Improved Livestock Policies Can Reduce Poverty In Africa

Food photo created by freepik -
Food photo created by freepik –

The livestock sector’s performance within sub-Saharan Africa over the previous two decades has been far from impressive. The production and consumption differences for the primary food commodities have widened across Africa. Significant technical constraints are known, and several solutions have been recommended though hardly ever implemented. In Africa, the major stress of responsibility in seeking and implementing technical solutions appears to rest upon official livestock and veterinary services. These services are held responsible for all kinds of failures within the livestock sub-sector, for the right as well as the wrong causes. We must keep in mind that many functions in a policy environment can neither influence nor modify. However, livestock and veterinary services need to set their perspective high, consonant with the tremendous unexploited potential of the livestock sector and the personnel resources of Africa.

Most of the rural households in Africa keep different livestock species. Yet only a tiny percentage can afford to keep good quality livestock. This is mainly due to a blend of low government funding and the poor policies of external funders.

Those who do have animals are faced with the challenges of infectious disease and ill-conceived breeding programs. This means that they rarely achieve optimum production to meet their household’s financial and health needs.

Households that keep livestock earn higher incomes, collect more wealth, and consume more animal-sourced foods. They are also more capable of paying for healthcare than families without animals.

Read More: Changing Pigs’ Diet In Africa Can Reduce Their Feeding Expenses

A friend of mine grew up on a small farm in the countryside of Kenya. Although his parents earned government salaries working as civil servants, his education was mainly paid for by his father’s livestock herd.

His tale is not unique. Many families in sub-Saharan Africa sell-off chickens to pay for small health care costs {nd larger livestock, such as cattle, to meet major financial demands such as schooling for their children. My friend’s cattle-funded education allowed him to become a research veterinarian and study the economic and health advantages of livestock ownership, where I was also working as a researcher.

Our research shows that children who regularly eat eggs grow, on average, 5% taller in height than compared to those who do not. Youngsters who consume milk regularly show a 10% higher monthly height gain in contrast to children not drinking milk regularly.

One-third of children in sub-Saharan Africa are stunted and 5% under five years old experience acute malnutrition. Considering all of these factors, there is a clear need for good policies that would allow families to own livestock.

Yet less than 10% of most national budgets go to agriculture. Whereas a small proportion of that investment is directed to the livestock sector.

With many African governments unable to seriously take the problem, donors end up directing policy through the tasks they fund, with often ineffective and wasteful results. Right now, there are solutions to this matter. This includes policies that increase veterinarian services investments so they reach populations that perhaps have been hit by the recent economic climate and are unable to pay for them. Or investments in breed improvement of livestock species adapted to local environments.

Poor Guidelines

An example of a poor intervention was the Structural Adjustments Programs of the 1980-90’s. These were enforced on governments in developing countries in return for funding from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

An impact they had on livestock was that veterinary services were moved from the public to the private sector. This meant farmers were required to meet the full expense of these services. While this appeared to work in areas like the highlands of East Africa, in which the dairy industry and entrepreneurship were well-established, small-scale farmers in other rural areas were struck.

Around the same period, major crossbreeding programs were introduced by African governments with funding from some companions. The program combined genes from temperate climate exotic breeds with indigenous animals. An excellent example of this is the cross between the European Holstein Friesian and the African Zebu cows.

The cross-bred animals produced more milk but also occasionally feel sick from tropical diseases because they lacked natural resistance against diseases. These programs performed better in settings where farmers could invest in disease control. But where investment in disease control was not possible, they were a disaster.

The previous studies recommended that as time passes, breeding programs in Western Kenya failed due to the pressure of disease. As soon as donor-funded programs ended and disease control measures lapsed, natural selection kicked in. The animal populations reverted back to indigenous cows since the exotic animals fell prone to diseases.

These days, similar initiatives give rural families cows as gifts to start them off in livestock farming. Nevertheless, many of such donated animals are breeds initially from temperate regions with low immunity to local diseases. The program’s successes in many cases are measured by the number of cows donated and immediate access to milk, which are great short-term measures. But they are hardly ever successful in the long-term. In the absence of sustained disease control, the finishing result is almost always the fatalities of animals and continued poverty.

A more sustainable solution would be to use well-adapted African cattle to enhance the indigenous gene pool. It would certainly help rural areas where progress towards poverty and hunger alleviation is slowest. But this would take considerably longer than quick fix cross-breeding or cow donations.

There is an example of this working well. The Boran cattle production found in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia was significantly improved after the best performers were picked and the genes propagated. Currently, the improved Boran cows are a popular meat breed for ranchers in many countries in Eastern and southern Africa. It is prized for its relatively high disease resistance, development rates, and production.


There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address low-income levels, malnutrition, and disease that affect many rural Africa areas. But for some, at least, owning animals with optimal production gives a way that leads out to starvation and poverty. 

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