For as long as he can remember, Mulatu Gobeze has wanted to be an animal breeder. Growing up in rural Ethiopia, he was surrounded by the livestock his family farmed – cattle, goat, sheep and chickens. But he was bothered by how poorly the animals performed.
“The milk produced from our cows was not even enough to feed our family,” he says.
It wasn’t until his undergraduate studies at Jimma University in the country’s southwest that he realised he could do something about it.
“My teachers at university said that the problem of low productivity could be solved through appropriate genetic improvement and management of animals. So I decided to become an animal breeder,” Gobeze says.
Animal breeders help farmers improve the performance of their livestock by researching proposed parents to make sure offspring will have the desired attributes, for example the fast-growing animals or the best milk producers.
“These kinds of breeding analyses would be difficult for farmers to do, which is why it is important to have trained livestock breeders assisting them,” says Aynalem Haile, scientist specializing in small ruminant breeding with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).
Plugging the capacity gap
After Gobeze graduated, he took on his first job as a researcher with the Sekota Dryland Agricultural Research Center. It was then that he first heard about a novel approach to livestock breeding that put communities at the centre.
Called ‘community-based breeding’, it combines farmer training to improve selection methods, pooling community flocks to create a larger gene pool from which breeding animals can be selected, scientific support to provide farmers with information on different breeding options, and data collection to monitor how well individual animals perform.
“We were implementing the program in two pilot community villages. It was very interesting to work with the farmers that know their animals very well, their deep indigenous knowledge and the commitment they took to link with scientific knowledge,” Gobeze says.
The approach relies on qualified livestock breeders providing farmers with information on different breeding options, so that they can make better breeding decisions.
However the low number of livestock breeders in Ethiopia has been a challenge.
“There are an estimated 30 million sheep and 30 million goats in Ethiopia. Considering this large livestock population, there are nowhere near enough livestock breeders in the country,” says Haile who leads ICARDA’s community- based breeding program in partnership with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Austria’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), and the Ethiopian National Agricultural Research System.
“In particular, community- based breeding is a relatively new approach and there are not enough breeders with a good understanding of it. To transform our livestock sector, it is critical we invest in capacity development of breeders at masters and PhD levels.”
To begin plugging this capacity gap, scientists from ICARDA, ILRI and BOKU secured funding to support a small group of masters and PhD students to focus on community-based breeding programs.
Gemeda Duguma was one such student.
“I did my PhD in 2010 at BOKU University based on data from new community-based breeding programs being established in four Ethiopian villages - Afar, Bonga, Horro and Menz. At the time, community-based breeding programs were just starting in Ethiopia. I guess you could say that I became a pioneer of the approach,” he says.
From animal breeder to advocate
Duguma went on to pursue a teaching career at Wollega University in western Ethiopia, advocating for the inclusion of the community-based breeding program in university curriculums.
“I noticed that the university’s curriculum didn’t include community-based breeding so I approached my department head to have it introduced,” he says.
“They accepted my proposal and I immediately started teaching it as a subject in both undergraduate and graduate classes.”
Drawing his lecture material from guidelines he co-authored with Haile, as well as his lived experience from the field, Duguma took the course all across the country - to Mizan-Tepi University in the south and Haramaya University in the east.
“We have seen 50 masters and 15 PhD students so far do their thesis studies on community-based breeding programs,” he says.
Changing farmers’ lives
Kassahun Bekana chose to study community-based breeding programs in his home district of Horro because he was passionate about helping to change farmers’ lives.
“To have enough income to educate children, to be food secure in rural areas of Ethiopia, farmers must rear small ruminants. Even though there have been many efforts to improve livestock, it has not been targeted to farmers’ interests and so production and productivity is still too low,” he says.
Bekana was raised by a single mother and never got to finish secondary school due to financial difficulties. But his is a story of incredible perseverance. After completing vocational training in animal science, he was able to get a job as a development agent at the Oromia Agricultural Bureau in the Horro district.
“I worked there for three years and used the salary granted by my office to support myself to study a bachelors degree in animal science at Ambo University.”
He was then offered a role as a graduate assistant at Ambo University, which enabled him to study his masters in animal genetics and breeding at Wollega University.
Under the tutelage of Duguma, Bekana's master’s thesis compared the performance of sheep in a community-based breeding program in Horro district with the same breed being kept on a station at a nearby research center.
“We found that sheep in the community-based breeding program performed much better than the sheep on the station. It really opened my eyes to the benefits of the approach,” Bekana says.
After graduating from his masters, he was offered a position as a lecturer at Ambo University, where he got the chance to teach animal breeding to undergraduate students.
“Even though there is no curriculum for teaching community-based breeding programs, I thought it was important to share my experience of it,” he says.
And it’s a role he takes very seriously.
“When you’re in the lecture theatre it can be easy to forget that the students sitting in front of you will one day be employed as experts, teaching farmers what they have learnt while at university,” he says.
“If we don’t teach the students adequately then it has real-world consequences - they are going to apply a technology in the wrong way. It’s incumbent on lecturers like me to teach these students about approaches we know work on the ground, like community-based breeding programs.”
As more and more students became interested in the community-based breeding program, so too did farmers. In the 10 years since Duguma first set foot in the town of Bonga as a PhD student, 3200 households in 40 villages have participated in the program.
This is creating a demand for better-trained breeders, leading the universities to officially incorporate community-based breeding programs into their curriculum and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture to push for a specialized Masters program in genetics and breeding.
“It’s a major leap to raise the quality of livestock breeders in Ethiopia in the long term,” Haile says.
Huge for Ethiopia
Gobeze first heard about the specialized masters program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, while on a field trip.
“The state minster of Livestock was talking about the challenges of building capacity of livestock breeders and he announced that they had just launched a new Masters program at Haromaya and Hawassa universities,” he says.
He is among the first cohort of 37 students, set to graduate in September 2020.
“It’s a very practical program; we have about 10 students currently doing their research with community-based breeding programs. For a country like Ethiopia, this is absolutely huge,” Haile says.
Gobeze has found the masters training helpful for his current research job and his future career prospects.
“The final skill training on different aspects of the breeding program and software for breeding data management and analysis has really helped me,” he says.
With over 40 operational public universities in Ethiopia, the next step is to get the community-based breeding program more widely adopted.
“We need to push towards including community-based breeding in as many universities as possible. This would ensure that we were delivering consistent, high quality training to the country’s future livestock breeders and, therefore proper support to our farmers,” Haile says.