Community-based breeding programs take root
Despite growing global demand for meat and other livestock products, smallholder farmers across the dry areas are often unable to sufficiently seize new market opportunities. Low productivity is a significant constraint on their earning potential – representing a lost opportunity to strengthen food security, reduce poverty, and generate higher incomes for rural communities.
Previous efforts to raise productivity through genetic improvements have tended to replicate centralized approaches in more developed countries – without the required infrastructure and expertise. Occasionally, this has resulted in serious mistakes, including the importation of commercial breeds without good adaptation to local conditions which contribute to the genetic erosion of adapted indigenous populations and breeds.
Crucially, many of these past efforts also neglected the participation of farmers – failing to take into account their needs and interests, or to consider their breeding objectives, infrastructure, participation and ownership. This oversight has tended to negatively impact long-term success.
An alternative community-based approach
A more participatory alternative, which has demonstrated considerable potential in parts of Africa and Latin America, is community-based livestock breeding. This approach, promoted by ICARDA and its partners, combines farmer training to improve selection methods; pooling community flocks to create a larger gene pool from which breeding sires can be selected; farmer-scientist interactions to evaluate different breeding options to facilitate informed decisions on flock management; and setting up recording systems to monitor the performance of individual animals and contribute to continued genetic improvement.
Community-based breeding programs are also adapted to the resource constraints of smallholder farmers and designed to raise the productivity of indigenous breeds without undermining their adaptation to harsh environments. Indigenous knowledge is also highly valued in this approach as it supports local-level decision making.
Initial studies and workshops are usually conducted to understand local knowledge and animal management practices – critical information that can then inform program design and implementation. Local participation is also ensured through collaborations with government-run rural associations and local enumerators who are recruited to help researchers identify animals and record their performance.
The role of scientists is catalytic, focused on integrating scientific knowledge and methods with traditional management practices to help farmers make the right decisions and, ultimately, achieve their breeding goals. The approach is also integrated, taking into consideration genetics, nutrition, health, input supply, services, and market access.
Raising livestock productivity in Ethiopia
Results have been particularly impressive in Ethiopia. Here, in a partnership involving ICARDA, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Austria’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), and the Ethiopian National Agricultural Research System, researchers designed and implemented community-based sheep and goat breeding programs targeting 3200 households in 40 villages. The initiative combined breeding, links with national extension systems, capacity strengthening, and efforts to enhance farmer access to inputs and markets.
At three sites – in Bonga, Horro and Menz – the scheme generated a 20 percent average increase in farmer incomes from sheep. The additional income means that many households are no longer forced to rely on government-run safety net programs. Farmers have also created some 35 formal breeders’ cooperatives, which have further strengthened self-sufficiency and enabled the groups to build capital from investments, including the buying of rams and bucks. A cooperative in Bonga, for instance, now has capital of around 60,000 USD.
The program has given Ethiopia’s livestock farmers a critical platform to raise their productivity and respond to growing demand for sheep and goats – driven by urbanization, a growing population, and the proximity of the Gulf States. It is also gaining the support of decision-makers. Community-based breeding programs were acknowledged by the Ethiopian government in 2015, for instance, when it incorporated the approach into its Livestock Master Plan.
Ethiopian regional government authorities in Southern Nations and Amhara are also investing money in community-based breeding, and a new World Bank-funded national livestock program is upscaling community-based approaches for small ruminants. Other countries are also taking note – and the program is now being replicated in Malawi, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.