The Kanembu are primarily farmers and livestock raisers. Many families keep small gardens in the fertile wadis (valleys or streambeds). In good wadis, which are occasionally watered by streams, farmers can harvest corn twice a year and wheat once. Those living around Lake Chad make use of the moist, fertile polders (wadis that have been artificially created by damming a small inlet of the lake). Frequently, Kanembu farmers have a surplus of grain, which they export north by camel and across Lake Chad to Nigeria by canoe.
The Kanembu's ancestors were herdsmen; and today, many Kanembu still tend cattle. In the north, some are semi-nomadic, migrating for brief periods with their cattle. In the center and southern areas, they are settled farmers, raising livestock and growing millet on ground fertilized by the manure of their cattle.
The Kanembu have a stable social structure. Each village has a secular chief and a religious leader who provide material and spiritual guidance. Families are large, and some of the men have more than one wife. They live in straw huts that are built near sandy depressions where water collects.
Although some young boys travel to Borno to attend Islamic high schools, most Kanembu are illiterate. Their villages lack modern schools and health care, facilities that are hindered by the absence of quality roads.