Project to benefit smallholder dairy farmers in East Africa

Published 01 October 2010

milkWork officially began last month on a new research project that aims to increase the income of poor farmers in East Africa by improving the productivity of smallholder dairy farms.

The project will identify the best genotypes of dairy cattle for smallholder dairy farmers in East Africa, and how these genotypes can be delivered to farmers. Funded by a US$2.86 million grant to the University of New England from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is a collaboration between UNE, the international consulting group PICOTEAM, and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

“Under the right conditions, a move into smallholder dairy farming can dramatically increase the household income of poor farmers, and in East Africa smallholder dairy farming is growing rapidly,” explained UNE’s Professor John Gibson, the Principal Investigator on the project. “The key to success is to ensure that farmers have access to appropriate (improved) genotypes of cattle and the knowledge and resources to manage them, and that they have reliable access to markets to sell their milk.”

Professor Gibson is the Director of the Centre for Genetic Analysis and Applications in the School of Environmental and Rural Science at UNE. “Dr Ed Rege of PICOTEAM and I undertook a study looking for opportunities for improved genetics to help improve the livelihoods of poor farmers in Africa,” he said. “We observed that dramatic improvements of livelihoods typically involved an interaction between market access, improved management and improved genetics, rather than improvement in any one of these in isolation.

“When we looked at East African smallholder dairy development, we observed major programs linking farmers to markets and improving their management capacity and access to services, but no clear strategy for the supply of appropriate genotypes to smallholders. The majority of animals being used are the result of many generations of uncontrolled and unrecorded crossing between indigenous breeds and imported dairy breeds. We saw a major opportunity to identify which genotypes best improve farmers’ livelihoods without increasing risk significantly.”

The project will harness the latest genome technologies by assaying smallholders’ cows of unknown genotype for over 800,000 variations in the genome, and will use this information to determine the breed mixture. This estimate of breed composition will then be related to detailed information on the performance and management of these animals on the farm, to determine which breed composition performs best in these smallholder systems.

The second part of the project is to develop a regional partnership with a business model that is capable of delivering the most appropriate genotypes, cost-effectively and sustainably, to a high proportion of the large population of smallholder farmers in the region.

Professor Gibson is both optimistic and cautious. “The whole team is excited about this opportunity to harness the latest science to provide better options for poor farmers,” he said, “but we are well aware of our responsibility to deliver results that will truly benefit these farmers without generating significantly increased risk. Our goal is to deliver results on both what to deliver and how to deliver it that will be truly sustainable.”

PHOTO courtesy of ILRI