Dennis Ole Sonkoi

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 2005
This description of Dennis Ole Sonkoi's work was prepared when Dennis Ole Sonkoi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005 .


Starting with his own Maasai community, Dennis Ole Sonkoi is helping pastoralists recognize and capitalize on the economic value of their livestock and other local resources, thus turning their increasingly threatened way of life into a sustainable source of income.

The New Idea

Dennis is raising incomes and preserving culture in the pastoralist Maasai community of Kenya and Tanzania by helping the Maasai turn their most valuable local resources, their livestock and their land, into viable enterprises that can sustain their way of life and their environment.
The Maasai used to be self-sufficient, living off their livestock and selling them only as necessary. However, the growing frequency of droughts and disease, combined with the encroachment of other communities around their land, has killed off more than half of the Maasai’s livestock in the last 15 years and forced changes in lifestyle and livelihood that are threatening both their traditional culture and their natural environment.
To end this destructive trend, Dennis is developing a series of interventions that take the very cornerstone of their threatened culture, cattle and livestock, and turns it into a method of survival through proper support and training programs. He is developing an animal health infrastructure to protect livestock from disease, organizing the community for better market access, and giving economic value to the environment which is otherwise endangered by the need for more land. The sustainable business that results, including an ecotourism component, is keeping young Maasai on their land and increasing the community’s prospects for the future. A critical component of his work is shifting mindsets so the Maasai see their livestock as an economic opportunity rather than a basic means of survival.

The Problem

The Maasai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley on arid and semi-arid lands. They are one of several surviving pastoralist communities across Africa, numbering approximately 1.5 million people and occupying a total land area of 160,000 square kilometers. As in other pastoralist societies, 98 percent of the Maasai’s livelihood is dependent on livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep. They sell livestock products to other communities to purchase beads, clothing and grains, but otherwise maintain their herds as a form of economic security, accumulating animals in hopes that some will survive the next drought, disease, or other hardship.

The Maasai have largely retained their traditional lifestyle, but their livestock-dependent economy has become increasingly vulnerable to the challenges of environmental crises and the changing society around them. Tensions with modern society, combined with more frequent droughts and disease, are impoverishing the community. Once nomadic, allowing them to adjust to the environment and live off their livestock, a growing population and encroaching residential communities have forced the Maasai into more permanent settlements. Meanwhile, between 1991 and 2000 the Maasai experienced three seasons of drought that decimated 40 percent of their livestock. An epidemic believed to be East Coast Fever has killed another 50 percent of their calves. However, the human population has continued to rise.

The rapidly decreasing numbers of livestock, increasing population, and limited land is undermining the Maasai’s traditional way of life, pushing them to find other means of survival. Many are leaving the community, seeking work in the cities of Kenya and Tanzania. However, with a Maasai illiteracy rate of approximately 70 percent—up to 90 percent among the Tanzanian Maasai—they are ill-equipped to find good jobs. Their lack of education has also subjected them to exploitation by businessmen, who have come from the cities selling expired or false drugs for livestock. The government put a stop to this practice but hasn’t offered an alternative to help the Maasai maintain the health of their herds. Others have resorted to environmentally destructive options such as farming and logging.

Many changes in their lifestyle are not sustainable or viable. The ecosystem of Maasai land is further at risk because of increasing conflict between people and wildlife. The Maasai traditionally cohabited peacefully with the wild animals on their land. A traditional warning system allowed them to move at the threat of contact with wildlife that could be fatal to them or their livestock. This system is threatened by the confinement of the Maasai people. People have begun to see wildlife as the enemy, intent on eradicating it to create more secure space.

The government has development programs directed at the Maasai, but they have not been accepted by the community. Developed without community input, the programs often disregard their traditions and pastoralist customs. Further, the government is intolerant of the nomadic lifestyle, and resulting land disputes have further damaged the relationship between the government and the community. The Maasai are increasingly excluded from national health, education and development programs (including livestock programs) due to the sour relations and the fact that the programs are inadaptable to their cultural context. In a cruel irony, a community that should be able to sustain itself has become dependent on outside food aid for survival.

The Strategy

Dennis helps the Maasai to eliminate poverty without government or international aid by introducing sustainable business enterprise as a culturally protective means to increase income. Dennis’s model, which is also relevant to other pastoralist communities, has three main elements: A network of veterinary care facilities run by trained local paravets helps maintain the livestock supply by protecting herds from disease and restoring sick animals to health; a series of buyers’ associations, organized among young Maasai who are otherwise seeking better opportunities in cities, facilitates access to livestock markets; finally, because a growing livestock trade both necessitates and threatens a thriving natural environment, a community ecotourism initiative gives economic value to preservation of the land and the unique Maasai culture.

Recognizing that eradicating disease is essential to a viable livestock business, Dennis’s starting point is the creation of an animal health infrastructure that allows the community to treat and protect its livestock. Rather than bring in veterinarians from outside the community who are unfamiliar with the context, Dennis trains young Maasai men and women coming out of high school as paravets, equipped to diagnose animal diseases and administer medication and immunizations. Dennis’s organization, the Loita Development Foundation, helps send some of them on to university to further study animal health. He stations the paravets at community veterinary pharmacies called “dawa shops,” currently in six districts of the Loita region of Maasai land. The shops are stocked with drugs bought at wholesale prices direct from manufacturers. The shops pass along the wholesale price to the livestock owners, thus offering genuine drugs at low cost.

The network of paravets, employed by the Loita Development Foundation, also serves as an Animal Surveillance System that tracks and quickly responds to disease outbreaks in the six districts. The paravets report symptoms of major diseases such as foot and mouth disease to a veterinary doctor stationed in the region. Together the veterinary doctor and the paravets then launch an awareness and vaccination campaign to minimize losses from the disease.

The success of the animal health program results in an increase in both the quality and quantity of livestock, but growing herds threaten the environment on which they depend. Dennis recognizes that the livestock trade risks aggravating the already deteriorating relationship between the Maasai and their environment because a business dependent on keeping livestock alive threatens to deepen their growing conflict with wildlife. It also could lead to overgrazing and thus further destruction of the forest to create more pasturage. An outlet for the increasing number of livestock is essential both to the creation of a viable livestock trade and to the protection of the ecosystem of Maasai land.

Dennis has responded by creating buyers’ associations that seek out and facilitate access to markets for the livestock. Because enabling enterprise in the Maasai community requires shifting traditional mindsets, Dennis starts with young people, who are less invested than the elders in the old ways of doing things and see leaving Maasai land as their only opportunity to earn a living. Through a combination of community meetings and organized field trips to livestock markets, Dennis helps these young people begin to see the potential of their cattle and other animals. He then assists them in organizing into associations that identify business opportunities and facilitate economies of scale in the marketing of livestock. For instance, previously when individual Maasai from Loita wanted to sell their livestock, they would walk 400 kilometers—an eight day journey—to the only common livestock market in Kenya, which is near Nairobi.

By aggregating resources, the buyers’ associations have been able to create a transport company that can deliver a whole herd to Nairobi by vehicle in a single day. In addition, they have negotiated a partnership with a community neighboring the Nairobi market to lease a holding land where livestock can be kept before sale. The associations, which currently have 100 members, also conduct market research to identify alternative markets for livestock. Dennis is also considering setting up a series of feedlots from which they could export livestock to the Middle East.

In addition to creating an outlet mechanism for the livestock via the buyers’ associations, Dennis is giving economic utility to the forest and wildlife through a community ecotourism initiative. Through partnership with a contact in Europe who markets the initiative to potential tourists, Dennis and his community have launched a walking safari company that conducts tours of the Loita forest led by the Maasai. They provide forest guides, security and upscale camping and catering. The tours are all done on foot to limit tourist traffic to a sustainable level and minimize the environmental impact. The revenue generated from the safari company is reinvested in the livestock marketing and animal health programs. By making the land and culture of the Maasai another source of income, Dennis aims to reestablish a relationship of healthy coexistence between the Maasai and their environment while furthering the economic sustainability of the Maasai’s traditional way of life.

Concerned that a thriving livestock business could lead to insecurity for Maasai traders who could have to carry considerable amounts of cash over long distances, Dennis plans to set up a network of village banks where they can keep their money. He commissioned K-rep Financial Services, a leading microfinance institution in Kenya, to carry out a study on the viability of setting up village banks on Maasai land. The study has shown that two banks can be set up to support the livestock buyers’ associations. The banks will also be a potential source of other financial services for the traders, such as small loans. Throughout his work, Dennis has shown respect for the traditional Maasai age-set system that governs the community. Although he initially met resistance from members of the older age-sets, he does not ignore the power structure—members of the older age-set make decisions on behalf of the community—but works creatively within the system. By first engaging the more open younger age-sets, he has been able to demonstrate the potential of his idea and has gradually won the respect of the elders.

Dennis sits on the board of a recently created organization that is taking the animal health and marketing programs to the rest of Maasai land. Meanwhile, Dennis is working toward the self-sustainability of his model. He has set up a fundraising body in Holland as a partner to the Loita Development Foundation and also fundraises in Kenya, but he seeks only start-up capital, developing each initiative—including each dawa shop and each buyers’ association—to be financially independent and locally managed.

The Person

Dennis Ole Sonkoi was born and raised in Loita division in Narok district—a semi-arid region in southern Kenya on the Tanzanian border. The Loita Maasai who inhabit this area number 25,000. Dennis spent his childhood herding cattle and learning the ways of his Maasai people. The seeds of his vision can be traced to these early days when he developed a keen interest in nature and a deep pride in his Maasai heritage. Because the education system did not allow him to explore his interest in the natural environment, he joined an environmental club in secondary school, where he initiated a tree planting project. He was then fortunate to have the opportunity to go to university in Nairobi—where he studied geography because he could not find a course in ecology—but his heart remained in Maasai land. His father had run a philanthropic organization that fundraised and implemented various activities, but when the funding ran out, things always fell apart. Concerned about the fragility of the Maasai economy and the increasing threats to the Loita forest, Dennis decided to develop a solution, but one that was self-sustaining. On a small scale, he began organizing farmers into livestock buyers’ associations to help the Maasai get better prices and gain better access to markets for their livestock.

Through this experience Dennis realized that a livestock business would not thrive without a way to keep the animals healthy. In 2000, he met a Swiss tourist in Loita, where there had just been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Upon learning that the tourist was a veterinarian working for a Swiss organization, Veterinaires Sans Frontières (VSF), in Tanzania, Dennis suggested that he bring VSF across the border to Loita to help him start a livestock health program. He agreed, and together they put the program in motion. At its inception, Dennis experimented on his own cattle to test the effectiveness of the veterinary services.