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Transitioning out of Pastoralism

Nomadic communities in the southern lowlands of Ethiopia diversify their income

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"Before, some individuals had thousands of animals. Now, nobody has 1,000 animals, maybe the richest pastoralist has 500...and now they want their daughter to marry a fisherman because they always have money." — Dasanech youth

Under ideal conditions, the practice of herd and household mobility known as pastoralism is sustainable. Staying nomadic significantly contributes to grassland health, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration and for thousands of years, communities in Ethiopia’s southern lowlands have lived this way. However, pastoralist communities can no longer rely on traditional livestock and agriculture for high-quality, nutritious food production and consistent income generation. Drought, scarce resources, and weak markets threaten the viability and sustainability of this type of livelihood, contributing to increasing food insecurity and economic deterioration.

Building markets for mobile communities

Many young people from pastoralist backgrounds seek alternative, less climate-vulnerable livelihoods but struggle to overcome barriers such as lack of business knowledge and capital. Others wish to remain within a pastoralist livelihood system but are also looking for opportunities to diversify their income in a healthy market system. In response to these challenges, an initiative called Resilience in Pastoral Areas (RIPA) was formed. iDE, Global Communities (formerly PCI), and GOAL are partners in RIPA, a $4.3 million dollar project funded by USAID. The iDE team works alongside women and youth in pastoralist communities in the southern lowlands of Ethiopia on multiple levels: identifying barriers that individual entrepreneurs, public agencies, and private companies face; improving resilience, enhancing food security and economic growth of communities; and strengthening local livestock and crop production market systems.

Listening before leaping into action

In order to better understand how pastoralist women and youth engage in different value chains and markets in the southern lowlands, the RIPA team conducted an extensive research deep dive using a methodology called human-centered design (HCD). The HCD process involves listening to the concerns, insights, and ideas of stakeholders; co-creating solutions with the community; and delivering the ideas through rapid prototyping and testing. The RIPA team met and engaged in human-centered design practices with more than 20 individuals in each of the 16 woredas (or districts) in the project zone. In addition to conducting interviews with representative women and youth, the process involved meeting with community elders, model businesspeople and cooperatives, government officials, financial institutions, traders, and consumers—all in an effort to understand the challenges and opportunities within local market systems.

When conducting human-centered design research for RIPA, the team used various methods from in-field interviews with relevant stakeholders to active observation of markets and business activities. Desk research and participatory tools also contributed to the larger effort to understand the communities through active listening. For example, in the Somali Deep Dive, the team utilized a tool called ‘How How’ that prompted pastoralist participants to create detailed plans using words and sketches for how they have or would start a business by repeatedly asking the question, “How?” With prompting and further discussion, participants mapped out how they would start this business, why, and with whom.

Deep Dive Discoveries

After conducting hundreds of hours of interviews and market observation, the team in Ethiopia developed key findings that will help to shape future action.

➥ Explore a summary of the big insights.

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The population of the 16 target woredas is roughly 1.3 million or 215,000 households, 95% of which are rural. Though RIPA’s focus is specifically on women and youth in pastoralist communities, the wider community will benefit from the broad-based resilience strategies, and at least half of all households will be direct beneficiaries of comprehensive resilience capacity building interventions. In some cases, inter-ethnic or inter-clan conflict is an important aspect to consider before any work can begin. In order to equitably distribute support and create opportunities with a conflict sensitive approach, woredas, zones, and regions are intentionally counter-balanced so previously conflicting community groups may work together for a common goal.

Research informs action in the Guji Zone

A human-centered design methodology uncovered unique aspects of each community in the lowlands and allowed the team to co-design products and solutions that are desirable, affordable, and appropriate to the context. One good example of how interviews with pastoralists informed the program design would be how iDE and the RIPA team work with people in the Guji zone.

Traditionally, people in the Guji area are experienced agro-pastoralists but many families lost their livestock due to conflict and climate change, forcing them to relocate to town. Those still in rural areas turned from cattle rearing to crop production as their main source of income. Multiple generations have farming experience and learned production practices informally. Guji agro-pastoralists use their land to produce both staple and commercial crops despite shifting and increasing challenges due to the climate crisis.

These factors were expressed to the RIPA team during human-centered design research sessions. Informed with this contextual information, some interventions in the Guji zone focus on scaling up crop production through improved practices and market linkages to traders and consumers. To achieve agro-pastoralist success, the Guji people need access to things like improved seeds, climate-smart tools, and local mentors. Without a stable supply of the best inputs, they are not able to produce the higher quality crops and animals they need to combat extreme climate events like erratic rainfall and outright drought.

Other Guji value chains and opportunities

Women and youth are actively engaging in diverse livelihood opportunities like poultry production, aquaculture, woodwork, and information technology. While opportunities to start and grow businesses in these areas exist, a lack of technical know-how and startup capital is a significant barrier.

➥ More key findings in the complete HCD Overview

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This project is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this report are the sole responsibility of iDE and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USAID or the United States Government. 

Young pastoralists expand business

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While both men and women in the lowlands of Ethiopia have increased their engagement in local markets, they often lack access, agency, and commercial scale.

Read more: Livelihood variety for the next generation