A herd of Zebra at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.
Zebras Graze | A herd of Zebra at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya. © Ami Vitale

Stories in Africa

A Cowboy Comes to Kenya:

The Pursuit of Balance Between Wildlife and Livelihoods

When you’re close enough to hear the sound of a herd of zebras munching grass in the big quiet of an African savannah — when the hushed hum of nature isn’t crowded out by a swelling soundtrack — that’s when you truly feel how close you are.

That mesmerizing munching is the real soundtrack of life here — of the fate of wildlife, people’s livelihoods, the hope for peace and security — because everything comes down to grass.

In the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, as in many of the world’s great grasslands, wildlife must co-exist with livestock. For generations, there was enough grass to go around. But a growing population of people and growing herds of cattle, goats, and sheep are tipping the balance. There’s more competition for finite food and water, and climate change is making droughts more frequent.

That’s why TNC is supporting the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) — one of our key partners in northern Kenya — to help pastoralists increase their income while leaving more grass for wildlife.

The key: Growing fatter cows to fetch higher prices. It’s a simple concept, but a complex challenge here.

LivestockWORKS, run by the for-profit arm of NRT, has brought nearly $4 million over the last eight years to local families by helping herders earn higher prices for healthier cows. But the business has struggled with lack of access to capital and markets, low literacy, and increasing drought cycles that make it almost impossible to fatten cattle on grass alone.

TNC is drawing on decades of experience working with pastoralists from California to Mongolia to design sustainable grazing solutions. Now, TNC Trustee and Louisiana Chapter Board Chair Harris Brown is lending his life-long cattle industry expertise to help. Brown and his wife Kristin are currently splitting their time between their home in Monroe, Louisiana and Isiolo, Kenya.

The bottom line according to Brown: “You can’t address conservation in this country without addressing cattle. Cattle is culture here.”

nature.org sat down with Brown to chat over lunch at beautiful Lewa Wildlife Conservancy — one of the first places TNC helped protect in Africa — to learn more.

Harris Brown and cattle dogs.
Life at Lewa Harris Brown and cattle dogs. © Kristin Brown

nature.org: What first attracted you to Kenya? How did you start working with NRT?

Harris Brown: My wife Kristin and I had always wanted to go to Africa. When TNC’s director in Louisiana, Keith Ouchley, reached out to me about the need for a volunteer with experience in the cattle business, I saw an extraordinary opportunity to live on a wildlife preserve — and experience the entire culture — while doing what we could to help the people of Laikipia county.

Kristin is a graphic designer by trade and immediately found a home with NRT’s BeadWORKS program. She stays busy keeping their website looking fresh and preparing marketing materials. They look to continue to expand their reach in the U.S. this year.

nature.org: What are the biggest challenges related to livestock in Kenya?

Harris Brown: Driving around northern Kenya, you see all that this beautiful country has to offer: giraffes, elephants, open space … and cows. They can live in harmony and they have to. [Of note, when Mr. and Mrs. Brown are in Kenya, they go on safari drives every night.]

The ultimate goal is a shift to fewer, healthier cows. But to local communities it’s all about how many cows you have — and for good reason. There’s safety in numbers because large herds are insurance against drought and disease. Having a lot of cows is also a sign of wealth. Shifting the perspective to quality over quantity isn’t an easy feat. Demonstrating that 75 healthy cows are worth more than 100 poor ones is critical.

It’s also important to focus on what the market wants — fatter cows with better marbling — but we forget how easy it is to find feed in America, where you can run down to the store and buy a 50-pound bag of grain. That’s not the case in Kenya.

nature.org: What are some of the best practices you’re trying to bring to Kenya?

Harris Brown: The cows need to start doing what I’m doing and that’s not exercising enough. During drought conditions these cows walk continuously for grass and water. It’s hard to add weight when you walk all day. If the cows can’t gain weight, people can’t provide for their families. They need to stop walking and start eating. We’ve brought in grass experts to advise but we need to be more creative with the solution.

Historically, open grazing with very little supplementation has been the norm. We’re experimenting with local agricultural products and silage banking as alternative food sources and determining the weight gain potential of each. If we can crack the code on affordable weight gain, we’ll be well on our way to changing the path of livestock in Kenya. But it’s a little bit of a science project right now.

nature.org: How would you say this relates to your own experience with farming?

Harris Brown: Farming, like most businesses, is an effort in managing risk. The cattle industry here is wrought with risk as well, so we’re trying to find ways to reduce those negative inputs. For example, we’ve talked about droughts a little. When there’s no grass, what do cows eat?

On Lewa, we’ve begun harvesting old rank grass with no nutritional value and adding a variety of liquids and additives like urea and molasses by pouring them over the hay. Cover for 60 days and you have very nutritious silage that can not only hold weight on a cow during a drought, but also has the potential to add weight. This is just one effort to reduce one risk. There’s still a lot to do.

At TNC, we’re all about solutions that can last. That’s why we’re investing in discovering and incubating potential sustainable businesses in pastoralist Kenya. We’ve tried many. The two that continue to rise to the top given their cultural significance and resource availability are LivestockWORKS and BeadWORKS. Let’s focus on beads and cows while we discover more. Let’s make them shine