Dairy production is a vibrant sector in Kenya that contributes to 4% of GDP annually and is growing steadily. Many dairy producers in Kenya are smallholder farmers who own only a few cows, and the milk sold from them is often the main source of cash income available to a family. Healthy, productive cows can therefore result in substantial benefits to income and overall livelihoods. However, as demand for dairy products increases in Kenya, farmers need to acquire knowledge in more efficient and more adaptive milk production techniques. Dr. John VanLeeuwen of the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC), with support from Farmers Helping Farmers and Veterinarians Without Borders Canada, partners with local dairy groups in Kenya to teach those new techniques.
Dr. VanLeeuwen travels to Kenya with veterinary students twice per year to provide hands-on training and advice through seminars, one-on-one consultations, demonstration farms, on-farm research projects, and distribution of a dairy health management handbook. Farmers learn about a range of topics such as zero-grazing approaches, how to grow more nutritious fodder for livestock, how to protect livestock against the elements, and how to prevent common illnesses such as udder infections and parasites. A train-the-trainer approach is also used with local animal health workers. As a result of these efforts, all farmers surveyed in a program evaluation increased their milk production, and two-thirds doubled their milk production. Dr. VanLeeuwen and his partners currently work with seven dairy groups in Kenya that include approximately 15,000 active dairy farms, along with more irregularly participating dairy farms. He estimates that the total number of people benefiting from increased incomes due to improved milk production is in the hundreds of thousands.
Dr. VanLeeuwen and partners attribute the success of the work to taking a partnership approach instead of a traditional donor-recipient approach. The team only works with local dairy groups who have an accountable management structure already in place, and who demonstrate a willingness to contribute to the partnership. Before a partnership is formed, initial meetings are arranged to determine the leadership capacity and management style of a group. Once they decide to partner, they begin slowly with modest activities to give time to assess each partner’s contribution and ensure responsibilities are shared. The results are not just improved milk production, but community transformation in which families can afford to send their children to school, and services such as local banks become available. After a few years, activities are gradually scaled back to allow the community to take on full ownership, greatly improving the chances of long-term sustainability.
Training in livestock management and care, coupled with an approach that fosters local management and local independence, has resulted in improved livelihoods for thousands of dairy farmers in Kenya. Healthy, productive cows have raised incomes, which in turn have improved the health and prosperity of farming families. Women in particular report improved self-confidence since they have begun to earn more from milk production. Dr. VanLeeuwen hopes to further widen the reach of the program in the future, and the collaboration between AVC and Farmers Helping Farmers has recently been awarded a grant to continue work in Kenya for the next four years.