Ugandan livestock farmers call for improved breeds amid myriad threats

By John Agaba

November 19, 2018

“Kafuuzi!” Grace Bwogi shouted. A black and grey goat turned in the caller’s direction before shifting her gaze and continuing to graze with rest of the herd on this three-acre farm in southern Uganda.

“Kafuuzi is my favorite goat. She lost her mother at birth,” Bwogi said as she leaned on a walking stick. “She was sickly. The other suckling animals could not accept her.”

The 38-year-old farmer had to bottle-feed Kafuuzi, a name given to newborns who have lost their parents.

Bwogi’s fondness for her favorite goat isn’t entirely sentimental. She said that Kafuuzi and the other goats on her farm have made her who she is today.

Thanks to her animals, Bwogi has been able to build herself a decent brick house, a rarity in her relatively poverty-stricken neighborhood in the Rakai district. She was able to send her four children to school and the farm has elevated her standing in society.

With a degree in social work and social administration, Bwogi served as a sub-county chief in a neighboring district, earning around sh470,000 ($124) a month. She has also taught at three different local universities, but the income was never enough to meet her needs.

Inspired by some of her colleagues who had started farming projects, Bwogi ventured into goat farming in 2005. She started with fewer than 20 animals on rented land. Today, she has more than 200 goats on her own farm.

“I’m the woman you are looking at today because of my goats,” she said.

An indigenous goat sells for around sh150,000 ($40) here. But Bwogi sells her animals for as much as sh300,000 ($80) each because they are improved breeds that mature faster, grow larger and are more disease-resistant. But, like other livestock farmers in Uganda, she is frustrated by a lack of support for smallholders.

“Most goat farmers are struggling. They cannot afford better breeds or proper nutrition for their animals,” she said.

Goat farmers in Uganda who want improved varieties usually import males from South Africa to mate with their females. But just one imported male costs around four million shillings ($1000), a price that leaves smallholder farmers out. There are also stringent cross-border livestock protocols that prohibit individual farmers from importing animals.

Grace Bwogi and her goats at her farm at Rakai, south central Uganda. Photo John Agaba.

Government support needed

Goat farmers aren’t the only ones calling for support from the government. Johnson Basangwa is a chicken farmer in Kamuli Municipality. Like Bwogi, he is a passionate believer that rearing livestock can provide an avenue for alleviating poverty for the millions of impoverished people living in Uganda.

Basangwa started with about 500 birds some 15 years ago, which he looked after on a 60-by-300-foot plot of land. Over the years, the numbers have grown and he now raises close to 30,000 chickens on 13 acres.

He collects about 600 trays of eggs a day and his operation is now worth more than 1.5 billion shillings (around $400,000). He has purchased additional land in the neighboring village of Duwaisswa and plans to start raising pigs.

“We can profit a lot from livestock; end poverty and over-dependence,” Basangwa said. “But we need the ministry of agriculture to take the lead.”

Basangwa imports his Novogen Brown Chickens from the Netherlands at sh5000 ($1.33) each. He vaccinates the baby birds against disease and keeps them on a specific nutrition regime so they can produce eggs at 25 weeks. Each group of imported chickens provides income for a roughly five-year cycle, after which he has to import again.

“Novogens are adaptable and lay strong-shelled, really high-quality eggs. It’s a pity we don’t have these kinds of breeds here and farmers have to import them,” he said.

Basangwa said the government does little to support the breeding of better quality livestock varieties that are disease-resistant and high-yielding. He said Uganda could address the pressing problems of malnutrition and poverty by “strategically prioritizing technology to develop better breeds and making the improved varieties accessible to farmers.”

Agriculture contributes about 23 percent to Uganda’s roughly $26 billion GDP. Livestock alone accounts for about eight percent of GDP.

But Basangwa said the country could benefit even more from the sector if it would embrace new technologies and make livestock farming a more attractive career choice for the country’s youth. He said he does his part by training 25 young men and women each year in best livestock practices.

“We need to start looking at livestock, and at farming in general, as another source of employment, which can come in handy to reduce the high unemployment rates in the country,” he said.

New varieties being developed

At the National Livestock Resources Research Institute (NaLIRRI) in Namulonge, Dr. Henry Mulindwa said government scientists are engaged in numerous trials to create varieties that are adaptable to Uganda’s environment and can produce greater yields while resisting diseases.

Researchers are looking at developing a hybrid of the Danish Jersey and local cattle to create a variety that would not require “too much care” but can give more milk. Researchers are also exploring crossing the Tyrol Grey and Fleckvieh cattle from Austria with local animals in order to create a variety that could withstand Uganda’s harsh farming conditions while yielding more meat.

“We have to understand our environment, and it’s the reason we want varieties that are better yielding and tolerant to harsh conditions,” Mulindwa said.

Additionally, researchers are working with smallholder farmers in select districts across the country to develop goat varieties by crossing indigenous breeds in an effort to increase yields. Scientists are working with the United States Department of Agriculture to implement this community-based breeding program, which relies solely on conventional breeding.

Mulindwa said NaLIRRI, which is subset of the National Agricultural Research Organization, has also procured liquid nitrogen tanks to station at each of the organization’s nine centers. The tanks will help to store semen from the improved breeds, which farmers can access for sh30,000 ($8).

Disease and pests

But for livestock farmers in Uganda, there are even more pressing needs than access to improved breeds. They also must grapple with myriad challenges related to illnesses like Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), an infectious viral disease that causes fever and blisters, largely in the mouth and feet, of cloven-footed animals such as cattle.

The government said last month that it would begin an “aggressive” vaccination exercise against FMD, starting with the worst-hit districts in the eastern parts of the country.

David Ssempijja, the minister for agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, said they will “enforce quarantines” in affected areas as part of “stop-gap” interventions in FMD management.

Although Ssempijja said the government has procured one million doses to vaccinate against FMD, the vaccination exercise hasn’t yet started. In the meantime, the disease continues to rob farmers of their animals.

Livestock famers are also plagued by ticks that have developed resistance to known acaricides.

Dr. Fredrick Kabi, the head of NaLIRRI’s livestock health program, said Uganda’s large tick population transmits several pathogens that cause livestock diseases.

“The ticks are hard to kill because of hereditary resistance,” he said.

Even if farmers were to intensify spraying, the ticks will remain. This poses yet another challenge because overuse of the chemical acaricides can leak into the environment and find its way into human food.

Kabi said NaLIRRI is exploring less dangerous herbal acaricides and attempting to develop a preventive vaccine against ticks. He said researchers are optimistic that they will have developed a vaccine by the end of 2019.