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Food expenditure

The availability of milk was the single most important item determining food expenditure patterns. In Olkarkar and Merueshi, where the availability of milk was greater than in Mbirikani, less was spent on maize and fat (table 5). The opposite was true for sugar and tea.

TABLE 4. Frequency of sub-household meat consumption (days per month) in the Olkarkar/ Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches (July 1982 to June 19831

Location 1982 1983
July-Aug. Sept.-Oct. Nov.-Dec. Jan.-Feb, Mar.-Apr. May-June
Olkarkar/Meruechi 2.4 2.5 1.4 1.4 1.4 2.7
(n=57) (n=41) (n=41) (n=54) (n=55) (n=54)
Mbirikani 2.7 3.1 1.4 2.4 5.0 3.9
(n-52) (n-45) (n=38) (n=48) (n=39) (n=44)

Comparison of total food expenditure per AAME (Ksh/AAME) and milk availability (1/AAME) by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (a)

Comparison of total food expenditure per AAME (Ksh/AAME) and milk availability (1/AAME) by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (b)

In the absence of milk, maizemeal was the staple food. There was, however, one notable difference between the ranch areas in the use of maizemeal. In Olkarkar and Merueshi, women regularly cooked and ate uoali. In Mbirakani, the women and children ate porridge rather than uoali those who did eat uoali belonged to the better-off households. (Men, it should be noted, invariably ate uoali which was regarded as superior to porridge.) Access to shops was also important. In Olkarkar and Merueshi, distances to the shops were not as great as in Mbirikani, and it was also cheaper, and easier in terms of public transport, to buy bulked, ground maize (the preferred means of purchase) and to get it back to the residence.

Sugar expenditures increased during the rains largely because ceremonies tended to be concentrated during this time. Sugar beer was brewed for these occasions. The relatively high level of sugar expenditure in Mbirikani, in spite of the poor milk supply, reflects the substitution of sugar for milk in tea when milk availability was low.

TABLE 5. Annual food expenditure per AAME (Ksh/AAME) and the proportion spent on each food item in the Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches (July 1982 to June 1983)

  Olkarkar/Merueshi Mbirikani
Percentage (Ksh/AAME) Percentage (Ksh/AAME)
Maize 40 92 43 111
Wheat 1 2 7 18
Sugar 30 69 24 62
Tea   13 30 8
Fat/oil 5 11 13 34
Potatoes 3 7 2 5
Vegetables - - - -
Meat 1 2 2 5
Other food 7 16 1  
Annual food - - - -
expenditure 100 230 100 258

Fat/oil expenditures were higher in Mbirikani than in Olkarkar and Merueshi, reflecting not only a lack of milk to make butter but also a paucity of animal fat, because many animals that were forcedly slaughtered were in poor condition, with little body fat. Expenditures on fat/oil decreased during the rainy season once milk availability increased and butter could be made.

Expenditure per AAME on other foods was constant throughout the year in Olkarkar and Merueshi, while in Mbirikani there was an upward trend in expenditures on other foods. This trend was a reflection of both the advent of ceremonies with the rains and the increased local availability, as the year progressed, of maize and beans, as well as rice and wheat flour, in the local shops.

Figure 5 compares the monthly total expenditure on food with milk availability in the study areas. It is apparent that, in both Olkarkar and Merueshi as well as Mbirikani, food expenditures (largely maize and sugar) were inversely related to milk availability.

In Olkarkar and Merueshi, expenditure per AAME on purchased food at the end of the study year was lower than at the beginning of the year. This situation can be related to both rainy seasons being normal and to the herds and flocks having, therefore, completed a normal cycle. In Mbirikani, on the other hand, both rainy seasons, in particular the long rains, were comparatively poor and grazing was sparse. As a result, expenditure at the end of the Year was higher than at the beginning of the year.

Food intake and nutritional status

The data presented have indicated how the amount of food made available for consumption from subsistence production influenced the type of food purchased. This section examines the pattern of usage of available food and how this pattern influenced the nutritional status of the study population.

Before the seasonal aspects of food intake are discussed, a brief mention will be made of the annual contribution of different foods and nutrients to absolute energy intake as well as to energy and protein intakes expressed as a percentage of the 1973 FAO estimated average energy requirement (AER) and recommended daily intake (RDI) respectively [6].

TABLE 6 Mean annual food source of energy, nutrient source of energy and adequacy of energy and protein intake in Olkarkar Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches (July 1982 to June 1983)

Energy Olkarkar/Merueshi Percentage (n=1.005) Mbirikani Percentage (n=0.89)
Source (by food)
Milk and milk products 64   31  
Milk   57   28
Butter   7   3
Meat and animal fats 4   12  
Meat   3   8
Fat   1   4
Purchased foods 32   56  
Maize   16   34
Sugar   8   12
Other   8   10
Total 100   100  
Source (by nutrients)
Protein 14   14  
Fat 46   35  
Carbohydrate 39   51  
Alcohol 1   0  
Total 100   100  
Adequacy of energy and protein intake a
Energy intake as percentage of:        
AER based on body weighb 70   66  
AER based on age/physiological state 57   51  
Protein intake as percentage of:
RDI based on body weightc 233   187  
RDI based on age/physiological state 175   142  
  1. figures do not include breast-fed children on Supplementary food,
  2. AER = estimated average energy requirement.
  3. RDI = recommended daily intake..

In Olkarkar/Merueshi, the energy contribution provided by milk and milk products was more than double that in Mbirikani (64 versus 31 per cent) (table 6). In both areas, the percentage of energy derived from butter (7 per cent in Olkarkar and Merueshi and 3 per cent in Mbirikani) was small in comparison to that derived from milk (57 and 28 per cent).

Meat and animal fats contributed more to energy intake in Mbirikani than in Olkarkar/Merueshi (12 per cent versus 4 per cent), reflecting the greater availability of meat in the former area. The energy contribution of purchased foods (largely maize and sugar) was the reverse of that of milk -i.e. those who had less milk depended more on purchased food, particularly maize, for their energy.

In view of the diet typified above, the contribution of protein to the daily energy intake was the same in both ranching areas (14 per cent), but fat was more important than carbohydrate as an energy source in Olkarkar/ Merueshi (46 per cent) than Mbirikani (35 per cent), reflecting the greater availability of milk in the former area.

In order to compare differences in the energy and protein intake between the two areas, the mean annual energy intake for different age groups (0-2,2-5,5-9,9-14,14-18-year-olds, and adult pregnant/lactating/non-pregnant non lactating women) was expressed as a percentage of the RDI based on weight and age by sex for a given age group. The weighted mean RDI/weight/sex or RDI/age/sex for all age groups has been taken to represent the adequacy of energy and protein intake in each group ranch area.

The final part of table 6 shows that protein intake in Olkarkar/Merueshi was 233 per cent of the RDI based on body weight or 175 per cent based on age, whereas in Mbirikani it was 187 per cent of the RDI for weight or 142 per cent based on age. It is important to note that the relative gap between the residents of Olkarkar and Merueshi and those of Mbirikani was less in the case of energy than it was for protein because the Mbirikani people were more dependent on high-energy cereal than on milk, which brought their energy (but not protein) intake closer to the Olkarkar/Merueshi level.

The overall energy intake was lower than the RDI - between 65 and 70 per cent of the RDI based on body weight or between 50 and 60 per cent of that based on age, with intakes lower in Mbirikani than in Olkarkar and Merueshi. Given this situation, it is not surprising that there was a high overall prevalence of thinness (90 per cent weight for height) and shortness (95 per cent height for age) in both Mbirikani (72 and 51 per cent) and Olkarkar/ Merueshi (57 and 42 per cent) (table 7). To a lesser extent, the same was also true for severe thinness (80 per cent weight for height) and severe shortness (90 per cent height for age) (33 and 19 per cent in Mbirikani, and 20 and 15 per cent in Olkarkar/Merueshi). The differences between the two areas in the prevalence of thinness (P<0.001), severe thinness (P<0.001), shortness (P<0.001), and severe shortness (P<0.05) were significant.

TABLE 7. Mean annual percentage of sample: thin, very thin, short, and very short in the Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches (July 1982 to June 1983)

Nutritional status Percentage of total
Thin (90 % weight for height) 57a 72A
Very thin (80% weight for height) 20a 33a
Short (95% height for age) 42a 51a
Very short(90% height for age) 15b 19b

a. P<0.001.
b. P<0.05.

These results suggest that the difference in food availability resulted in two very different levels of nutrition. In Olkarkar/Merueshi, where there were 960 litres of milk per AAME per year, fewer people were undernourished than in Mbirikani, where the deficit in energy from milk (430 litres per AAME per year) was not being compensated for sufficiently by purchased foods.

Turning to the seasonal aspects of food intake and nutritional status, figure 6 shows the proportion of energy provided by various foods (milk and butter, meat and fats, and crop products) on a bimonthly basis in each study area.

There were three major points of interest in the food intake data for Olkarkar/Merueshi. 1. The seasonal availability and consumption of milk were the dominant factors determining the energy contribution of different staples. Milk was the food of choice and provided between 40 per cent and 85 per cent of dietary energy, depending on the season. 2. The proportion of energy obtained from milk remained high, even when milk availability per AAME had started to decline in January and February. The reversion to a cereal-based diet for women and children was gradual and did not take place suddenly. 3. Meat and fats, other than butter, made a very small contribution to the energy intake.

Percentage of energy consumed provided by milk products, meat/fats and crop products by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (A)

Percentage of energy consumed provided by milk products, meat/fats and crop products by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (B)

Percentage of energy consumed provided by protein, fat, carbohydrate, and alcohol by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (A)

Percentage of energy consumed provided by protein, fat, carbohydrate, and alcohol by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (B)

In Mbirikani, the situation was somewhat different. 1. The energy contribution from milk and butter was directly related to seasonal milk availability. 2. The energy contribution from meat and fats varied with the seasonality of animal disease. Some households in this study moved out of the area in the dry season of 1982 and lost animals as a result of ECF As a consequence of the move and the cattle deaths associated with it, there was a relatively high energy contribution from meat/fats between July and October 1982. Few households held ceremonies during and after the short rains. By January and February 1983, the outbreak of Nairobi Sheep Disease, which decimated many flocks, had manifested itself, starting first in the flocks that belonged to those households that had moved.

Milk availability not only made the most important energy contribution of the major food groups to the overall diet but also determined the proportion of energy that was contributed by proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (fig. 7).

In both areas, there was little difference in the energy contribution provided by protein at different seasons. The energy contribution of fat increased during the wet season and followed the same trend as that of livestock products shown in figure 6. Similarly, the energy contribution of carbohydrates followed that of crop products, increasing during the dry season.

Figure 8 shows that, as the dry season progressed through to September and October and crop products contributed increasingly to energy intake, the energy intake in Olkarkar and Merueshi improved, while that in Mbirikani remained constant.

During the short rains (November and December), when milk availability and consumption increased, energy intake fell in both areas to between 50 and 60 per cent of the RDI for weight. In Olkarkar and Merueshi, the continuing increase in the amount of energy derived from livestock products (fig. 6) through to January and February was, as figure 8 shows, associated with an overall decrease in energy intake. In Mbirikani, the low level of energy intake during the rainy season was short-lived. The improvement in energy intake, once milk no longer provided most of the energy consumed, was more noticeable in Olkarkar/ Merueshi (between 70 and 80 per cent AER for weight) than in Mbirikani (between 65 and 75 per cent AER for weight). This difference was attributable to the fact that the Olkarkar and Merueshi people ate uoali rather than porridge and hence consumed more maizemeal.

During the second year of the study, an attempt was made to compare energy intake and energy expenditure on a seasonal basis. The results indicated that there was little difference in energy expenditure between seasons in Olkarkar/Merueshi, but in Mbirikani there was a decrease

Energy intake expressed as a percentage of AER by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (AER based on body weight, excludes breast-fed children)

in the energy expenditures of the herders (5- to 14- year olds) in the wet season because they travailed shorter distances. Indeed, the data showed that in both ranch areas the seasonal deficit in the energy balance was due to low energy intake rather than excessive expenditure [13].

In Olkarkar/Merueshi, but not Mbirikani, there were significant seasonal differences in the prevalence of thinness but not of shortness (fig. 9). This finding also applied to the age-group analysis [13]. The level of thinness in both areas increased marginally during the dry season but fell during November and December, coinciding with the short rains, before rising again through the next dry season.

The reason for the pattern of the thinness findings was that, as the long dry season progressed (up to September and October), maize rather than milk was consumed and energy intakes improved or remained stable. The improved energy intake in Olkarkar and Merueshi was high enough to bring about a gain in weight for height. This gain, however, did not occur until about the time of the onset of the short rains (November and December), when the staple became milk rather than maize, and energy intake fell sharply. As the wet season progressed, there were no more increases in weight for height, but there were increases in wasting. Although energy intake increased after the wet season, by the end of the year of the study it had not yet reached a level high enough to bring about a gain in weight for height. In Mbirikani, it appears that the immediate reduction in energy expenditure associated with the rains was sufficient to bring about a small, but insignificant, gain in weight for height. The subsequent transition to a milk-based diet, however, meant that any improvement in nutritional status was very short-lived.


The results show that both the use of food and the nutritional status of the Maasai were dominated by the availability of milk, which influenced the quantity and type of food purchased and the type of diet eaten.

The seasonality of food intake had a marked effect on energy intake. There was a noticeable decline in the energy intake during the short rains, when most of the dietary energy came from dairy products. Conversely, during the dry seasons, when crop products were the main source of energy, there was an improvement in the energy adequacy of the diet. The explanation for this improvement lies in the difference between the energy content of milk and maize and the quantities of each available for consumption. The energy value of milk during the wet season fell from 77 to 59 kcal per 100 gm, whereas that for ground maizemeal was 346 kcal per 100 gm throughout the year, i.e. six times greater than that of milk. The increased supply of milk during the wet season was not enough to make good this energy deficit, and since the Maasai firmly believe that milk is the best food available, household heads curtailed maize expenditure once the supply of milk increased. The greater amount of milk available in Olkarkar and Merueshi resulted in a more marked seasonal difference in energy intake in those locations compared to Mbirikani. In Olkarkar and Merueshi, milk was the staple food for four months of the year, but in Mbirikani for only two months.

The data presented, therefore, suggested that the greater the availability and dependence on milk, the greater the rainy season deficit in energy intake over energy expenditure.

Policy considerations

In conducting this study, it has been impossible to ignore the dynamic interplay between the effects of modernization and change and the nutritional status of the Maasai. Neither the Maasai people nor those responsible for rural development policy in Kenya are able to ignore this interplay. The pastoral Maasai society is under pressure to enter the modern economy, which represents a major change in their traditional life-style. In the work reported in this article, this change has been discussed in the context of nutritional status, but the work carried out has also offered the opportunity to consider changes in relation to modernization.

Prevalence of thinness (<90 percent wt/ht) and shortness (<95 per cent ht/age) by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (A)

Prevalence of thinness (<90 percent wt/ht) and shortness (<95 per cent ht/age) by month in Olkarkar/Merueshi and Mbirikani group ranches, July 1982 to June 1983 (B)


The field work carried out in this study permitted an examination of some of the effects of modernization and change in a traditional society. The driving force behind much of this change was the group ranching scheme, which had two major objectives: to make the pastoralists sedentary and to encourage their participation in the monetary economy through the sale of livestock. The ranching scheme offered the Maasai both technical and economic incentives. The former included measures to increase livestock production, for example the introduction of improved bulls, more dips and water points, and better management of grazing lands. The economic incentives offered were in the form of low interest loans.

Inherent in the group ranch philosophy was the assumption that the availability of cash, which would come about from being in the scheme, would mean that the Maasai could make a more positive contribution to the national economy by supplying a saleable product. Cash availability was seen as positive, as a means of developing Maasailand by giving the Maasai access to consumer goods, which would both satisfy their needs and help the economy overall. it was assumed that entry into the monetary economy would enable them to purchase foods, and thereby to have a more varied diet, but little thought appears to have been given to the full implications of this change.

The group ranch scheme has not been a great success because it was based on premises that failed to take into account Maasai production and the role that livestock play in it [7].

The ILCA study has identified some of the complex interactions within the Maasai grazing system. ILCA research related to human nutrition found that many of the changes that have taken place recently have not been brought about by the group ranching scheme per se, but have resulted from a package of development efforts such as schools, health care, and the pipeline and its road. All of these developments have tended to encourage spontaneous settling, which in turn has led to the establishment of trading centres, formed largely by non-Maasai entrepreneurs They have set up shops and effectively created a demand for their products, and have influenced the Maasai in different ways. On the one hand, the Maasai have accepted new ideas and copied the behavioural patterns of the non-Maasai, while on the other they have tried to maintain their cultural traditions. The Maasai have retained their dietary preference for milk as the food of choice, but have also adopted new foods and different health practices, and have started to educate their children.

Maasai society is under increasing pressure. The livestock and human populations continue to grow, and there is not enough grazing land available. In such a situation, the pressure to purchase foods is increasing, and the Maasai have responded to this by modifying their traditional use of animals, while, at the same time, preserving their cultural tradition of generating wealth through the accumulation of cattle. However, in order to purchase non-livestock foods, they need to generate cash, which they do by selling cattle and smallstock.

Access to purchased foods has resulted in changes in dietary habits. Blood has been replaced by maizemeal as a staple; tea is often drunk instead of milk; and there has been a shift in the balance of the diet so that, with increasing age, more carbohydrate and less fat is consumed [13].

This pattern of consumption stems from the fact that the main source of carbohydrate, maize, is difficult for small children to digest; hence, they are still fed the traditional Maasai diet based on milk and butter.

The availability of purchased foods has also influenced the Maasai's perspective on when to slaughter smallstock. For example, it was traditional, after a child was born, for the father to slaughter sheep for their fat and goats for making soup, which were fed to the nursing mother. Today, however, many men realize that it makes more economic sense to butcher fewer animals for direct consumption and to sell one animal. The money from the sale can be used to buy food, which can then be preserved and used over a longer period than the meat of a slaughtered animal.

Shop owners have been important in bringing about these attitudinal changes in that, through clever salesmanship, they have capitalized on the Maasai's ascription of greater prestige value to crop products than to milk. It is also considered to be more prestigious to eat a diverse diet. When this was possible in the past, it was usually the prerogative of men. Today even foods normally considered taboo by the Maasai, but eaten by neighbouring tribes, for example chicken, are being eaten by the younger generation of Maasai men.

These changes, in general, are having a positive effect on the welfare of the Maasai. Problems, however, have arisen because the rationale behind many of the changes taking place is not understood by the Maasai, nor are the changes being carefully integrated into the Maasai's seasonal pattern of existence. As a consequence, a number of the changes appear to be of questionable benefit or even negative in terms of social welfare because they are being carried out in an unsatisfactory manner. For example, although not discussed specifically in the text, the study noted that:

  1. There is an increasing use of commercial baby foods, as reflected by the fact that 44 per cent of the women asked in Mbirikani and 11 per cent in Olkarkar and Merueshi had used commercial baby foods. Men make the decision to buy, and often actually buy, these prestigious foods, which are used by women who cannot read the instructions and are not given proper advice on them. The formula, which replaces cow's milk, is therefore not made up correctly and has a limited nutritional value.
  2. Bottle feeding, also regarded as prestigious, is beginning to appear in Maasailand and is encouraged by the avail ability of bottles in most shops. Bottles are associated with commercial baby foods and further encourage the use of the foods. The Maasai have no awareness of the need for proper bottle hygiene, so that bottle use poses a real health risk.
  3. Because clean water from the pipeline is now readily available, the historic practice of using boiled water infusions for diluting babies' milk (and as medication for the sick) is disappearing. The loss of this practice, in spite of the fact that the use of surface water is still widespread, could have serious health implications, especially if unclean water is used to make up formula baby food.
  4. While the value of hypodermic injections is recognized (they have helped prevent decimation of the herds from rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease), few Maasai understand the need for a proper inoculation regimen and many children are, therefore, only partially immunized.

This lack of understanding of new practices is also reflected in dietary practices, which are important determinants of nutritional status. For example, children under five years old, who traditionally drank milk as virtually their sole diet, are today fed purchased foods. Undernutrition in this age group is widespread [ 13]. The problem is not so much one of a lack of food as a lack of adequately prepared food. Prepared foods containing coarsely ground maize (as opposed to commercial finely ground maizemeal) are often insufficiently cooked so that they give the children consuming them, especially the younger ones, stomach upsets. Similarly, whole maize and/or beans (another relatively new food) frequently cause stomach pains because they are neither soaked prior to cooking nor cooked long enough.

Little effort has been made by any outside agencies to inform the Maasai of the correct use of the new foodstuffs now available to them. The receptiveness to innovation of the Maasai, whether it be for food, health, or education, does however suggest that they would respond positively to such information if it were disseminated through channels they respected.

Such dissemination should not be difficult to introduce if the combined efforts of schoolteacher, paramedics, and shopkeepers are mobilized. Schoolteachers and paramedics could, in their professional capacities, provide the necessary education in basic nutrition, health, and hygiene. Currently, no programme of this nature exists at the primary-school level. Discussions with teachers and paramedics have suggested that it would be practical to introduce such a programme.

Apart from teachers and paramedics, shopkeepers are also key external influences in the Maasai community. For many Maasai, the shopkeepers are the principal bearers of news and information. They also have a certain amount of power in that they can, and do, influence what people buy. At present, some of the information they give about food is misleading. This is not necessarily intentional, but most of the shopkeepers are no more than semi-literate and

frequently do not themselves understand the directions on the tins and packets of food that they sell. However, shopkeepers, unlike paramedics and teachers, are not Civil servants and cannot be directed in their communication activities. In order to derive an input from them, it would probably be necessary to involve local Civil servants with them in some form of community action approach. Such an approach could reach all sectors of Maasai society, the children through their teachers, the women through the paramedics, and the men through the shopkeepers, and would appear to justify a close examination by those responsible for and interested in the development of Maasailand.


This work was carried out under the auspices of the International Livestock Centre for Africa and funded by the Ford Foundation and the United Nations University. Thanks are due to: Dr. Solomon Bekure of the ILCA for providing the logistical support and access to the ILCA data; Dr. Nick Glazard for computer assistance; and Drs. Latham, Mortorell and Sanjur for comments on an earlier draft.


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