It is only 6 am but Veronica Lemungat is already setting up shop at the Namanga open-air market, on the Tanzania-Kenya border. She brushes twigs off her striped red and blue dress, and places a bundle of firewood at her feet.
Her back still aches from carrying the 10 kg (22 lb) load on the two-hour journey from Longindo, her village in northern Tanzania.
“I collect the firewood from the bush in the evening and go to the market in the morning because it is not too hot,” she explained.
Prolonged periods of drought in the region have depleted grazing land, forcing pastoralists to travel with their herds for weeks at a time – sometimes months – to look for greener pastures.
With their men gone, pastoralist women like Lemungat must find new ways to boost their income – by collecting and selling firewood, for example.
“Drought dries up rangeland vegetation, making firewood readily available in the bush,” Lemungat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For a 10 kg bundle of firewood, the mother of three makes 4,310 Tanzanian shillings (about $2) each day.
“With this money, I buy maize flour and vegetables to cook for my family,” she said. “It’s better than staying at home like I used to, with only sour milk to survive on during drought.”
Although Tanzanian law doesn’t expressly forbid collecting firewood in the wild, the country’s minister for agriculture, livestock and fisheries, Charles John Tizeba, told a conference in Nairobi in September the practice could lead to deforestation and encroachment of protected areas.
Harvesting rangeland vegetation is illegal in Kenya, however, which drives Kenyan traders to cross the border at Namanga, looking for firewood.
“I rely on firewood to make charcoal,” said Thomas Mwanzia, a Kenyan charcoal trader who buys wood at the Namanga market.
“Getting firewood in Kenya is becoming very difficult because the government protects natural resources like forests and rangelands.”
Another looming threat for Lemungat and other traders is Tanzanian youth, who have also identified firewood as a potential income source and trade it riding motorbikes.
“A motorbike can carry five times what I can carry on my back and reach the market faster,” said Lemungat. “The higher number of sellers is bringing firewood prices down in Tanzania.”
Collecting and selling firewood is not what she had hoped for in life.
In 2014, she tried to convince her husband to sell part of the family’s livestock and use the money to invest in a fresh milk business in Namanga. But he refused, saying his animals were more important.
According to Hellen Ntinina, a Maasai community leader in Namanga, “the main occupation among the Maasai is livestock herding – a man who owns livestock is respected by others”.
BRACELETS AND BEES
Dyno Keatinge, chair of the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture, a food security alliance, acknowledged that practices like collecting firewood may lead to deforestation in East African countries without laws to protect forests and the environment.
But there are other ways for pastoralists to boost their income without depleting rangelands, he added.
“Rather than directly exploiting natural resources, herders should have a good mixture of income-boosting activities to then withstand recurring drought if needed,” he said.
“Maasai women, for instance, are very good at making ornaments like bracelets and necklaces – the government should support that activity by linking the women to markets.”
George Marona, a community elder in Namanga, said non-profit groups like World Neighbors are training communities to set up modern beehives on rangelands, instead of harvesting the vegetation for firewood and charcoal burning.
The beehives have wooden frames where the honey is stored, which can be removed without crushing the bees, he said.
“This prevents people from using fire to scare away bees and harvest honey, as they normally do for traditional beehives, with flames that can lead to dangerous bush fires,” he explained.
($1 = 2,175.0000 Tanzanian shillings)