only Kenya, but the African continent’s cattle industry at large. The disease affected domesticated cattle and regional wildlife such as giraffes, antelopes, and buffaloes, and was practically impossible to control because of shared watering holes and the lack of fences. ”It’s a very deadly disease that essentially kills everything that contracts it,” Sammons says. A massive coordinated vaccination effort was launched in the mid-1990s, and the United Nations declared Rinderpest officially eradicated worldwide in 2011.

Mandieka says that challenges remain. “Cattle producers need water, improved pasture, marketing of products, and control of diseases like foot-and-mouth disease, lumpy skin, and Rift Valley fever.” For cattle producers who wish to grow beyond a subsistence model, mobile slaughter facilities, milk cooling plants, and a more robust leather processing industry are all future opportunities for the growth Dr. Mandieka envisions.

No matter the tribe, Kenya’s pastoralists maintain a deep tie to each individual animal in their herd, knowing them by site, rather than number. Raising cattle is deeply embedded in their culture, and joined with lifestyle, beliefs, family, and tradition in a way that defies pure industrialization of this sector. Working with, rather than against, that sense of personal relationship and responsibility is the best way for Kenya to move forward, Sammons says. The result will be uniquely Kenyan.