FAO Capacity Development

Pastoralist Field Schools in Eastern Africa: Innovative climate adaptation in practice


Pastoralism and agro-pastoralism - predominant livelihood systems in the drylands of Eastern Africa - are facing new challenges linked to climate change, land tenure changes, conflict, and emerging livestock diseases and more, hence, pastoralists need to urgently   supplement their traditional knowledge and practices. For this, Pastoral Field Schools (PFS) are an innovative capacity development approach which strengthen individuals’ knowledge and practices whilst reinforcing collaborative learning.

Pastoralist Field Schools: an innovative capacity development approach

Based on an adaptation of the Farmer Field Schools approach[1], PFS are ‘schools without walls’ where capacity is developed from existing local knowledge. They are guided by the following key principles:

  • Learning is by doing and problem based;
  • The herd and the landscape are the main learning grounds;
  • Discovery-based learning tools trigger a spirit of curiosity and innovativeness;
  • Trained facilitators guide the learning process, not by teaching but by facilitating.

A PFS usually comprises a group of 25-30 pastoralists who meet regularly in a local field setting, under the guidance of a trained facilitator. They make observations on livestock production and rangeland ecosystem, focus on a topic of study, and compare the effects of alternative practices. As a result of the observations and analyses done directly on-site, participants make decisions on how to improve their practices. All PFS follow this systematic action learning process where the key steps are observation, reflection, group discussion, analysis, decision making and action planning.

The facilitator’s role is key to a successful PFS, guiding the process and providing systematic follow-up support to ensure that learning is translated into practice.

Combining different capacity development activities (e.g. facilitation of experience-sharing, training of trainers, exposure/study visits, learning by doing), the PFS approach is a very good example of how sustainable capacity development interventions can be designed.

Adapting to climate change through PFS: success in Eastern Africa

The PFS concept, currently developed in Kenya and Uganda, is being taken up by other countries such as Ethiopia and Djibouti and among multiple actors both across NGOS and government. To better deal with the drought risk in a collective manner, the PFS approach has in many cases been implemented in complementarity with the Community-Managed Disaster Risk Reduction (CMDRR) approach, and powerful platforms for collective action have emerged in intervention sites in Karamoja, Uganda and Turkana, Kenya.

The CMDRR process engages local communities in analysis of risks and hazards, such as drought, and comes up with an action plan to mitigate prioritised hazards. For example, the Amethek community in Turkana carried out a hazard analysis, and identified that rainfall variability and deforestation were causes of their food insecurity and hunger. The group defined warning signs as indicators for a deteriorating situation: these included the flowering of acacia trees, water wells drying up, the appearance of the comet star, and changes in frogs’ singing behaviour. 

PFS groups used this early warning information as a basis to develop their action plans and learning curricula. They then identified potential solutions and new ideas, which they tested through comparative experimentation.

As a result, some groups in Turkana County organized rotational grazing schemes to manage their pastures during sparse rainfall. Others focused on bulking fodder for livestock or improved their water resources management as alternative ways of preparing for drought. Some PFS groups mobilized   farmers to construct dykes around their fields to limit runoffs to improve rain fed farming. Other communities planted trees, used ridges, and created terracing to help restore the degraded sites, or promoted the use of contour protection to reduce soil erosion.

From these activities, PFS groups gained substantial income through fodder production and sale, or animal fattening. Moreover, they diversified their incomes and livelihood sources by taking up crop production or poultry keeping as complimentary activities to their livestock keeping.

A shift in mindset

A transformation of mindset among PFS participants has been observed following this action learning process, shifting from a focus on subsistence or survival to a more business-oriented attitude.

Communities have also developed a greater understanding of how to plan for and mitigate disaster, and recognize how social factors such as conflict and gender inequality can exacerbate the effects of disasters.

In contrast to most conventional extension approaches which transfer technology in a ‘top-down’ manner, Pastoral Field Schools prove to be an innovative and empowering capacity development approach for pastoralists. By merging their own traditional knowledge with external information, pastoralists identify and adopt the most suitable practices and technologies in order for their livelihood system to become more productive, profitable and resilient to climate change.

For more information:

On Pastoral Field School

On Capacity Development



[1] The Farmer Field School (FFS) approach was developed by FAO in South-East Asia in 1989, to help small-scale rice farmers in controlling rice pests. Based on its proven success, the FFS approach was quickly expanded to others countries and with a broader scope beyond pest management.

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