Pastoralists to Permaculture: new practices for food security

Maasai Conservation Fund
Wednesday, 7th April 2021

The Maasai community in East Africa have spent centuries as nomadic pastoralist farmers. But with climate change, population growth and many other challenges, their traditional way of life is under threat. The Maasai Conservation Fund works with these marginalised people to bring food security and help them adapt to modern day pressures.

Of the 120 indigenous tribes in East Africa, the Maasai are known for their distinctive customs and dress, and their residence near some of the greatest collections of wildlife on earth. These traditionally nomadic pastoralists love their land, and have been exceptional custodians of it for hundreds of years, living among the wild animals, adapting to the changing seasons, and caring for their environment with remarkable knowledge and sensitivity. Today the Maasai are under threat from pressures beyond their control: climate change, population growth, unsustainable grazing, and land conversion. Without the opportunity to understand and adapt to these changes, the Maasai are becoming socially, economically, geographically and politically marginalized.

The Maasai Conservation Fund

The Maasai Conservation Fund (MCF) began when a group of family members travelled from Canada to Tanzania for the country’s world-class wildlife viewing. While there, we were touched by the plight of the Maasai people and established the MCF in 2012 to work toward a sustainable, healthy, resilient future for the Maasai we had come to know and admire. Our work has been determined by the expressed needs of Maasai villagers for educational and economic opportunities; we funded the building of Nashipay Maasai Primary School and a Maasai women’s beading retail shop. Our current work addresses the dire need articulated by the villagers for food security and economic development opportunities.

Makuyuni Maasai village is situated in an area of extreme degradation and erosion in Northern Tanzania. The area experiences unreliable and alternating wet and dry seasons, made more significant with climate change. The Maasai are extremely poor and few have employability skills. Language is a problem for most who speak only Maa, neither of the country's official languages. The Maasai have lost land due to encroachment from national parks, so access to pasture and water for their livestock is very limited; without cattle, the pastoralist Maasai have no currency, and no food. Exclusion of Maasai people as knowledgeable participants in decision-making processes for their ancestral land is lowering their capacity to adapt.

Our partnership with the Maasai people of Makuyuni is unique as we work toward solutions while embracing the ethical elements of our two cultures. For the Maasai there is a requirement for any project undertaken to honour Maasai values of caring for their environment and everything in it, caring for themselves and others in their communities, and sharing what they have with each other. These fundamental principles of Maasai culture are a perfect fit for a permaculture project. 

Shamba Darasa Permaculture and Demonstration Farm

The path towards the permaculture project began soon after we became involved with Makuyuni as together we researched possible solutions to food insecurity. When the villagers heard about permaculture and how well its ethics meshed with their beliefs, they became very enthusiastic about the possibilities.

In 2017 a local contractor offered to build a water reservoir at an affordable cost. No permaculture plan was yet in place so we were not certain if the location was appropriate but having a more reliable source of water was a good first step. The next step was to hire gardening instructors to teach villagers some basics about growing food crops - something unfamiliar to them. After raising sufficient funds, one of the school teachers obtained his Permaculture Design Certificate and permaculture was introduced into the school curriculum.


Earthworks in progress

In May of 2019 a two-day planning workshop was held. Attendees included a permaculture design expert, members of the MCF, school teachers, a school superintendent, and 30 Maasai elders, warriors, women and youth. Since Maasai culture is one of traditional story-telling and face-to-face interaction for knowledge sharing, it was determined their training in permaculture would be best acquired and shared via a demonstration facility. Thus it was mutually agreed that Shamba Darasa Permaculture and Demonstration Farm would be developed.

Following a thorough site visit, observations, analysis, planning and designing, our permaculture consultant recommended a two-phase, 40 acre permaculture installation on land surrounding Nashipay Maasai School.  

Phase 1 of the permaculture installation took place in July 2019 with the end goal of providing three healthy meals a day for the school children. Maasai villagers participated enthusiastically in the labour intensive installation. The goal for this phase of the project was met after only four months. 

In February 2020 permaculture training took place on-site for four school teachers and 18 Maasai who applied their newly acquired knowledge to their own small-scale family farms and will be developing plans to reforest surrounding areas and improve degraded, overgrazed land for both livestock and wild animals. Within a few weeks, news of their successes had spread to villages as far as 80km away.


Nashipay Maasai School showing fields prior to and 4 months after planting


Collecting water from one of the two reservoirs

The second phase of the permaculture installation was completed in May 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with extensive planting, a second reservoir was dug, a windbreak installed, and a seed and tree nursery established. 

Today, the Maasai Permaculture and Demonstration Farm is:

  • providing children and villagers with a healthy food supply,

  • improving general health and reducing disease for the Maasai people of the village,

  • providing training to those without formal education,

  • empowering Maasai people to participate in sustainable solutions for food security and economic development. 

Into the future, the Shamba Darasa Permaculture and Demonstration Farm will:

  • generate economic development through vegetable and seedling sales, 

  • regenerate and reduce over-exploitation of the natural environment,

  • build resilience in a challenging, changing world,

  • train impoverished people from surrounding areas in permaculture so they too can improve their lives.

Survivors of a past era, the Maasai people of Makuyuni village can no longer live a pastoral life as their ancestors had. Their enthusiasm and insistence on being part of the solution through permaculture has been an inspiration. What started as a plea for support from this community has resulted in tangible hope for food security and economic development through the Shamba Darasa Permaculture and Demonstration Farm.

The Maasai Conservation Fund is one of the 20 finalists in the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize.

Useful links

Finalists for the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize announced

Goodbye povert: regenerative agriculture and livelihoods