In January and February 2024, Observatory PhD student John Mutua travelled to Meru County in Kenya as part of his research on quantifying livestock diets in Kenya. Here, he reflects on his visit.

Images: Pasture and Napier grass form the main components of the diet for livestock in Meru County [credit: John Mutua]

Livestock diets and their nutritional quality play a crucial role in determining both livestock productivity and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in livestock systems. However, since current estimates of livestock diet composition primarily rely on expert knowledge, we face many uncertainties and challenges to empirically estimate diet composition due to data gaps and assumptions of constant annual distributions of diet composition.

We need better data on livestock diets to:

  • Enable modelling of improved estimates of current emissions to inform strategies for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction.
  • Enhance the prediction of livestock feed requirements to facilitate the design of strategies for improved livestock feeding.
  • Help guide interventions to support communities facing risks to their livestock from droughts and other shocks.

For the last two years, I have been studying how changes in livestock diet composition and quality influence GHG emissions. Results so far indicate that livestock diets in Kenya vary from location to location and during different seasons, and this variability impacts both productivity and GHG emissions from livestock.

This work has been mainly done in Edinburgh using computer models. Early this year, I set out to ‘field-truth’ the analysis, gaining first-hand insights from producers, and collecting data on spatial and temporal variability in livestock diet composition across farms in Kenya. This data collection process involved capturing information on land access and use, livestock holdings, crop cultivation and feeding practices. The data will be used to validate livestock diet composition maps generated using earth observation (EO) data.

A highlight of the fieldwork was the opportunity to engage directly with farmers and producers, gaining first-hand insights in how, when and what they feed to their livestock.

Options are strongly shaped by nature and the seasonal availability of water and plants for feed: As one farmer in the arid areas of Meru said, “In the end, we must feed our livestock what is available to ensure we sustain them until the next rainy season when feed is plenty”. Farmers store feed during the rainy season, with only a few purchasing feeds in the dry season.

These meaningful dialogues not only enriched my understanding but also yielded valuable qualitative data that complements the quantitative findings, enriching my understanding of the local social and economic factors that shape livestock production in Meru County.

This trip stands out as the highlight of my PhD journey thus far. As my research findings continue to unfold and analyses advance, it becomes increasingly evident how vital the ‘ground’ data is. While earth observation techniques provide valuable insights from a distance, they cannot fully replace the depth and accuracy offered by ground data collection.

I plan to share my findings with the communities I visited and hope that this research will empower them to thrive in the face of evolving shocks and challenges while also informing policy and practice.