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Where's the gossip? In Northern Kenya, at the shoat market

Several tribes in Northern Kenya, which mostly does not have mobile phone access or any paved roads, get the majority of their news from a weekly sheep and goat market, when tribesman from afar and buyers from Nairobi meet.

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Written by DeletedUser

Family groups among the Samburu, Rendille and Borana tribes of Northern Kenya live in one of the most remote places in the world. The nearest neighborhood to a housing cluster of 20 people could be 20 km away, a day's journey. Pastoralism, that is raising and selling sheep and goats ("shoats"), dominates their economy. In a drought year, they could lose easily some 75% of their animals, which is 75% of their wealth, as banking practices are rare.

I studied these tribes last summer as part of a team of Oxford MBAs assessing the value chain of sheep and goat markets in that area, with the goal of channeling more of that money to the pastoralists. To be clear, our research was not about issues of mass violence. Kenya, of course, is not immune to violent tribal clashes, particularly seen after its presidential elections in 2005, and tensions run high during drought years when grazing land is hard to come by. However, based on my conversations with many tribal people, I'd recommend that journalists, aid workers and any person trying to find out information from these communities visit the local shoat market, usually held once a week, and for which farmers travel hundreds of kilometers with their animals they intend to sell. This is the only time these tribesmen gather in such numbers. There's barely any cell phone reception in Northern Kenya, and few people can afford cell phones anyway, so most communication is done face-to-face. These markets are when news and gossip are traded among tribesman, plus it's usually the only time when they get news from Nairobi, thanks to the buyers that make the weekly long journey over the non-roads to these obscure markets. I found the tribespeople to be open to questions from Westerners about their finances and personal goals and difficulties in achieving them.

If trying to assess whether tribal tensions are running high, you have to gauge the sentiment at the local shoat markets. At markets where only one tribe is present, you'll get straight talk from that tribe about their enemies. At markets where multiple tribes might interact, any tensions are usually clear.


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Photo of Arjan Tupan

Great piece of information, Ariel. Very valuable insights. I think we really need to understand how information flows in the areas we're talking about, to have a chance at gathering (and spreading) information about potential violence. It's great to have this kind of understanding.
Can you maybe tell a bit more about how you collected information at these shoat markets, and how you turned that into a data collection which was useful for your research? I think we can learn a lot from that. There have been discussions going on about gathering information for which that can be useful. For example in Coniqua's inspiration here:

Photo of Coniqua  Abdul-Malik

Great inspiration Ariel, and thank you Arjan for bringing it to my attention. I like the idea of using gathering places like markets as a way to collect data. The marketplace has long held this function in societies that don't rely on grocery store chains to source their food/household goods. It will be interesting to see how this can be tied in with other inspirations.

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Thanks for the feedback, Arjan and Coniqua!

We gathered info in two ways:

1. To assess the flow of money in the system and get a sense of average prices per certain-weight shoats, we created simple charts with fill-in-the-blank spaces for recording every shoat's age, weight, expected sale price by the pastoralist, actual sale price, how many sheep and goats were brought to market by the pastoralist, how many they ended up selling. All of these numbers were deposited into Excel to get averages.

2. BUT, all of these numbers wouldn't be very useful in helping us make our recommendations without our qualitative interviews with local people, learning about the incentives for how, when and why they sell their sheep and goats, why they want to keep their wealth on hoof (versus in a bank, for instance), grazing practices, animal care practices, how they prepare for drought and how drought has affected them in general. We did 0.5-1-hour interviews with couples and individuals at their homes some distance away from markets, and shorter interviews with people at markets. With little exception the locals were friendly and open to speaking with us through a translator, typically a community member involved with the local wildlife conservancy whom the interviewees new and trusted.

Our top recommendation dealt with raising the overall health of their sheep and goats through the sales and distribution of inexpensive animal health kits that included the main vaccines, syringes and a pictoral guide to administering medicine. Our statistical research found that the average 2-year-old shoat in Northern Kenya was much smaller than a typically healthy one. And our qualitiative research led us to learn about wide discrepancies in animal care and also we learned that people would likely be willing and able to pay a small amount to raise healthy animals that would fetch a higher price at market.

After all that text, my takeaway message here is that you need to understand behavioral incentives in the way a community lives and interacts with each other and other tribes before making any recommendations -- and using a translator prominent in the community makes obtaining these in-person interviews possible.

I also should mention this project was done with Northern Rangelands Trust, a fantastic organization of 20+ wildlife conservancies in Northern Kenya.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Ariel for a great piece of information.

Reading your inspiration, I could not help thinking of a couple of inspirations including the watercooler inspiration:

I also made me think of 2 inspirations I posted on how information is shared in different contexts, which led to many interesting discussions:

What I think your piece highlights is the importance of informal gatherings, the need to understand local contexts and the need to understand the informal structure of communities and the "connectors" in these communities.

On the methodology: I cannot agree more on the importance of understanding the context and the need for qualitative interviews (and observations) to provide a rich understanding of the situation. What I find also very interesting is how through your data collection, you might be able to understand who are the people who have the information, or at least are trusted when it comes to information.

Curious to know in which course you did that piece of work? Wasn't it a course where Lucy Kimbell was involved?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Hi again, saw this inspiration that reminded me of yours:

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