The Maasai dare to try new things

The Maasai are traditionally cattle farmers, had little interest in plant production until now, and lived mostly isolated from the rest of society. This is currently changing in the Morogoro region of Tanzania. 


By Peter Lüthi, Project Reporter

Alex Wostry was extremely surprised when in March 2016, Maasai people knocked on the door of the training centre for organic agriculture to ask for advice. “We would have cooperated with the nomads long ago if we had known how eager they were for new knowledge,” says the co-founder and codirector of “Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania” (SAT), a partner organisation of Biovision.

The Maasai in the Morogoro region lost large numbers of animals during the drought of 2015/16. They were forced to let their herds eat maize leaves in the fields of arable farmers. This led to violent clashes and even to armed conflicts. The nomads then considered stockpiling hay for extremely dry periods, and thought about starting to grow corn and vegetables – both epochal breaks with their tradition. They approached SAT with these ideas.

Cooperation instead of confrontation

After a participatory project planning process, training courses for the Maasai started at SAT in 2017. Even women took part – a novelty in the patriarchal nomadic society. Among other things, exchange meetings between the two population groups were held to resolve conflicts between nomads and farmers. Students were also present, firstly to learn and carry out research, and secondly to offer knowledge. In one of the discussion groups, a student of agronomy asked why the Maasai never crossed their local livestock breeds with higher-yielding modern breeds. Surely this would make it possible to have smaller herds and reduce the risk of losses during periods of drought. The question set the ball rolling.

  • In exchange, arable farmers and Maasai are looking for ways to resolve conflict. Image: workshop on agroforestry at SAT. Foto: Hannes Müller
  • Crossbreeding robust and drought-tolerant Mpwapwa bulls with traditional cows is expected to increase meat and milk production. Foto: Alex Wostry
  • Traditional goats crossed with Tanzanian Malyas produce kids that grow faster, become heavier and fetch higher market prices than traditional breeds. Foto: Hannes Müller

A win-win situation for nomads and the authorities

In mid-December 2017, 15 Maasai people visited national research centres for livestock and small livestock breeding as well as grass and pasture management. The researchers were very pleased, as this was the first time they had cooperated with the Maasai. And the nomads became euphoric at the sight of the magnificent breeding bulls and billy goats. On 13 March 2018, a cattle truck drove up to SAT and delivered 15 Mpwapwa bulls and 10 Malya goats, both Tanzanian breeds adapted to harsh living conditions, but considerably more productive than traditional breeds.

The real test will come next year

Since then, more than 350 descendants have been born to the Malya goats. “The kids are more resistant than the old breeds,” smiles Shee Kangai, who is participating in the breeding project. “They grow faster, become heavier and therefore generate more income.” The Maasai have also suffered setbacks with their livestock: one breeding bull fell victim to hyenas, a second to a crocodile. Nevertheless, over 300 Mpwapwa crosses are still thriving today. At the beginning of 2021 the eldest will calve and give milk for the first time. There is great tension on all sides as to whether expectations will be fulfilled.