In May this year, the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action convened its second face to face meeting to review and guide our work on food security challenges in East Africa’s drylands.  The meeting in Nairobi brought together 65 participants from 31 organizations and built on foundations laid at the first CoP meeting in April 2022.  In particular, it provided an opportunity to examine and discuss core action research work streams linked to the ‘challenge questions’ we collectively identified in 2022. This post by Peter Ballantyne introduces key discussion strands during the meeting – a longer report gives more detail. It is the fourth in a series of four posts on recent discussions convened in Kenya by the Observatory.

Framing the discussions

Opening the meeting, Shirley Tarawali, ILRI Assistant Director General emphasized the importance of the Observatory’s for Africa where drylands cover two-thirds of the continent, are home to half a billion people, are warming at up to twice the global average, and they require nuanced and tailored development responses.

Noting the impacts of climate shocks and variability, causing as much as 50% of livestock losses, she framed the challenge to improve resilience – by addressing development before it becomes a humanitarian disaster. She very much appreciated the uniqueness of the Jameel Observatory partnerships, that seem to be a great combination:

  • ILRI the action research
  • University of Edinburgh the academic opportunities
  • Save the Children the practice
  • J-PAL the robust evaluation
  • Community Jameel the convening.

She ended by posing her own challenges – to make sure the solutions discussed are practical and real, to be specific about gender and be intentional about taking interventions to scale.

Introducing the work of the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action, Observatory Head Guyo Malicha Roba, emphasised its ‘research for action’ focus, brokering science, knowledge, real-world actions and inclusive solutions to environmental shocks facing dryland communities.

Our difference in this crowded space? “Building evidence; adding pastoral voices to the issues and, where a lot of data is gathered ‘top down’, we aim to bring authentic voices into the mix.”

Guyo Malicha Roba

After opening remarks, Jarso Mokku, CEO of the Drylands Learning and Capacity Building Initiative and Secretary of the Kenya Pastoralist Parliamentary Group Secretariat reflected on the the ‘early action for food security’ challenge in Kenya and the region.

He particularly zoomed in on unhelpful attitudes and perceptions of drylands and pastoralism as a livelihood choice where many focus on alternatives, as if such livelihoods are problematic. Pastoralism is frequently seen as backward, “not a vibrant way of life. The biggest problem is that so few people understand the issues that the drylands face”.

“Pastoralism is often seen to be a problem to be solved – Pastoralism needs to be understood as a viable and adaptive activity.”

Jarso Mokku

The Observatory ‘at work’ – tackling challenge questions

Reviewing and guiding the work of the Observatory, participants were invited to interact in small groups with eight different strands of work, listening, discussing and offering feedback.

Gary Watmough of the University of Edinburgh explored data for effective early action prediction and response, focusing in on ways to enhance impact-based forecasts for different target audiences.

Ambica Paliwal of ILRI led discussions around index-based livestock insurance and its contributions to de-risking and resilience building early action in drylands.

Sam Derbyshire, Post-Doctoral Fellow at ILRI examined drought risk plans and triggers and his upcoming research that explores triggers for anticipatory action in drought early warning systems and the scope to enhance them with more socio-economic indicators. 

Julie Ojango of ILRI led discussions on livestock early action for drought response and recovery,framing theconversations around drought recovery interventions – how to focus on the value of livestock to their owners rather than focusing on herd numbers, which mechanisms could improve the local livestock economies of pastoral regions, and which services can best improve opportunities for pastoralists to benefit from their livestock assets.

Led by Puff Mukwaya, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, discussions on the economics of anticipatory action in pastoral areas examined potential research questions and evidence entry points.

George Tsitati, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh led discussions on community-based knowledge for early action, exploring opportunities to combine indigenous knowledge with ore formal science-based systems.

Tahira Mohamed, Post-Doctoral Fellow at ILRI, led discussions on the nexus between humanitarian response and resilience programmes, asking if there were missing links between emergency responses via humanitarian support and the development agenda of building resilience?

Michael Ocircan of Save the Children Somalia explored issues around anticipatory action in crisis situations, focusing on practical steps on making anticipatory action a reality in programming on food security in protracted climate induced crises, using a case from Somalia.

Participants review and discuss action research

A focus on ‘local’ and ‘community’ issues and listening to local voices in devising solutions ran through the two days and participants were briefed on several small meetings convened in Isiolo by the Observatory to explore and deepen its work in two main areas – Data for effective early action, and effective early action at community level. The three convening were: a two-day ‘datathon’, a one-day ‘local dialogue’, and a one-day interaction with pastoralist elders.


Food security early action policy priorities for East Africa’s drylands

The second day included a session looking at some of the policy priorities in the region.  

Following a framing presentation by Guyo Roba of the Jameel Observatory, Cynthia Mugo (ILRI) moderated a panel discussion with Abubakar Ahmed Mohamed (Somali Disaster Management Agency) Jarso Mokku (Drylands Learning and Capacity Building Initiative) and Evelyn Ng’ang’a (Kenya National Drought Management Authority).

Policy discussants – Evelyn Ng’ang’a (Kenya National Drought Management Authority), Abubakar Ahmed Mohamed (Somali Disaster Management Agency) Jarso Mokku (Drylands Learning and Capacity Building Initiative)

Reflecting on the session, Roba shared some take-away messages:

  • We need to take stock of policy ecosystems – to understand gaps, performance of existing policies, and develop a scorecard for key policies.
  • Data and science are essential to shape policy and policy shifts.
  • Keny’s Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG) is a promising vehicle to promote the right policies, are there similar institutions in other drought affected countries?
  • The focus needs to be on implementing existing polices – it is important to assess gaps and pitch for actions on strategic areas.

Future priorities – engagement and capacity development

The community of practice is intended to be the ‘beating heart’ of the Observatory’s activities and maximising productive engagement activities is thus important.  Peter Ballantyne introduced current ways this engagement takes place, including annual meetings, virtual mini-dialogues on different topics, collaborating on project ideas/proposals, collaborating on challenge question/impact collaboration development, using Dgroups to facilitate [email] information exchange. Asked to suggest ideas to enhance this engagement, participants proposed:

First, a strong emphasis on the ‘next generation’ early career people:

  • Facilitating a PhD and early career club or group; a neighbourhood of practice.
  • A research fund for early career researchers in the Horn of Africa.
  • Mentoring for PhD students and short training on research methods/applied research.
  • Research symposium for early career researchers.
  • Linking researchers/PhD students to humanitarian/development sectors by facilitating research placements in development organisations.

Second, working together on collaborative projects:

  • Brainstorm new project ideas
  • Form a collaborative group on ways to integrate indigenous and community knowledge with scientific knowledge.
  • Be part of impact collaborations, on for example anticipatory action or risk transfer.
  • Formulate one large CoP-wide project in which members implement mini-projects/studies at critical bottlenecks.

Third, reaching out to pastoral communities:

  • University of the Bush – more engagement with communities.
  • Explore links with community culture festivals, shows and events.
  • Take the CoP to pastoralist areas.

Fourth, working with data:

  • Organize datathons to co-create useful data-driven products and services.
  • Create a data inventory or repositories for wider and CoP use.

Fifth, engaging, communicating and influencing:

  • Hold ‘summer’ schools for policy makers/politicians as brokers of policy change and implementation.
  • Convene writeshops to produce policy briefs and other products.
  • Share information and ideas via collaborative webinars, seminars.
  • Facilitate open dialogues at country level to explore barriers to anticipatory action.
  • Develop a register of expertise.

Similarly, recognizing the capacity challenges in this area, participants brainstormed and suggested some capacities needed o grow our abilities to predict, prepare and respond to shocks. To help motivate ideas, Fiona Borthwick of the University of Edinburgh shared some initial ideas on potential teaching/training themes, such as:

  • Lessons from pastoralism
  • Co-creation in a pastoral context
  • Anticipatory action for food security

Participant discussion and feedback identified additional focus areas where the Observatory can help grow capacities in this area:

Capacities to appreciate the potentials of pastoralism:

  • learning to listen to pastoralist communities.
  • learning what to do with what you hear – how practitioners best incorporate community feedback.
  • strengthening methods for participatory planning.

Enhance capacities to:

  • act on early warning information to action.
  • interpret data, take actions, convene stakeholders.
  • Model, visualise and interpret scenarios.
  • synthesise forecast information by different early warning actors.
  • integrate indigenous/community knowledge with scientific knowledge.
  • identify the most effective and actionable evidence.

Enhance capacities of:

  • local governments in data handling and interpretation, including incorporating ‘indigenous’ knowledge and data.
  • national met services in impact-based forecasting.
  • end users to interpret forecasts.


Recognizing the progress made since last year where we devised the Observatory’s agenda to this year where we reviewed action research activities and plans, closing remarks and great appreciation for the participant contributions were provided by Geoff Simm (University of Edinburgh), Isabelle Baltenweck (ILRI) and Guyo Malicha Roba (Jameel Observatory).

Download the meeting notes (PDF format)

Read the other posts:

Drought and food security datathon / Dialogue on local drought response and resilience / Conversations with pastoralist elders

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