At 9am, Eliud Sankare is still at home in Isinya village, south of Nairobi, instead of out herding the 40 cattle his son has already led to pasture. He heads to the cowshed to join his wife and two daughters, raking manure into big mounds.
Using dry twigs as brooms, they are sweeping the green-layered droppings into a fifth pile when they’re interrupted by a loud hooting. Sankare beams excitedly and heads for the gate – his family is about to reap $150 for their labor.
“Prolonged drought is making it hard to find pasture and food,” he explained, estimating a third of his cattle have starved this year. “Selling manure helps me buy food and pay hospital bills for my family.”
Demand for manure collected from Kenya’s rangelands for use as fertilizer is on the rise.
Scientists at the Nairobi-based International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) say this manure is richer in nitrogen and phosphorous than that from enclosed livestock which do not graze.
Crops need nitrogen to develop vegetation, while phosphorous is essential for root formation and the crop’s structure, said Edward Karanja, project leader with ICIPE, which is working to promote the use of manure as fertiliser in Kenya.
In Sankare’s village, growing crops is not part of the Maasai community’s traditional sources of income, meaning the potential of their livestock’s manure has been overlooked. But that is starting to change.
On Mary Wanjiru’s farm in Kangari village in central Kenya, leafy rows of maize, beans and other vegetables promise a generous harvest, even in a season when farmers all over Kenya are expecting poor yields due to insufficient rains.
Wanjiru has been farming her one-eighth of an acre using both manure collected from Maasai land and composted manure from her own cow penned on a corner of her land.
On the lower strip, where she has applied her composted manure, knee-high maize and beans fight for space to grow.
On the upper strip, where she has used manure from Maasai grazing land, the beans are ankle-high and already putting out tendrils to climb up stakes set in the ground.
“I use only manure on my farm,” said the mother of seven, who is certain she will get a bumper harvest. But finding enough good-quality fertiliser is becoming “a challenge,” she noted.
Much of this highland area has been planted with cash crops such as tea, crowding out staple crops, she said. Even keeping livestock is getting tougher due to a lack of fodder for cows and goats, she added.
But for enterprising herders like Sankare, the manure trade offers a new source of income that is helping compensate for losses caused by drought.
Sankare estimates he can collect about eight tons of manure over a month. That is enough to fertilise 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares) of tea plantation in central Kenya, said James Njuguna, a farmers’ field assistant working in the area.
“When manure from Maasai land is applied on the tea farms, the production is higher than expected,” said Njuguna.
A tea plant normally yields about 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) of leaves a year, but when enriched with manure, it can produce as much as 3 kg.
Kenya’s growing appetite for rangeland manure is creating a new revenue stream — and not just for herders.
David Ngure, a trader in central Kenya, has been selling Maasai manure to farmers for the last two years.
In a week, he can supply an average of five truck-loads of 8 tons each, which he sells for 36,000 Kenyan shillings (about $348) per load.
“Demand for the product among crop farmers is high,” said Ngure. But supplying the orders is a logistical challenge because he must travel as far as 400 km (248.5 miles) to source the manure from pastoralists like Sankare.
ICIPE’s Karanja sees big potential in the manure trade because more Kenyans are investing in agriculture.
About 80 percent of Kenya is arid and semi-arid land, making pastoralism the main economic activity in those parts. But the government has not done enough to help herders exploit manure as a resource, said Karanja.
For instance, they should be encouraged to form co-operatives to make it easier to manage income from selling manure, and save money to buy food when drought hits, he said.
There are also environmental benefits, he noted.
“Using manure for farming helps store carbon in the soil and prevents it from being released into the atmosphere,” said Karanja. In this way, communities can contribute to reducing climate-changing emissions, he added.