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Transforming Lives In Africa, In Spite Of Drought

In the grips of the worst drought in nearly 60 years, millions of people in the Greater Horn of Africa, the easternmost part of the continent, face famine. Among the hardest hit are pastoralists who eke out a hardscrabble living raising a few cattle, sheep or goats on the semi-arid savanna.

Yet a study released this week in the journal Science reveals a collective-action initiative guided by a Utah State University-led consortium is helping pastoralists of southern Ethiopia endure the drought. The 12-year program, known as the Pastoral Risk Management Project or “PARIMA,” mentored participants in developing complementary sources of income to bolster household economic stability and thus achieve greater drought-resilience. 

Boran Association 2007“From 2000 to 2004, my colleagues and I used an action-oriented approach to help pastoralists in southern Ethiopia diversify their livelihoods to improve their standard of living and better manage risk,” says Dr. Layne Coppock, associate professor in USU’s Department of Environment and Society. “During a major drought from 2005 to 2008, we then had a chance to evaluate the effects of our interventions on human welfare.”

Participants in the program experienced significant improvements in trends for income generation, asset preservation, and hunger reduction when compared to their neighbors who had never joined the project, Coppock says.

“We thus have proof that investing in basic capacity building for rural people can be a driver for positive change, even in a very harsh environment,” he says.

With Ethiopia-based colleagues Dr. Solomon Desta, Mr. Seyoum Tezera and Dr. Getachew Gebru, Coppock published findings from the team’s project assessment in the Dec. 9, 2011, issue of Science. USU alum Desta and University of Wisconsin-alum Gebru, both former USU research associates, along with Tezera, recently established the private limited company Managing Risk for Improved Livelihoods or “MARIL,” a consulting firm in Addis Ababa that continues the project legacy in the Greater Horn of Africa.

“Rather than introducing new technology, our approach involved human capacity-building,” Coppock says. “It is difficult to diversify your livelihood by starting a small business if you are illiterate, lack capital, and have no experience other than herding animals.”

Founded in 1997 and funded primarily by the U.S. Agency for International Development, PARIMA involved collaborations among five universities in Kenya and the United States, along with a network of East African public and private organizations. The project assisted thousands of participants by improving their levels of literacy and numeracy. Instruction followed in principles of managing savings-led, small-scale savings and loan associations, how to create and manage small businesses and improving participants’ ability to sell high-quality livestock to domestic and export markets. Over time, careful mentoring and trouble-shooting by project staff resulted in the creation of 59 durable collective-action groups.

 “We guided the groups so they could forge their own pathways,” Coppock says. One of the most remarkable outcomes, he says, was      poor women stepping forward to take the lead in project activities.

 “Married women traditionally have subservient domestic roles in this society,” he says. “They would find it hard to imagine an alternative  lifestyle, so day-by-day drudgery prevails.”

 Coppock credits help from peer mentors as a catalyst for the women’s participation. In 2000, PARIMA investigators discovered innovative  pastoral women’s associations in northern Kenya. A crucial breakthrough occurred, he says, when investigators enabled 15 women  leaders from Ethiopia to cross the border to meet with the innovative Kenyans.

 “It really shook the Ethiopians’ world,” Coppock says. “They saw what could be accomplished by livelihood diversification among women  similar to themselves. They immediately envisioned ideas they could pursue on their own.”

 Surprising successes came in the form of small-business development, he says. Associations of project participants developed  sustainable ventures such as sand and crushed-rock operations to supply materials for local construction projects, bakeries, local tourism  schemes, vegetable cash crops, dairy processing and construction of rental dwellings in neighboring towns.

Since the project’s inception in 2001, participants have dispensed more than 5,000 small loans with a cumulative value of more than US$645,000. The rate of repayment—with interest—has been 96 percent. There is no collateral for the loans; the system operates on trust.

“Under existing conditions, many pastoralists are prisoners of their circumstances—namely, lack of opportunity,” Coppock says. “The key to the project’s success is that participants in the collective-action groups now have some control over their situation and a dream that their lives can be a bit better. And their dream is spreading like wildfire.”

Contact: Layne Coppock, 435-797-1262 (U.S. Mountain Time), layne.coppock@usu.edu

Writers: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu