‘Unlocking the value of the cow’: New project to identify the best breeds for East Africa’s small-scale dairy producers

woman and cows

A small-scale dairy farmer with her cows in Uganda. A new three-year project will identify and make available appropriate dairy cows for smallholders in East Africa to help them increase their milk yields (photo credit: EADD).

A new project identifying appropriate dairy breeds for small-scale farmers in East Africa, and making these breeds more available in the region, was launched in February 2011 at the Nairobi campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The Dairy Genetics East Africa project—a partnership between ILRI; the University of New England, in Australia; and PICOTEAM, a consultancy group facilitating change processes—will help smallholders obtain the most appropriate cows for their farms so as to increase their milk yields and improve their livelihoods.

Speaking to dairy stakeholders from Kenya, including officials from Kenya’s Ministry of Livestock Development, the East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project and other dairy industry development partners, at the launch on 9 February 2011, Okeyo Mwai, a researcher and the project’s coordinator at ILRI, explained that even though smallholder dairying is booming in parts of East Africa, such as in Kenya’s central region and the north and southern Rift Valley areas, where farmers have adopted improved animal breeds and intensified milk production, many more smallholders lack research-based knowledge about which dairy breeds are best suited for their farms and production systems and information about where to obtain them. According to Mwai, ‘Kenya’s dairy sector currently does not have a clear “breeding strategy.”’ That means that many poor smallholders are unable to take advantage of breeds that best suit their situations.

In the absence of appropriate breeding strategies and the ready supply of appropriate replacement stock, farmers face an unpredictable, unreliable and often costly replacement processes. Many are forced to replace their animals from their existing animals or from their neighbours. Others go to large-scale commercial farms and end up ‘upgrading’ to the main commercial dairy breeds even where these don’t suit their farms.

This project will determine the breed composition of cows currently kept in the project areas, the breeds smallholders prefer and the reasons for their preferences, and which breeds perform best under specific conditions. ‘This information will help us assess the relative fit of the various breeds to different production systems,’ says Ed Rege, a team leader at PICO. ‘We’ll then develop partnerships and business models with the private sector to breed, multiply and continuously supply the best-performing dairy breeds to farmers at affordable prices.’

The project will be implemented in five sites in western Kenya and three sites in Uganda. The first phase of the project will start with gathering information to assess the relative performance of breeds in the sites, setting up partnerships with other stakeholders in dairy development in the region and developing business models that will be carried out the later (phase 2 and 3) stages of the project.

In the first phase, project staff will collect information on about 3000 cows based on two monthly farm visits made over a period of 18 months. Field agents will compile information on the performance of the cows vis-vis farm-level inputs for a cost-benefit analysis of the different breeds. The agents will also collect information on farmer-perceived risks associated with different breeds, on means of livelihoods of the farmers, on any gender-specific preferences for certain breeds, and on farmer use of the various breeding services available and their costs.

The breed compositions will be obtained using advanced genotyping technology, which will be led by John Gibson, the project’s principal investigator, who is based at Australia’s University of New England. This information will be combined with cow and household data to identify the most appropriate breeds for various dairy production systems and household circumstances.

‘This project will harness the diverse expertise of the key partners, and combine the latest technologies with tried and tested methods of engaging with the community, to answer critical questions much more rapidly and accurately than has been possible in the past,’ said Gibson, who formerly worked at ILRI as a livestock geneticist.

Participants in the meeting expressed their support for the project, noting its focus on cattle genetic improvement—an area that has received inadequate research attention in the region. Alex Kirui, country director of the non-governmental organization Heifer International, said the project’s focus on ‘giving farmers the right breed for given circumstances’ is an essential requirement if the dairy industry is to be competitive enough to meet the high and increasing regional demand for fresh milk and other dairy products. Moses Nyabila, regional director for the East Africa Dairy Development Project, said the project would ‘unlock the value of the cow, which is a key asset for smallholder farmers.’

Results from the project’s first phase will guide future dairy pilot studies in East Africa and will inform a comparative study of the South Asian dairy industry.

The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It started in September 2010 and is scheduled to end early in 2013.

For more information visit: http://www.ilri.org/node/598

View presentations from the meeting

How do we get more poor people into the world’s vibrant and emerging livestock markets?

Mozambique, Maputo

Livestock products in a supermarket in Mozambique. The vibrant and emerging livestock markets in developing countires offer new economic opportunities for smallholders (Photo: ILRI/Mann)

Across much of the world, especially in developing countries, market opportunities for livestock products are increasing rapidly as a result of rising demand for animal products driven by growing populations, rising incomes and urbanization. These new markets have created opportunities for smallholder livestock producers, including poor rural farmers, to benefit from ready markets for milk, eggs and meat. But as markets expand, they also often give way to complex supply and distribution channels and the need for high-value products that can end up locking out smallholders from enjoying the benefits of these expanding markets.

How do smallholders maintain their ability to contribute to and benefit from the complex systems that will inevitably result as livestock markets grow?

According to researchers John McDermott and Berhanu Gebremedhin, from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and Karl Rich and Heather Burrow, from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the University of New England, Australia, respectively, assessing existing relationships in these increasingly complex livestock value chains can not only reveal the reasons behind the increasing complexity of these systems, but also identify potential opportunities for smallholders and show policy and other constraints that can be addressed to encourage more of them to engage in the markets.

In findings presented in The role of livestock in developing communities: enhancing multifunctionality, a new book co-published by the University of the Free State South Africa, the Technical Centre for Agricultural Rural Cooperation (CTA) and ILRI, the researchers suggest areas that can be improved to encourage smallholder participation in livestock value chains. These include ‘local and informal markets, which offer the primary initial growth potential in poor countries’ and post-production systems such as that for processing manure for fuel and for processing hides and skins, which can provide important value addition for smallholders.

Smallholders are best at managing informal production environments, where they can make good use of household labour and low-cost production inputs. The authors cite widespread successful smallholder dairy production systems in South Asia, East Africa and Latin America, which are thriving.

This book reviews how smallholders are participating in emerging and growing livestock markets in Ethiopia and South Africa. The authors note that smallholder participation in livestock markets is particularly influenced by whether organizations within the livestock value chain encourage smallholders to join their organizations, which promotes ‘chain-level interventions that give opportunities for smallholders to participate in markets’.

In Ethiopia, for example, the emerging dairy market is served by farmer organizations like the Ada’a Cooperative in Debre Zeit, an hour’s drive from Addis Abba, which is working to provide feeds and animal health services to members, to improve local dairy breeds and milk collection and to introduce value-added processing. These efforts have led to a tenfold increase in milk collection, to 2.6 million litres, between 2000 and 2005, a gradual strengthening of smallholder links to markets, and a growing demand for breeding and feeding services, which are starting to be met by private companies.

‘There is evidence that setting up and maintaining strong organizations to manage market chains not only leads to improved economic benefits for producers but also leads to broader social benefits like gender development and education,’ the authors say. They recommend improving animal breeds, improving animal nutrition and integrating input supplies and knowledge and financial and market services into the market systems. ‘Smallholders are more likely to benefit from market initiatives when these markets are oriented towards sellers, where enabling policies from government exist and where collective action and support is mobilised . . . .’

‘Commodity-based trade approaches’ also help to bring more smallholders into the market. In Ethiopia, for example, a phased export program for beef that allows quarantine, vaccination and disease control followed by observation in an export-zone feed lot before slaughter has provided a way of certifying meat as disease-free for export to Middle Eastern markets.

The authors warn, however, that not all livestock value chains will be accessible to smallholders. Few of Africa’s small producers export beef and other meat because these products are governed by unique tariff systems and international trade rules and are open to international competitors.

The book recommends regular review of the performance of value chain systems to ensure they are responsive to both small-scale producers and changing consumer demands.

Read more about The role of livestock in developing communities: enhancing multifunctionality.

Download the full text.