Livestock plays a vital role in the lives of millions of rural poor smallholder farming families in sub-Saharan Africa. The importance of animals to farming fortunes really cannot be overstated.
On small farms all over Africa, animals fulfill a number of roles – providing draught power to plough the land, manure to fertilise the soil, transport to carry goods to market. Animals also supply milk and meat, an essential protein and nutrition source for families.
Indeed, for rural poor families, animals act as a form of ‘on-the-hoof family savings’ – they may also be sold to provide households with funds to cover costs such as children’s education, or when cash is needed for a family event, such as a wedding or funeral.
When we think of animals, we don’t usually think ‘insurance’, but here, livestock is a form of household insurance that may also be sold when harvests fail to produce sufficient food.
When the animals are sold, but there is still no sign of harvest, the situation can turn desperate.
Sadly, this is what I came across on a recent trip to Ethiopia. Farming families that I spoke to here told me, as they coped with the effects of the current East Africa food crisis, that they were now queuing for food aid on a twice-weekly basis because they had long ago cashed in their livestock. Many told of selling their animals to buy food following the crop failures that resulted from the El Nino winds that parched much of this region more than a year ago.
Livestock development is an important part of the work that my organisation, Self Help Africa, is doing with smallholder farming communities in sub-Saharan Africa.
We’re supporting families to rear goats, sheep, pigs and cattle. We’re promoting poultry production, beekeeping and even rabbit and guinea pig breeding as a means of supporting households to supplement their incomes and add nutrition to the household diet.
Other initiatives, including improved breeding of local livestock, are having a significant impact on the lives of poor families. Meanwhile, training on best practice for the production of liquid manure and the other uses of animal waste is making a valuable contribution to soil fertility and crop production.
The benefits of livestock production to poor families in Africa are many. However, there are often significant constraints – not least of which is the availability of adequate pasture to feed animals. Recent droughts have also put further pressure on access for grazing herds to water resources.
Africa’s livestock herds are also vulnerable to an array of parasitic and viral diseases, and poor farmers can struggle to access treatment for animals when they fall ill.
The loss of livestock to sickness can be devastating for a resource-poor family in Africa. This is why Self Help Africa is implementing an innovative project in Ethiopia that tackles the ongoing challenge of keeping rural livestock healthy.
More than 300 community-based animal health workers (paravets) have been trained by the scheme, and are providing basic veterinary services at village level to thousands of families with livestock in the Great Rift Valley region of Ethiopia.
These animal health workers, a quarter of whom are women, are in turn training farmers in livestock care, and promoting treatments that help to combat ticks, pests and viral diseases that cause high levels of livestock mortality, every year.
Animal health is especially vital in Ethiopia, where live animals and their products account for 40% of the agricultural economy, in the country that has the largest livestock population in Africa.
At a time when the country’s small-scale farmers are under increasing pressure, this initiative to support grassroots animal health care is making a valuable contribution to the lives of rural poor households.
To find out more, visit: www.selfhelpafrica.org
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