Maps that build bridges

Thanks to digital participatory mapping, pastoralists are proud of their local knowledge and policymakers want to act on it.

Article, 19 December 2013
Maps drawn by community groups before being transferred to a geo-referenced satellite map projected on a wall (Photo: James Pattinson)

Maps drawn by community groups before being transferred to a geo-referenced satellite map projected on a wall (Photo: James Pattinson)

A new participatory mapping process is ensuring devolution policies in Kenya and Tanzania lead to grassroots planning by helping communities articulate their knowledge in a format governments can understand.

While participatory mapping is not a new concept, the projects in Isiolo County, Kenya and Longido District, Tanzania are doing things differently, combining traditional practices and modern technology. 

Lessons on mapping

Starting with traditional participatory practices including extensive community meetings and producing hand-drawn maps, the project team then helped community members transfer their detailed geographic knowledge onto satellite images. 

The results were detailed digitised maps of pastoral resources and ecology ready for immediate government use. In Kenya, these maps are ready to be used as part of urgent work on Isiolo and other counties' integration plans. 

The project team found this approach opened up a new way for local communities to communicate with government, which is giving crucial support to Kenya and Tanzania's devolution policies on resource management. In Isiolo, the governor became involved, commenting on the intimate knowledge and accuracy of the maps.

The validated maps will be a powerful tool for articulating community rights over land and resources. 
- Daoud Tari Abkula,
Resource Advocacy Programme

The projects also increased community confidence. The inclusive process and seeing their knowledge cross-checked against satellite technology empowered communities, creating ownership and a commitment to protect their resources. In Isiolo, participant comments demonstrated pride, and that they are giving them "a reason to stand up and protect resources important to the community". 

Mapping out the future

Success in the pilot projects is setting an example. Participatory digital mapping in two of Longido's neighbouring districts is due to start in February 2014 and other NGOs are exploring further uses for the technique in both countries.

Isiolo and Longido are now looking to fund public investment projects based in part on these maps. If successful, the counties will be paving the way for a new type of grassroots governance that could be used nationwide.


Ced Hesse, principal researcher – Drylands, Climate Change Group; team leader, Research for Advocacy