What East Africa’s Cows And Their Milk Teach Us About Why Reform Fails

'Ankole' cattle in Uganda: Famous for its lean meat, hopeless when it comes to milk.

‘Ankole’ cattle in Uganda: Famous for its lean meat, hopeless when it comes to milk -but very much beloved.

TODAY  I visited with the good people of East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) in Nairobi, to talk about cows and milk in our neck of the woods.

Put briefly, EADD works with dairy farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda to help them be smarter and make more money.

As I sat with Moses Nyabila, EADD’s East Africa Regional Director and his colleague Ann Mbiriru, having black coffee and beating about the bush before going into the “big issues” that had taken me there, he mentioned that Kenya’s has 3.5 million cattle.

I wondered if that was too few or too many. He said they were too many. Kenya produces just over 400 million litres of milk a year, and my understanding (and my words here) was that with more efficient and scientific methods of production, it can reduce its cattle herd to 2 million AND STILL DOUBLE production to 800 million litres a year.

The bigger problem was not necessarily money or technology, Nyabila said, although these are important. It was culture. And the story illustrated not just the difficulty that modernisation of the dairy industry faces, but is perhaps the best illustration why sections of our societies resist democratic, and other reforms.

In cattle-keeping societies in Africa, prestige is often measured by the  number of animals a man (in these societies few women own cattle) has. A chap called Mwesige who has 1,000 is taken more seriously than a one Rugunda who has 100. Mwesige will have first pick for a wife in the village, and is several times more likely to be elected to the local council than his “cow-poor” peer Rugunda.

Herding cattle provides a whole right of passage for young people, and primes African macho values.

Herding cattle provides a whole right of passage for young people, and primes African macho values.

Assume Mwesige with 1,000 cattle is getting 500,000 litres of milk, and selling it for $20,000 a month, and decides to upgrade to higher-yielding varieties. He gets rid of his “inefficient” Zebu animals, and buys 100 Friesians that give him one million litres and he now makes $40,000 – twice his previous earnings. At the same time, Rugunda who used to own 100 Zebus buys more and now owns 200, and probably earns only $400. In market-rational economies, Mwesige will be considered to have prospered and to have made the better choice. Right?

Yes, and no. The village, in a deeply pastoralist community, will laugh at Mwesige. He will be considered to have lost his herd, to have “fallen on hard times”. Rugunda, on the other hand, will be considered to have flourished, and the village musicians will now sing his praises instead.

To complicate matters, if bride price is still being paid in the community, since it is absolute numbers that count, Mwesige’s ability to pony up bride price for his son will technically have diminished, although he has grown richer in real terms. Rugunda, well, now can more comfortably pay down his son’s bride price.

Because of the way prestige is allocated according to the size of the herd, there are few incentives for people like Mwesige to improve the quality of their animals. Shifting the premium pastoral communities put on quantity is a job of a generation.

But it gets more complicated. The main way young men grow up in such places is through herding cow. Not only does it keep them occupied, it is also central to several rites of passage, and ultimately to the kind of woman they marry and the land they get allocated.

On the face of it, women getting in the cow business might look innocent, but it is  secretly subversive (ILRI photo).

On the face of it, women getting in the cow business might look innocent, but it is secretly subversive (ILRI photo).

The young man who tends the largest herd of cattle is on top of the food chain. If additionally he manages to fight off a lion or hyena trying to eat a calf, or repulse rustlers from the next hill, his star rises to incredible heights. Now he can marry the chief’s daughter, and when he moves to set up shop independently, he will be gifted with many more animals than the young man who has no heroic story.

Finally, and perhaps the real killer, is that moving to smaller herds – especially of Friesians (all the problems associated with adaptation notwithstanding) – means there is no need for brave young herdsmen, and reallocates quite a bit of the management of cattle to women. When have you ever seen a  traditional African man picking banana peels and feeding them to the cows behind the kitchen? That is women’s work in these traditional contexts.

That means that a lot, or some of, the power will shift into women’s hands as we have witnessed in rural areas with the death of “traditional cash crop” agriculture.

Who milks a cow, how much milk it produces, and who sells the milk is therefore a deeply subversive and disruptive issue. And many in our macho societies, will not let it happen without a fight…although it is a losing fight.

Think of politics, education, even things like mobile phone money transfer M-Pesa (that allowed women and young people to bank without their husbands’ or parents’ consent), all had to overcome these powerful, although sometimes invisible, social forces and prejudices.

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4 Comments on “What East Africa’s Cows And Their Milk Teach Us About Why Reform Fails”

  1. wanguisummedup
    December 11, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on A thoroughbred living like a donkey.

  2. Definitly Anonymous
    December 11, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Your thinking on reforms not withstanding, if that is really what these guys of EADD keep telling about farmers “unwillingness” to modernize… Its just their excuse for doing a bad job… Sorry, but working in the livestock sector myself… all over Africa. And just can’t hear this permanently repeated story anymore.

    • nakedchiefs
      December 13, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

      No, as I clearly indicated, that was most my understanding of why there are diehard hold-outs. And I raised the issue from experience in Uganda, where a man who has 150 heads of cattle, will not sell one so that he can buy medicine for his dying child. Otherwise, actually EADD’s work – from what I know independently and from material I have seen – is quite brilliant. So successful, in fact, that they are soon closing the Kenya programme and moving the lessons to Ethiopia etc. It would be interesting, though, to learn of your own understanding of the social, economic, and cultural reasons for resistance where it exists.

  3. gdanny
    December 19, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    I think the progressives are taking over even in the pastoralist communities like Ankole. Women although slowly are taking up positions in livestock investments and production. As you have noted it was in the cash crop economy. Men owned everything but now women took up agriculture and are now at the center of it.

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