In Nairobi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts on lab coat, meets young bioscientists fighting hunger in Africa

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Lydia Wamalwa talks with German Chancellor (and former scientist) Angela Merkel at ILRI-BecA labs (photo credit: ILRI/Njoroge).

Yesterday (12 Jul 2011), Lydia Wamalwa, a PhD student from the International Potato Center doing her research at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) labs at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), gave Chancellor Angela Merkel an overview of her research to improve the resistance of sweet potato to the sweet potato weevil, a pest that causes major losses to this, the third most important food crop in eastern and southern Africa.

Merkel visits ILRI Nairobi: Lab tour

Apollinaire Djikeng, BecA’s technology manager, introduces BecA, which is hosted and managed by ILRI, to Chancellor Merkel (photo credit: ILRI/Njoroge).

On the same lab tour, the Chancellor also heard from Appolinaire Djikeng, a Camerounian bioscientist who is BecA’s technology manager.

Djikeng explained that ILRI established BecA in 2006 with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and funding from Canada. BecA provides state-of-the-art laboratory facilities to African scientists conducting research on the continent’s biggest food production problems.

In its first 5 years of operation, Djikeng said that BecA has:

  • strengthened biosciences capacity in the region and trained hundreds of young African agricultural scientists;
  • generated productive collaborations between dozens of scientists working in Africa with other experts working in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, in North America and in Asia; and
  • convened donor representatives, agricultural scientists and civil society leaders in dozens of high-quality meetings to identify research gaps and ways to close them.

‘You’re now standing in BecA’s crop research laboratory,’ Djikeng said. ‘Many institutes have recently relocated their agricultural research programs here to take advantage of BecA’s resources, unique in sub-Saharan Africa.’

Among the international teams hosted by ILRI-BecA are those leading work on:

  • cassava, banana and yams (IITA [International Institute for Tropical Agriculture], based in West Africa)
  • sorghum, millet and other cereals of drylands (ICRISAT [International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics], based in India)
  • potato and sweet potato (CIP [International Potato Center], based in Peru), and
  • drought-tolerant maize for Africa (CIMMYT [International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre], based in Mexico).

One of BecA’s trainees, Rachel Aye, then told the Chancellor about how German support and BecA facilities are enabling her to advance development of a vaccine against a disease that is ravaging the livestock of Africa, including in her country, Uganda.

Djikeng and Aye thanked Chancellor Merkel on behalf of all their colleagues for making this historic visit and for her country’s longstanding support of agricultural research for development.

A new, converging, world–Hans Rosling on the good news of the world’s health and wealth

Swedish global health researcher Hans Rosling, of TedTalk ‘animated data’ fame, happens to have agriculture, health and nutrition in low-income countries as his life-long research focus.

It was thus inspired of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to video-tape him for their Delhi conference this week, Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health, introducing his passionate presentation of animated data on the progress the world’s countries have made over the last 200 years in terms of the length of their lifespans.

Just six decades ago, in 1948, Rosling explains, today’s Asia giants were still sick and poor. The world today, he says, still has huge differences between ‘the best and worst countries’, as well as huge inequalities within countries: China’s rich Shanghai Province, he says (and shows), has a level of health and wealth on a par with Italy, while China’s rural parts are on a level similar to that of Ghana, in West Africa.

‘Despite the enormous disparities today,’ he says, ‘we have seen 200 years of remarkable progress. That huge and historical gap between the West and the rest is now closing. We have become an entirely new, converging, world.’

Rosling ends his presentation with optimism. ‘I see a clear trend into the future, with aid, trade, green technology and peace, it’s fully possible that everybody can make it to the healthy, wealthy corner.’

Who can argue with that? Watch the video below.

Livestock boom risks aggravating animal ‘plagues,’ poses growing threat to food security and health of world’s poor

Shepherd in Rajasthan, India

Research released at conference calls for thinking through the health impacts of agricultural intensification to control epidemics that are decimating herds and endangering humans (Picture credit: ILRI/Mann).

Increasing numbers of domestic livestock and more resource-intensive production methods are encouraging animal epidemics around the world, a problem that is particularly acute in developing countries, where livestock diseases present a growing threat to the food security of already vulnerable populations, according to new assessments reported today at the International Conference on Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition & Health in New Delhi, India.

‘Wealthy countries are effectively dealing with livestock diseases, but in Africa and Asia, the capacity of veterinary services to track and control outbreaks is lagging dangerously behind livestock intensification,’ said John McDermott, deputy director general for research at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which spearheaded the work. ‘This lack of capacity is particularly dangerous because many poor people in the world still rely on farm animals to feed their families, while rising demand for meat, milk and eggs among urban consumers in the developing world is fueling a rapid intensification of livestock production.’

The global conference (http://2020conference.ifpri.info), organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute, brings together leading agriculture, nutrition and health experts to assess ways to increase agriculture’s contribution to better nutrition and health for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The new assessments from ILRI spell out how livestock diseases present ‘double trouble’ in poor countries. First, livestock diseases imperil food security in the developing world (where some 700 million people keep farm animals and up to 40 percent of household income depends on them) by reducing the availability of a critical source of protein. Second, animal diseases also threaten human health directly when viruses such as the bird flu (H5N1), SARS and Nipah viruses ‘jump’ from their livestock hosts into human populations.

McDermott is a co-author with Delia Grace, a veterinary and food safety researcher at ILRI, of a chapter on livestock epidemics in a new book called ‘Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction.’ This chapter focuses on animal plagues that primarily affect livestock operations—as opposed to human populations—and that are particularly devastating in the developing world.

‘In the poorest regions of the world, livestock plagues that were better controlled in the past are regaining ground,’ they warn, with ‘lethal and devastating impacts’ on livestock and the farmers and traders that depend on them. These ‘population-decimating plagues’ include diseases that kill both people and their animals and destroy livelihoods.

Livestock-specific diseases include contagious bovine ‘lung plague’ of cattle, buffalo and yaks, peste des petits ruminants (an acute respiratory ailment of goats and sheep), swine fever (‘hog cholera’) and Newcastle disease (a highly infectious disease of domestic poultry and wild birds). The world’s livestock plagues also include avian influenza (bird flu) and other ‘zoonotic’ diseases, which, being transmissible between animals and people, directly threaten human as well as animal health.

McDermott and Grace warn that new trends, including rapid urbanization and climate change, could act as ‘wild cards,’ altering the present distribution of diseases, sometimes ‘dramatically for the worse.’ The authors say developing countries need to speed up their testing and adoption of new approaches, appropriate for their development context, to detect and then to stop or contain livestock epidemics before they become widespread.

In a separate but related policy analysis to be presented at the New Delhi conference, McDermott and Grace focus on links between agricultural intensification and the spread of zoonotic diseases. The researchers warn of a dangerous disconnect: the agricultural intensification now being pursued in the developing world, they say, is typically focused on increasing food production and profitability, while potential effects on human health remain ‘largely ignored.’

A remarkable 61 percent of all human pathogens, and 75 percent of new human pathogens, are transmitted by animals, and some of the most lethal bugs affecting humans originate in our domesticated animals. Notable examples of zoonotic diseases include avian influenza, whose spread was primarily caused by domesticated birds; and the Nipah virus infection, which causes influenza-like symptoms, often followed by inflammation of the brain and death, and which spilled over to people from pigs kept in greater densities by smallholders.

The spread and subsequent establishment of avian influenza in previously disease-free countries, such as Indonesia, was a classic example, McDermott and Grace say, of the risks posed by high-density chicken and duck operations and long poultry ‘value chains,’ as well as the rapid global movement of both people and livestock. In addition, large-scale irrigation aimed at boosting agricultural productivity, they say, has created conditions that facilitate the establishment of the Rift Valley fever virus in new regions, with occasional outbreaks killing hundreds of people along with thousands of animals.

The economic impacts of such zoonotic diseases are enormous. The World Bank estimates that if avian influenza becomes transmissible from human to human, the potential cost of a resulting pandemic could be USD3 trillion. Rich countries are better equipped than poor countries to cope with new diseases—and they are investing heavily in global surveillance and risk reduction activities—but no one is spared the threat as growing numbers of livestock and easy movement across borders increase the chances of global pandemics.

But while absolute economic losses from livestock diseases are greater in rich countries, the impact on the health and livelihoods of people is worse in poor countries. McDermott and Grace point out, for example, that zoonotic diseases and food-borne illnesses associated with livestock account for at least 16 percent of the infectious disease burden in low-income countries, compared to just 4 percent in high-income nations.

Yet despite the great threats posed by livestock diseases, McDermott and Grace see a need for a more intelligent response to outbreaks that considers the local disease context as well as the livelihoods of people. They observe that ‘while few argue that disease control is a bad thing, recent experiences remind us that, if livestock epidemics have negative impacts, so too can the actions taken to control or prevent them.’

An exclusive focus on avian influenza preparedness activities in Africa relative to other more important disease concerns, they point out, invested scarce financial resources to focus on a disease that, due to a low-density of chicken operations and scarcity of domestic ducks, is unlikely to do great damage to much of the continent. And they argue that a wholesale slaughter of pigs in Cairo instituted after an outbreak of H1N1 was ‘costly and epidemiologically pointless’ because the disease was already being spread ‘by human-to-human transmission.’

McDermott and Grace conclude that to build surveillance systems able to detect animal disease outbreaks in their earliest stages, developing countries will need to work across sectors, integrating veterinary, medical, and environmental expertise in ‘one-health’ approaches to assessing, prioritizing and managing the risks posed by livestock diseases.

More information on why animals matter to health and nutrition: http://mahider.ilri.org/handle/10568/3152 and http://mahider.ilri.org/handle/10568/3149

Small-scale traders drive growth of Kenya’s milk industry

Over 80 per cent of Kenya’s milk output is produced by close to 800,000 smallholder dairy farmers in a sector that also has 350,000 smallholder milk vendors. In recent years, Kenya’s dairy sector has experienced a major growth in milk production as a result of various programs that have streamlined the industry and given support to dairy farmers and the country’s milk value chain that ties producers to sellers to consumers.

One such initiative is a Smallholder Dairy Project, which worked with the country’s dairy farmers between 1997 and 2005. The project was implemented by the Government of Kenya, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) together with other partners.

In this 7-minute film, produced by WRENmedia, Margaret Lukuyu, who was part of ILRI’s team in the project (she now works with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute), talks about how small-scale milk vendors in Kenya have improved the ways that they handle milk, which has resulted in higher profits for them. She says the sellers have also increased their milk supply to consumers in an industry that contributes about 4 percent of total national gross domestic product (GDP).

One of the key successes of the project was the licensing of smallholder milk traders and farmers in the ‘informal milk sector’ into various registered groups, such as the Kenya Smallholder Milk Traders Association, which has empowered both farmers and traders to lobby for needed policy changes. This project played a key role in reforming Kenya’s national dairy policy and increased support for the country’s massive ‘informal milk sector’, which trades in unpasteurized (‘raw’) milk.

The film also highlights the experiences of Teresa Kamau, a business developer who trained farmers and traders in business management skills as part of the project, and Gabriel Karanja, a milk trader who has seen increased returns as a result of his sales of clean and higher-quality milk.

—-

For her contribution to the dairy sector in Kenya through the Smallholder Dairy project, Margaret Lukuyu was one of sixty outstanding women agricultural scientists from 10 African countries who received a 2010 fellowship from an AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) program in July. Read about the fellowships here.

For more information about the Smallholder Dairy Project, visit http://www.smallholderdairy.org/default.htm

Livestock emissions and livestock systems in developing countries

According to Carlos Seré, Director General of ILRI, the livelihoods of a billion people, particularly in Africa and Asia, are attached to livestock – and consequently to their greenhouse gas emissions. If livestock are removed, many of these people have few other livelihood opportunities. He argues: "improving feeding is one of the key interventions to improve the efficiency of livestock systems, i.e. to produce less methane per kilo of output" – which will relieve pressure on other natural resources like forests. He cautions that aggregating livestock emissions globally misses the big differences between developed and developing countries. It is important to separate the two. "To design policies you really need to clearly separate the problem." In developed countries, livestock production is mainly commercial and there are a number of policies and instruments that can be applied to reduce livestock emissions. In poor countries as well, he states, livestock emissions can be reduced – "but we need to be aware of the stark trade off. We may end up with lots more poor people and hungry children." View the video: [blip.tv ?posts_id=3005208&dest=-1]

Khulungira: Harvesting hope in an African village


Ireland’s Minister of State for Overseas Development, Mr. Peter Power, T.D., has launched an exhibition highlighting the potential of science for Africa’s smallholder farmers at the Irish Aid Volunteering and Information Centre in Dublin.

Minister of State for Overseas Development Peter Power launches ‘Khulungira: Harvesting Hope in an African village’.


Ireland’s Minister of State for Overseas Development, Mr. Peter Power, T.D., has launched an exhibition highlighting the potential of science for Africa’s smallholder farmers at the Irish Aid Volunteering and Information Centre in Dublin.

The multimedia exhibition features videos, posters, photographs and soundscapes that introduce visitors to the people of Khulungira, a village in Malawi that has benefited from advances in agricultural research.

IrishExhibit Poster

www.cgiarkhulungiraexhibit.org

“At present, one in six people worldwide go to bed hungry each night and many more cannot afford a healthy diet,” Mr. Power said. “If we do not do all in our power to reverse the rise in food insecurity and hunger, we will be failing in our basic human obligations, and accepting a scandalous situation which we have the capacity to change.”

The exhibition presents the people behind the grim statistics. The villagers of Khulungira are typical of millions of Africans who depend on smallholder farming for food and income. The challenges they face are daunting: If the rains are late, or crops are infested with a pest or disease, people can starve. If conditions are good, they may have a little extra to sell for income, enabling them to send their children to school. In this sort of scenario, even the smallest improvement in productivity can make a huge difference.

Thanks in part to research undertaken by the members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), farmers in Khulungira and other villages across Malawi have begun to plant new varieties of potatoes, sweet potatoes, groundnuts and trees. Others are improving the composition of soil and expanding their livestock holdings.

In each case, the change has increased production, improved diets and reduced vulnerability to catastrophic loses.

The CGIAR, established in 1971, is a strategic partnership of countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations dedicated to mobilizing agricultural science to reduce poverty, promote agricultural growth and protect the environment. The CGIAR supports an alliance of 15 international agricultural research centres.

Minister of State for Overseas Development Peter Power launches

The exhibition in Dublin features the work of four CGIAR centers: the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), International Potato Center (CIP), and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The creative development of the joint venture was led by ILRI at the request of Irish Aid . Support was also provided by the MDG Centre, East & Southern Africa and Irish Aid, the Government of Ireland’s programme for overseas development.

In 2009, Irish Aid has provided funding of almost €7 million to the CGIAR. “Continued investment in agricultural research is essential to success in transforming African agriculture into a highly-productive, sustainable system that can assure food security, keep children in school and lift millions out of poverty,” Minister Power said.

The exhibition is free and open to the public at the Irish Aid Volunteering and Information Centre, 27-31 Upper O’Connell St, Dublin 1 (corner of Cathal Brugha Street). It is scheduled to run through the end of 2009.

New strategy for pro-poor dairy development in Assam

ILRI and partners recently unveiled a new action plan to help the poor in Assam improve their livelihoods through the dairy sector.

Assam is located in the far North-East corner of India and shares its borders with six Indian States and two countries. The majority of milk is produced by rural smallholders using indigenous cattle and buffalo, but productivity is low in comparison with other States in India. Further, most milk is marketed through traditional and informal channels, estimated at 97% of locally marketed milk, compared to some 80% nationally.  In spite of these constraints, Assam displays strong production potential and inadequate milk supply, so there are many opportunities to grow the dairy sector and help the poor improve their livelihoods.

In 2005, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), was invited by the Directorate of Dairy Development (DDD) of the Government of Assam, to collaborate in a comprehensive study on the dairy sector in Assam to identify opportunities to boost the milk sector and improve the livelihoods of smallholder producers.

About Assam

Assam is situated in the far, North-East corner of India. The total geographical area of the State is 78,438 sq kms which accounts for about 2.4% of the country’s total geographical area. In 2001, the population of Assam stood at 26.64 million – representing 2.59% of the total population of India.

The percentage of poor in Assam is the highest among the seven sister States of the North East. Around 36.09% of the State’s population continues to live below the poverty line, a figure considerably above the national average of 26.1% (1999-2000). There is a rural-urban divide: four out of ten people in rural Assam are likely to be below the poverty line, while in urban Assam, the incidence is less than one in ten.

Cattle constitute the largest livestock group followed by goats, pigs and buffaloes. Livestock in Assam are mainly indigenous breeds but the average productivity is poor in comparison with other States of India. The production of milk in Assam in 2002-2003 was estimated at 773 million litres as against 750 million litres in 2001-2002 indicating a nominal increase of 3.06 per cent over.

Action plan presented to stakeholders
On Wednesday 30th May, ILRI and the DDD presented their findings and a draft action at a final stakeholders’ meeting in the Assam capital Guwahati convened by the Assam Minister for Animal Husbandry and Veterinary, the Hon. Khori Singh Enghti. The action plan is based on surveys of 1500 consumers, 600 traditional and formal market agents and 3000 dairy producers in eight districts of Assam. It also includes an analysis of the successes and failures in the formal sector in Assam and an analysis of the quality and safety of milk and dairy products in both the traditional and formal sectors. The data were gathered and analyzed in collaboration with local partners in Assam.

New Strategy for Pro-Poor Dairy Development

Assam Action Plan Highlights

Demand outstrips supply
The report found dairy production to be a feasible option for raising incomes and improving livelihood opportunities, particularly for the rural poor. According to Steve Staal, ILRI’s markets theme director, ‘Our study shows that there is a huge gap between demand and supply. To meet the demand, which is mostly for good quality raw milk, dairy interventions that address productivity, access to livestock services and markets, and improved milk quality in the traditional sector, would result in more income and more employment for rural smallholders.’

Improved productivity and increased production essential
Besides large market potential in rural Assam, the survey also found many farmers expressed a desire to become involved in increased marketed milk production, but low milk yields and lack of a basic marketing infrastructure were identified as major obstacles. The action plan highlights opportunities to increase farm-level production and productivity through improved animals such as cross-breeds, improved fodder and feed technology, and by providing access to livestock services. The action plan also incorporates actions to provide smallholder access to reliable markets to absorb more milk at remunerative prices. The government of Assam have already made efforts to bring smallholders into collective market mechanisms, but marketing of milk through the processed milk channel remains relatively insignificant and smallholders receive little remuneration.

Pro-poor interventions critical
The plan highlights that dairy systems in Assam may be too diverse to have a singular policy thrust. It states: ‘We need to recognize such diversities of the system and place them within pro-poor dairy intervention designs and enable poor households to take part in the process.’

According to the report, no dairy development is possible in Assam unless it addresses the problems faced by the traditional sector. Most of the milk consumed in Assam is ‘raw’ unpasteurized milk supplied by smallholders. The survey found that demand for pasteurised milk was low and its consumption was limited almost entirely to urban areas. Staal emphasised the need for an inclusive plan ‘Any development plan that focused mostly on pasteurised milk is unlikely to yield the desired results. The idea is not to have a parallel competitive system to beat the traditional sector but to strengthen the existing system and help build a blend of modern infrastructure and professionalism.’

Quality standards to be raised
The report also highlights the need to raise quality and hygiene standards. According to Delia Grace, an epidemiologist and food safety specialist at ILRI, ‘Most of the samples analysed did not meet general bacteriological quality standards causing a potential risk to human health. There is an urgent need to create awareness among farmers and distributors to address the problem.’ The report suggests taking immediate steps to provide training packages to milk farmers and distributors and to raise awareness among consumers that all ‘raw’ milk should be boiled before consumption – a practice that is generally followed in Assam.

Assam action plan soon ready for implementation
According to Iain Wright, ILRI’s representative for Asia ‘the report was well received by stakeholders and we are currently incorporating their comments. The final action plan will be released within a month.’

ILRI Assam Dairy Project Staff

Liza and Patro

Numbers of malnourished children in Africa predicted to grow

New study is 'reality check' for forthcoming World Summit +5 The number of malnourished children in Niger and other African countries will grow if neglect of agricultural research and development continues, a policy institute report warns. Innovative agricultural practices are needed. The number of hungry children in Africa will grow by 3.3. million, from 38.6 million to 41.9 million by 2025, according to a new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). IFPRI and the International Livestock Research Institute belong to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which works around the world to reduce hunger, poverty and environmental degradation. The new IFPRI report cites low investment in agriculture as one of the reasons for its predicted rising numbers of malnourished children. The report argues that investment in agriculture can strengthen food security and reduce child malnutrition significantly by generating innovative agricultural practices in these countries, where more than three-quarters of the population make their living from the land. ILRI concurs with IFPRI on the need for greater investment in research to improve agriculture and agricultural policies in Africa and stresses that a focus on livestock is particularly urgent. The economies of the four dryland countries the report cites as in most danger – Burkina Faso, Niger, Somalia and Sudan – are based on livestock. Research-based innovations, such as new varieties of cowpea that feed people, livestock and soils, are refining the integration of mixed crop-and-livestock production in these countries to produce more food on less land with fewer resources. The IFPRI report, coming in the wake of a severe food crisis in Niger and its neighbouring West African states, provides a reality check for the 2005 Millennium+5 Summit to be held in New York City on 14 September 2005. The report estimates that Africa needs at least $303 billion in new investment to halve hunger on the continent by 2015, one of eight Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations. IFPRI News Release, 11 August 2005