Even in the harshest of sub-Saharan environments, there are promising low-cost approaches we can use, so that income-poor rural pastoralists can successfully adapt to climate change, without giving up their way of life.  

In Australia, many are acutely aware of the increasing impacts of climate change on Pacific Island countries. But countries in East Africa, including Tanzania, are also prone to increasing climate variability and extreme events such as droughts and floods. While there is some uncertainty about exactly how climate change will play out in East Africa, its impacts are already hitting communities hard. And women, who are disproportionately affected by climate change, are bearing the brunt.  

The most recent drought in East Africa lasted more than four years and set new records earlier this year, as rains failed for a fifth season in a row.  As the pendulum now swings towards floods, in line with scientists’ projections, the region is becoming one of the most food-insecure in the world. It would be easy to understand, if traditional pastoralists like the Maasai abandoned their way of life for something a bit easier.  

A Maasai woman clears dust from her eyes and nose in Northern Tanzania

A Maasai woman clears dust from her eyes and nose, in her drought-affected village in Northern Tanzania, in August 2023. An approaching dust haze can be seen in the distance. Image: Ngaire McCubben, Action on Poverty 

The Maasai of Northern Tanzania 

Maasai people have lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle in Tanzania for hundreds of years. At one time their lands covered almost all the Great Rift Valley and adjacent areas. They graze cattle, goats, and sheep, moving their herds from one place to another, so that the grass has a chance to grow again. Traditionally, this was made possible by a communal land tenure system in which everyone in an area shared access to water and pasture. 

Maasai life still centres around their cattle, which constitute the primary source of food. Families consume the meat, milk, and on occasion, blood, of the animals. Cows, goats, and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions; milk is often fermented before it is consumed. Increasingly, foods like beans and maize are also consumed. A man’s wealth (yes, the livestock are the property of men) is measured in cattle and children (wives/women are also counted as children). Pastoralism is, however, as much a way of life for Maasai people, as it is an economic activity. It forms a key part of an individual’s identity as a Maasai person. 

While the communal land tenure system still characterises how Maasai pastoralism is carried out, the Maasai in Tanzania have gradually been displaced from their lands since at least the 1940s. Land has been taken over for private farms, government projects, national parks, and private hunting reserves, including those well-known national parks we all love to visit. Maasai people have been pushed to the margins, to the driest and least fertile areas, bringing poverty and hardship to those who remain on the land.  

The challenge of being able to survive on such marginal land is made much worse by the extremes of a changing climate, leading to decreased livestock productivity. Many families have been forced to significantly reduce the size of already small herds and flocks. The impact of climate change on vulnerable households will be extreme if adequate measures are not taken in time.  

Like many other communities in sub-Saharan Africa, limited access to resources and infrastructure have severely constrained the ability of Maasai communities to respond adequately to the new reality.The most recent drought has made accessing food of any type increasingly difficult, and communities are experiencing acute and severe hunger as a result. Community vulnerability to climate change is exacerbated by a limited economic capacity to adapt to the increasingly extreme temperatures and more frequent natural disasters. More needs to be done to help communities to respond to the threat of climate change.  

Watery goats milk constitutes a meal Maasai Tanzania

A woman explains that there are no longer enough cows producing milk, so she drinks goat’s milk instead, and must water it down to make it last throughout the day. This watery goat’s milk constitutes a meal. Image: Ngaire McCubben, Action on Poverty.  

Supporting Communities to Grow Their Resilience to Climate Change 

Action on Poverty (AOP) (Australia) and Community Research and Development Services (CORDS) (Tanzania) have been working together for the benefit of Maasai communities for over ten years. CORDS is a locally run Maasai organisation headed by Lilian Looloitai, a formidable and passionate advocate for Maasai people, especially women. CORDS works to promote holistic development and fight injustice, designing programs to improve the quality of life for Maasai people. AOP connects philanthropists, charities, and corporates with grassroot communities and projects around the world to end poverty. Our collective experience in the sector totals over 80 years.  

Over the last few years, CORDS program staff watched on painfully, as the situation for the eight communities they work with declined more and more, the longer the drought went on. As water sources dried up and domestic herds dwindled, hunger grew. With support from The Charitable Foundation (TCF) in Australia, AOP and CORDS provided emergency food relief to keep people going. While this reduced the immediate risk of starvation, it became clearer to all involved, that more needed to be done.  

In July and August 2023, AOP and CORDS carried out a community needs assessment, speaking with district officials, community leaders, women, and other community members. We looked at existing projects that were showing great promise, such as those funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and TCF, and reviewed the most recent research on climate resilience, adaption, and mitigation.  

Hundreds of people came to the community meetings we held, describing both the strengths of their communities and lifestyle, as well as the challenges. They told us what they thought was needed to move them from a position of vulnerability and suffering, to one of strength, resilience, and empowerment.  

Women, who are critical to moving the dial on climate resilience, spoke of walking for hours, sometimes overnight, to collect enough water for 24 hours of household use. They told us about getting up at 4am and going to bed at 11pm, just so they could get through their chores. Chores like cooking, cleaning, washing, taking care of children, collecting firewood, water, and building materials; maintaining house structures, and milking and sorting livestock.  

The men we spoke to told us of the deep, visceral pain they felt when they were forced to reduce their herds; the impact on their standing in the community and sense of self, as well as the financial hardship this brought about. They spoke of not be able to afford education for their children or health care for sick family members. 

Maasai woman in Northern Tanzania speaks of daily challenges  

A woman in one of the villages we visited speaks of the challenges she experiences each day, as she shoulders the sole responsibility for managing her household and caring for her family. Image: CORDS 

Women were unambiguous about ‘what would help’ and said their priorities are: 

  • reducing how long they must spend (directly related to how far they must travel) to collect water, firewood, and grind maize, by bringing those things closer to the village 
  • reducing the amount of time they must dedicate to the livestock 
  • getting men to better support, assist, and share the workload with them 
  • education and training to increase their economic empowerment 
  • access to a revolving fund (microfinance facility), so they can start their own small businesses 
  • access to income generating activities, and 
  • establishing women’s support groups. 

Women in each of the eight communities clearly identified support to start small home-based businesses, especially through access to training and start-up capital, as essential to improving their lives. They said that being able to generate an income and support themselves would allow them to address many of the challenges they face, ‘liberating’ them from their excessive burden. One woman explained that they (women) don’t own anything. Men own the livestock, and they are not accountable to women in any way. They discussed how important the establishment of women’s groups would be to create a supportive environment.  

Women said that if they can generate an income, it would improve their overall quality of life. It would not simply supplement the family income. Through an independently earned income, they would be able to reduce their dependence on their husbands, whose mercy they are at. They would be able to reduce their workloads through access to essential goods and services. They would be able to replace their labour-intensive thatched rooves with iron rooves. They could pay someone to help with the livestock. They could purchase low fuel cookstoves to reduce the amount of wood they need to collect, and how often they must collect it. And it wouldn’t just be the women who would benefit. They would be able to send their children to school, visit a doctor and buy medicine when a family member is sick, have an alternative income stream during drought and other climate shocks, and demonstrate to the whole community that women are capable and deserve respect. 

The significance of livestock and pastoralism to Maasai people cannot be overestimated and every village we visited identified their pastoral way of life, their livestock, and the freedom to graze their livestock, as the strengths of their community. It wouldn’t be enough to just empower women economically; communities would need support to continue the practice of pastoralism. Yet in most communities we visited, there was little if any ground cover, large erosion gullies were evident, and dams, where they existed, had mostly dried up.  

Erosion gully in Monduli District

Erosion gully in Monduli District. Image: Ngaire McCubben, Action on Poverty 

But through all the tales of hardship, one thing was clear. The Maasai are a strong, proud, and resilient people. They unequivocally spoke about the strength and cohesion of their communities, much of which is derived from the connection to their land, and their pastoral way of life. It is easy to see why most would not want to ‘move to town’ and adopt a different way of life.  

Since August, an expert team of AOP and CORDS staff have been working to develop a new comprehensive, multi-year project to support Maasai communities to become more climate resilient. Using what we heard from community members, and incorporating some tried and true methods along with a dash of innovation and strong local knowledge of what works in the specific context, the project aims to work with Maasai communities in Northern Tanzania, so they can turn things around.  

Over a five-year period, we plan to deliver activities that will build community resilience through sustainable livelihoods. We would do this by improving access to essential infrastructure, introducing new knowledge and skills, improving gender equality, and helping households to diversify their income, while continuing to practice pastoralism.  

There’s no doubt that short term food relief will still be required in some villages, but activities are designed so that vulnerable communities can thrive, even in the face of climate change. Through better access to water, and use of fuel efficient cookstoves, women will have time to pursue income generating activities. Small amounts of income will, in turn, allow them to purchase sturdier materials to build homes, further reducing the amount of time they spend maintaining houses. Men will better understand the benefits of women’s economic inclusion and support them to take on leadership roles and contribute to community decision-making. Community members will learn how to implement natural land regeneration practices, so that there is more shade for people and livestock, more food for livestock, less erosion, and the earth can absorb and retain moisture.  

It’s fair to say the team are excited about the potential of this new project, which incorporates and builds on all that we have learned over the last ten years, and responds directly to calls from local communities. We hope to be able to launch the new project in the middle of 2024. If you’d like to support this project, you can do so by donating here. Every little helps! To learn more about the work of AOP and CORDS, please check out our websites. 


By Dr. Ngaire McCubben, Program Design and Grant Development Manager, Action on Poverty 



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