Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kalenjin are essentially semipastoralists. Cattle herding is thought to be ancient among them. Although the real economic importance of herding is slight compared to that of cultivation among many Kalenjin groups, they almost all display a cultural emphasis on and an emotional commitment to pastoralism. Cattle numbers have waxed and waned; however, cattle/people ratios of 5:1 or greater (typical of peoples among whom herding is economically dominant) have been recorded only for the pastoral Pokot. In their late-nineteenth-century heyday of pastoralism, the Nandi and the Kipsigis approached this ratio; 1-3:1 is more typical of the Kalenjin, and in some communities the ratio is even lower than 1:1.
The staple crop was eleusine, but maize replaced it during the colonial era. Other subsistence crops include beans, pumpkins, cabbages, and other vegetables as well as sweet and European potatoes and small amounts of sorghum. Sheep, goats, and chickens are kept. Iron hoes were traditionally used to till; today plows pulled by oxen or rented tractors are more common. The importance of cash crops varies with land availability, soil type, and other factors; among the Nandi and the Kipsigis, it is considerable. Surplus maize, milk, and tea are the major cash crops. Kalenjin farms on the Uasin Gishu plateau also grow wheat and pyrethrum.
In most communities there are a few wage workers and full-time business persons (shopkeepers, tailors, carpenters, bicycle repairmen, tractor owners) with local clienteles. It is common for young married men to be part-time entrepreneurs. Historically, women could brew and sell beer; this became illegal in the early 1980s. Some men work outside their communities, but labor migration is less common than elsewhere in western Kenya.
Industrial Arts. Traditionally, there were no full-time craft specialists. Most objects were manufactured by their users. The blacksmith's art was passed down in families in particular localities, and some women specialized in pottery.
Trade. Traditionally, women conducted a trade of small stock for grain between pastoral-emphasis and cultivation-emphasis (often non-Kalenjin) communities. Regular local markets were rare prior to the colonial era. Today large towns and district centers have regular markets, and women occasionally sell vegetables in sublocation centers.
Division of Labor. There was little traditional division of labor except by age and sex. Men cleared land for cultivation, and there is evidence that married men and women cooperated in the rest of the cultivation process. Husbands and wives did not (except during a limited historical period)—and do not—typically cultivate separately, other than the wife's vegetable garden. Today women do more cultivation if their husbands are engaged in small-scale business activities. Children herded cattle close to the homestead, as well as sheep and goats; warriors (young initiated men) herded cattle in distant pastures. Women and girls milked, cooked, and supplied water and firewood. Today boys are the main cowherds, and girls are largely responsible for infant care. The children's role in domestic labor is extremely important, even though most children now attend school.
Land Tenure. In Nandi, individual title to land replaced a system in which land was plentiful, all who lived in a community had the right to cultivate it, and a man could move with his family to any locality in which he had a sponsor. Land prepared for cultivation, and used regularly, was viewed as belonging to the family that used it, and inherited from mother to son. The tenure systems of other Kalenjin were mainly similar. The Kerio Valley groups cultivated on ridges and at the foot of ridges, using irrigation furrows that required collective labor to maintain. This labor was provided by clan segments, which cleared and held land collectively, although cultivation rights in developed fields were held by individual families.