Healthy Animals and the Future of a Continent: Behind Giving for Livestock in Africa

 A shepherd with cows in Senegal. photo:  Salvador Aznar/shutterstock

A shepherd with cows in Senegal. photo:  Salvador Aznar/shutterstock

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the largest livestock populations in the world—but it also has the highest density of impoverished livestock farmers. The health of livestock is vital to achieving food security in areas of exceptionally high animal and human disease incidence. And yet, it is only fairly recently that development organizations, including private philanthropies, have focused squarely on improving the health of livestock—including the chickens, goats, sheep and cows that make basic subsistence possible for so many of the region’s poor.

One part of the challenge is technological—the need for better data on livestock health and productivity. Another part is medical—the need for better veterinary care. And looming over both is the absence of organization infrastructure to exploit indigenous knowledge and expertise about livestock care, much of it centuries-old and woven into local cultures and customs.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, already a pioneering funder of agricultural development throughout Africa, is stepping up to the livestock health challenge in a big way, with two new multi-million-dollar grants, one to the New Jersey-based veterinary firm Zoetis in May ($14. 4 million), and another to the University of Edinburgh in August ($7.1 million).

The Zoetis grant is intended to support the development of animal health technology infrastructure in three main countries: Nigeria, Ethiopia and Uganda. The three-year grant will enable the company—the largest of its kind in the world—to develop veterinary laboratory networks and outreach services to increase the availability of local veterinary medicines and services, implement sustainable disease diagnostics and strengthen local veterinary expertise. “We believe the combination of Zoetis’ leadership in animal health and experience in forging broad collaborations in emerging markets will allow us to accelerate the advancement of animal health in the region,” said Juan Ramón Alaix, chief executive officer of Zoetis. “Access to medicines and technology will help farmers raise healthier animals and secure more sustainable revenue, which is critical to the economic development of the region and well-being of its population.”

The University of Edinburgh grant also focuses on Nigeria and Ethiopia, but includes Tanzania instead of Uganda. It’s part of a larger University of Edinburgh program known as Supporting Evidence Based Interventions, or SEBI, which will help the three countries track the impact of veterinary interventions on disease mortality rates as well as livestock productivity. SEBI also brings practical tools directly into the hands of local farmers, including a hand-held device to measure impurities in milk onsite, right after it is drawn from their livestock.

"SEBI is a pilot project," said project lead Andy Peters, visiting professor at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. "But we anticipate that, if we are successful, it will expand to become the 'go to' organization for the evaluation of novel veterinary technologies and livestock improvement interventions in Africa."

These two Gates grants are just the most recent part of the foundation’s Africa economic development strategy, which we have reported on previously (for example, here and here). Overall, Gates has devoted a whopping $5 billion to boosting agricultural productivity and economic development on the African continent over the past decade. Much of the funding was programmed under the rubric of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which Gates co-founded over a decade ago with the Rockefeller Foundation in conjunction with United Nations Office of the Secretary-General. The foundation also coordinates its efforts with the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization, which just completed its own four-year grant cycle to build livestock health infrastructure. Both the U.N. and Gates have touted AGRA programs like these as an “Africa-led, Africa-based effort to help revitalize agriculture on the continent.”

There is no question that past Gates funding has contributed to improvements in some important social and economic indicators in Africa during this period—and more can be expected in the area of improving the status of livestock. Still, the foundation’s preference for U.S.- and European-based grantees possessing state-of-the-art scientific expertise with established track records for service delivery—rather than indigenous NGOs—has some development experts concerned. Critics say that Western firms and agencies in the North tend to obtain too many of the benefits from philanthropic grants like these, and that local wisdom and capacity building is often bypassed, leaving grassroots communities as disempowered and dependent as ever.

Gates and its grantees have heard such complaints before—and Gates addressed them squarely in 2010, arguing that “productivity” and “sustainability” should be viewed as mutually reinforcing goals—but that Africa’s impoverished people had no time to lose. Zoetis says it plans to collaborate actively with governmental authorities, local veterinary associations, national and international NGOs, farmer associations and the private sector to improve the region’s livestock development potential, but also to create local diagnostic and veterinary capacity that will endure for years to come. That invariably means incorporating what African farmers on the ground have known about their livestock for centuries.

In fact, the latest Gates grants are not its first in the field of global animal health. For example, in 2008, the foundation gave Washington State University (WSU) a $25 million grant to build a new school dedicated exclusively to the burgeoning field. Gates is also hoping to use WSU as a platform for developing an even more innovative concept of “One Health,” which seeks to integrate the fields of human and veterinary medicine into a “cross-species” specialty with regions like Africa and their livestock as a practical testing ground. Gates first announced the “One Health” concept in a Global Funding Challenge announced in 2013. Since 2015, a major part of the WSU curriculum has focused on how poor livestock health in sub-Saharan Africa undermines child nutrition, leaving children stunted physically and cognitively. Some cross-trained WSU students are slated to work in the region in the future, with Gates grants available to fund their pioneering interventions.

Always prone to holistic experimentation and never shy with its funding, Gates continues to make Africa, a continent too often neglected by the United States, a centerpiece of its global humanitarian agenda.