Why is This Funder Giving Millions to Artificially Inseminate Cows in Africa?

When it comes to improving agroeconomies in developing countries, a lot of attention is paid to improving the agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers. This is a no-brainer, really, as there are some 500 million smallholder farmers in the world. But what about the pastoralists?

After all, sheep and cattle farmers suffer from the same ills, including droughts and soil erosion, as the agricultural farmers—especially in countries experiencing protracted drought conditions, such as Ethiopia and Tanzania, both of which are at the center of the Gates Foundation’s huge grant to give pastoralists a helping hand.

Gates awarded the Land O’ Lakes International Development Fund’s (IDF) Public-Private Partnership for Artificial Insemination Delivery (PAID) program an $18.1 million grant to bolster artificial insemination (AI) services to dairy cattle farmers in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The five-year grant will develop and establish increasingly “effective private and public sector-led doorstep delivery of cattle artificial insemination.”

The obvious question here is why artificial insemination? The short answer is that Ethiopia and Tanzania have a local breed problem. According to Jon Halverson, executive director of the Land O'Lakes IDF, local cows in both countries only produce an average of about two liters of milk per day. That productivity could be increased to up to 12 liters of milk per day with “improved crossbreeds,” which occur through artificial insemination.

With support from the Gates Foundation, PAID plans expects to train at least “225,000 smallholders on improved dairy cattle management and to deliver approximately 1.8 million AI and other dairy production-related inputs and services.” The program is working in conjunction with both Tanzanian and Ethiopian governments, as well as with the Gates Foundation’s East Africa Dairy Development program in Tanzania. The potential economic benefit of the program is expected to reach more than $1 billion.

Giving $18.1 million for the artificial insemination of cows may seem like the Gates Foundation is throwing a lot of money at a seemingly small global development problem. But the pressing issues faced by African pastoralists are anything but small.

Pastoralism is a viable path out of poverty. Unfortunately, in many African countries, cattle and sheep farmers live at the margins of global development funding, and their needs are often overlooked by international global development NGOs and their own countries' governments.

As far as we can tell, this is the first time the Gates Foundation has funded cattle AI. Otherwise, of course, it isn’t unlike the foundation to throw big money at a pressing global challenge that has the potential to impact a huge number of lives.