Selling petrol at the side of the road in Juba, South Sudan to sustain her family | Peter Caton

Mobility has been a feature of life in the Horn of Africa for centuries. People have raised animals as part of their livelihoods, moving across the region, for much of recorded history. They’ve criss-crossed borders for business, to maintain relationships and to seek opportunities.

What are our key findings on livelihoods and mobility in the Horn of Africa?

Both livelihoods and economies have become increasingly relational and collective. 

They are spread across multiple activities and individuals in both rural and urban settings. Given this complexity, development policy and programmes may have wider repercussions related to mobility, both positive and negative.

For example, support for migrants in cities may have wider repercussions for connected family members or communities, including in rural areas. We shouldn’t overlook diversity, particularly by treating rural and urban dwellers as entirely distinct populations.

Mobility is an important livelihood option for the growing numbers of households affected by natural resource scarcity.

Interventions should support these movements, rather than try to stop them.

Where opportunities for safe and legal mobility are constrained, we should seek to expand the political space and economic opportunities for moving.

For policy makers and practitioners, we recommend:

An approach that views mobility as adaptation to a problem, instead of a problem in itself.

Policy and programming that considers cyclical processes of displacement, mobility and return.

Support for individuals that considers impacts on their communities, families and dependants.

Our research on mobility and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa

Refugees in particular face difficulties in accessing employment and therefore securing livelihoods, due to restrictions on their movement and obstacles to obtaining work authorisation. Read our study on refugee employment, or watch our video on refugee journeys to employment and entrepreneurship in Kenya.

In depth: Rural–urban livelihoods in Kenya

For generations, household livelihoods in Kenya have been spread across rural and urban settings, but these have grown in scope and importance in recent decades. 

Laikipia County, Kenya is a mixed zone of arid and semi-arid pasture land and sites suitable for high-potential farming, located at the intersection of diverse landscapes. Natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce there, particularly land and water.

This has become a major concern, especially for marginalised groups. The environment of the County is changing rapidly, but it’s also a compelling place to study mobility in its many different forms. There are significant movements into, out of and through the area including nomadic pastoralism, displacement, state-endorsed resettlement programmes and labour migration.

In 2019, Caitlin Sturridge conducted 106 in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and life histories in Laikipia County with 133 respondents, including migrants, non-migrants and key informants. 

Read more about this study.

What do rural–urban livelihoods look like?

Migration and mobility are common among Laikipian households from a range of different socioeconomic and livelihood backgrounds. Respondents in the study frequently told researchers, “these movements have become more often than before”.

While most people who move in contemporary Laikipia are young men, increasing numbers of women are now also moving for work, education and other opportunities, and not just for marriage. Younger and better-educated people are more likely to move, especially to towns further afield, where they can find job opportunities. They find these in NGOs, the private sector, or in the public sector as teachers, health workers, police officers and civil servants. 

In the vast majority of cases, these movements happen within Kenya, either within Laikipia County or to neighbouring counties, such as Nyeri and Meru. Long-distance or permanent migrations across national borders occurred very rarely. In light of these relatively short distances, many respondents are able to return to their place of origin regularly. In many cases, they commute every day. 

Many movements were ultimately cyclical, linked to seasonal farming jobs (either on horticultural farms or neighbouring smallholdings) and in search of pasture during dry spells. People also moved in a cyclical way to take part in markets held on specific days of the week.  

While people tend to move from rural to urban places in Laikipia County, many respondents described bi-directional movements. In seeking employment or business opportunities, people moved in the direction of better markets and more clients in towns. But they also moved to rural areas to work on horticultural farms, conservation and tourism projects. 

When it comes to health and education, some Laikipians moved in the direction of towns to access better schooling or healthcare. But others moved to rural areas where schools are cheaper and environmental and sanitation conditions are better. Likewise, in retirement, respondents moved to both towns and rural areas. In some cases, elderly relatives moved in with younger relatives in towns where they could more easily access social welfare support. In other cases, elderly migrants, tired of the pressures of urban life, retired to rural plots.

Migration and mobility enable people to access resources and assets dispersed across different locations. A respondent in his fifties interviewed in pastoral Olampaa, Laikipia North described how he, his wife and children moved regularly between six locations. 

In doing so, they were able to access the different resources available in these rural, semi-rural and urban locations whether pasture, water, markets, schools, healthcare or banks. Access to these different resources allowed the respondent’s household to undertake a range of livelihood activities, including subsistence pastoralism, chicken farming and trading, as well as access healthcare, education and banking services.

Migration and mobility are integral components of rural–urban livelihoods, and so are the translocal connections that connect migrant and non-migrant household members. These connections enable them to stay in touch and support one another over time and across distances. Importantly, these support mechanisms also work in reverse: 58% of migrants also reported receiving assistance from relatives who stayed behind. Most individual migrants received support from one to four relatives – on average, two. 

A people-based, translocal livelihood is exemplified by a 68-year-old widow interviewed in the rural village of Baraka. She maintained translocal connections with five of her six children located in rural Ichuga and Baraka, as well as urban Nanyuki and Nairobi.

She had an annual income of only $240, from selling livestock products, and was reliant on growing her own food on a small quarter-acre plot. The support she received from distant household members represented a critical livelihood strategy, which provided financial security as well as social and emotional wellbeing. 

When asked what impact these arrangements had on her life, she replied:

“My wellbeing has improved. I am able to get food for my household consumption. I don’t struggle a lot with my life. My living standards have improved. I am able to pay my electricity bills and water through this support. I am now happy because I have peace of mind. My children have given me peace and reduced stress.”

Watch Life on the Move which brings to life a multitude of migrant experiences, exploring the personal, social and economic reasons why people move across borders

What is the link between environmental factors and livelihoods?

Much of the environment literature considers people’s movements in relation to one-dimensional climatic indicators, such as changes in rainfall or temperature. In doing so, it ignores the wider social, political, economic and historical context in which people move, all of which have a bearing on household livelihoods.

Researchers in this study asked respondents to identify the main challenge affecting their household and 87% of migrants ranked water either first or second.

And yet, when asked to describe why they had moved, only 12% highlighted water, with the majority framing their migration decision-making in terms of livelihoods. Indeed, 83% of respondents said they had moved to look for better opportunities, either because their current livelihoods had failed to provide an adequate living or because they thought they could access better assets, resources and opportunities elsewhere.

This is not to say that water was not a significant factor in their decision to migrate, as it clearly emerged as a major challenge for most respondents. Rather, water in and of itself is not a direct driver of migration and mobility, and is better conceptualised in terms of its wider impact on livelihoods when it comes to understanding the motivations for moving. 

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