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Watch Your Step: Kenyan Herders Mark Out Disease-Free Grazing Routes

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The morning calm of Losirien valley was broken by a cow bell tinkling as Benjamin Kerei led his herd of about 50 animals down a parched trail alongside a dry riverbed in southwest Kenya.

On the 10-km (6-mile) journey to a nearby grazing ground, the 24-year-old was on the lookout for fresh wildlife tracks.

Like pastoralists all over the East African country, Kerei needs to keep his cattle away from wild animals to avoid exposing them to infectious diseases, some of which can be deadly to both livestock and humans.

With droughts and floods shrinking the amount of habitable land in Kenya, the search for enough food and water is driving people and wildlife deeper into each other’s territories.

As a result, cases of infectious diseases that are passed from animals to humans – called zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses – are on the rise, said Patrick Kimani, chief executive of the Kenya Livestock Producers Association.

In recent years, some herders have found a simple way of keeping their livestock and themselves healthy.

They search for grazing routes that are not used by wildlife, and mark them for others to follow.

In the southern part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Kerei – who began using the method two years ago – said zoonotic diseases were very common but herders did not know how to treat them.

“This is why we choose to use safe grazing routes to reduce (the) chances of livestock coming into contact with sick wild animals,” he said.

WIDESPREAD CASES

In Kenya, there are at least 36 known zoonotic diseases, according to Samuel Kahariri, chairman of the Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA). The most serious include brucellosis, Rift Valley fever, rabies and anthrax.

Most of these diseases are widespread among pastoralist communities, Kahariri added.

Brucellosis, for example, is one of the most common zoonotic infections globally.

Mainly transmitted from cattle, sheep, goats, elk and deer, it can be passed to humans through the consumption of raw meat or unpasteurised milk, causing flu-like symptoms.

Sam Kariuki, director of the Centre for Microbiology Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, estimated that around 750 Kenyans contract brucellosis every year.

But spotty record-keeping makes it impossible to get an accurate picture of how zoonotic diseases spread, he noted.

The data does show that the number of brucellosis cases has increased in the past few years, said James Akoko, a researcher studying the disease at Maseno University in Kisumu County.

Akoko said the negative effects of climate change combined with a growing population meant there was more contact between humans, wild animals and livestock than ever before.

“People are encroaching into areas that were meant for wild animals, and that kind of contact can create opportunity for the diseases to spread across different hosts,” he said.

BRICK TOWERS

Pastoralists like Kerei are working hard to prevent that.

Once they identify routes that do not cross into wildlife territory, they mark them out with small brick towers.

Besides checking for tracks and faeces, they know the presence of big cats like lions and tick-eating birds indicate that grazing animals such as buffalo and deer have moved into an area, said Paul Gathitu, a Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman.

When that happens, the brick towers are dismantled, signaling to others that the route has become risky.

“It is a difficult task ensuring that our livestock do not share pasture or watering points with wildlife,” said Kerei. “But it is the only cheap and readily available measure we have.”

For now, the technique is used mainly by Maasai tribes in the Rift Valley and the Borana in northern Kenya, said Abdulaziz Jama of the Pastoralist Capacity Development Programme.

Anecdotal evidence from local elders confirms the technique works where there are no other options to fight diseases, he added.

“Use of safe grazing routes is one of the many (types of) indigenous knowledge that have been helping marginalized communities battle climate change and zoonotic diseases where the national government has failed,” he said.

REAL-TIME ALERTS?

The government is struggling to manage the spread of zoonotic diseases partly because of the difficulty it faces in tracking them as herders move from one location to another, said the KVA’s Kahariri.

The problem is exacerbated by poor road and communication networks in areas where pastoralists live, making it hard for them to share information with the government when a zoonotic disease appears, Kahariri added.

Ezekiel Kiamba, from Ildamat village in southeast Kenya, said officials should do more to support herders.

The 32-year-old farmer does not use safe grazing routes to protect his 80 cows. Instead, he hires a private vet to regularly check and vaccinate his herd, at $20 per dose.

He would like to see the government use modern technology to send real-time information about outbreaks to rural communities.

“Some of us pastoralists have smartphones which the government could use to work with us and help manage zoonotic diseases,” he said. “I am still waiting for this to happen.” -Reuters

-Kagondu Njagi

Agriculture

Uganda Sees 11% Growth In Sugar Output This Year

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Uganda expects sugar output to rise 11% this year as three mills under construction in the country’s northern and eastern regions come online, officials say.

“Production is currently at 450,000 metric tons. When three new factories that are under construction and development start producing, we will go up to a half a million metric tons,” Uganda’s Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde says in an interview with FORBES AFRICA.

The East African country is only able to consume 360,000 tons per year, leaving a surplus for export in a region that’s grappling with deficits. Uganda exports sugar to the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Tanzania.

Underpinning the country’s sugar sector are millers, including Kakira Sugar Works, the largest producer. Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited – Lugazi and Kinyara Sugar Works are the other largest players.

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While this growth in output is imperative, the government is keen to see diversification in production to include industrial sugar as the country seeks to save its foreign exchange, Kyambadde says. 

“I see a bright future,” she adds, “but producers also need to diversify and produce the finer sugar. All of them are producing the bigger crystals but finer sugar for production is what we would like them to start producing.

“At the moment, we are importing that finer sugar.

“So that has been our concern with them, that why don’t you diversify and start producing the sugar that’s ready for production,” she says.

But these efforts have largely been stalled by Uganda’s high power tariffs, according to Kyambadde.

“They (millers) say from this level, the ordinary sugar, they have to have another line that would make it finer. That means the consumption of power definitely is higher,” she says.

“So that is one of the challenges; that the costs of production are so high,” she said, adding that new power plants will reduce costs to an ideal five US cents/KW.

Uganda is also looking to establish new laws to govern the sugar sector but disagreements over exclusivity clauses relating to purchase of cane from farmers abound.

In March, President Yoweri Museveni declined to assent to the Sugar Act of 2016 that was passed by Parliament in November last year. His spokesman, Don Wanyama, says the president is concerned about the proximity of millers.

“It’s going to antagonize the old sugar players,” Wanyama says. “It’s (the act) not going to be assented to,” he says.

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“We hope this issue will be corrected now that the bill is being sent back to parliament,” says Jim Kabeho, the Chairman of Uganda Sugar Manufacturers Association, the largest industry lobby.

“Farming constitutes 60 percent of our costs; yet someone without a single tractor and using cheap old machinery just wants to come and buy from your farmers,” he said in a phone interview.

Kabeho, also a director at Kakira and a board member at regional business lobby, the East Africa Business Council, warns that Uganda has lessons to learn from Kenya which allowed “market distortions” in the name of allowing competition only to end up with less production and having to rely on imports.

Yet for Ibrahim Baliitamuto, a cane grower in the eastern district of Mayuge, all that matters is price stability.

 “It’s very easy to make a fortune from sugarcane if the prices offered by factories are not changed very often,” Baliitamuto says.

“You can’t tell me about growing maize (corn) when I have a choice of sugarcane.”

Kyambadde says in returning the law to parliament, the president was being mindful of the big players.

“He thinks that the output of the small players is negligible, but we are still discussing that,” she says.

-Joseph Burite

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Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? They Make Bad Landing Strips For Flies

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Scientists are providing new evidence to answer the longstanding question about why zebras have stripes. It appears stripes make terrible landing strips, bamboozling the fierce blood-sucking flies that try to feast on zebras and carry deadly diseases.

Researchers on Wednesday described experiments demonstrating that horse flies have a difficult time landing on zebras while easily landing on uniformly colored horses. In one experiment, the researchers put cloth coats bearing striped patterns on horses and observed that fewer flies landed on them than when the same horses wore single-color coats.

“We showed that horse flies approach zebras and uniformly colored horses at similar rates but that they fail to land on zebras – or striped horse coats – because they fail to decelerate properly, and so fly past them or literally bump into them and bounce off,” said behavioral ecologist Tim Caro of the University of California-Davis, lead author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Close cousins to horses and donkeys, the world’s three zebra species, known for their black-and-white striped bodies, roam Africa’s savannas eating a variety of grasses. Their stripe patterns vary among individuals, with no two alike.

There had been four main hypotheses about the advantages zebras accrued by evolving stripes: camouflage to avoid large predators; a social function like individual recognition; thermoregulation, with stripes setting up convection currents along the animal’s back; and thwarting biting fly attacks.

“Only the last stands up to scrutiny,” Caro said. “Most biologists involved with research on mammal coloration accept that this is the reason that zebras have stripes.”

African horse flies carry diseases such as trypanosomiasis and African horse sickness that cause wasting and can be fatal.

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The researchers videoed horse flies as they tried to prey on captive zebras and domestic horses at a livery in North Somerset, England. Stripes did not deter flies from a distance, as they circled horses and zebras at similar rates. But the flies managed to land on zebras less than a quarter as often.

University of Bristol biologist and study co-author Martin How said stripes may dazzle flies somehow once the insects venture close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.

“In addition to stripes that prevent controlled landings by horse flies, zebras are constantly swishing their tail and may run off if horse flies do land successfully, so they are also using behavioral means to prevent flies probing for blood,” Caro said. -Reuters

-Will Dunham

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With Fruits and Green Shoots, Tigray Swaps Image of Famine for Resilience

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Thirty-five years after haunting images of crying, skeletal Ethiopian children shocked the world, Tigray, the region that unwittingly became a poster child for famine, is taking on a new image – that of resilience.

In Ruwa Feleg, a highland community with vivid memories of the devastating 1984 famine, the 2016 drought, which experts said was the worst Ethiopia had seen in half a century, had minimal impact, local farmers said.

“A lot of the livestock was lost but there were no marked loss of (human) lives,” said Hidrom Haileselasie, 45. “It’s not comparable.”

For one, they had spare cash from selling temperate fruits and vegetables such as apples, apricots and almonds, and no longer live hand-to-mouth. Improved infrastructure meant food, whether to markets or as assistance, arrived faster.

So, despite food shortages, people did not starve to death, unlike during the 1984 “great famine” when a combination of severe drought and civil war killed up to 1 million people.

The lack of conflict and Ethiopia’s strong economic growth helped the arid and mountainous Tigray, home to nearly 6 million people, during the 2016 drought, experts and locals said.

Months of monitoring allowed aid agencies to deliver assistance quickly when things worsened, said Getachew Kalayu, head of planning and coordination with local non-profit Relief Society of Tigray (REST).

“Both the people and the government have learnt a lesson from 1984,” said Getachew, whose organization was set up in 1978 by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former guerrilla movement turned political party.

Environmental rehabilitation work and efforts to diversify incomes were crucial, experts say.

“If you go back 30 plus years… (Tigray) was a moonscape, so denuded, with people cutting trees for charcoal and abandoning land,” said Betsy Otto, at the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Global Water Programme.

Through painstaking work, locals moved 90 million tonnes of soil and rock by hand, built infiltration pits and embankments, and planted trees to restore landscapes, said Otto, whose organization was involved in some of the projects.

“People migrate into Tigray now, which is kind of unheard of,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The groundwater table has risen and artesian wells that had not flowed for a long time now do, she added.

Tigray also looked to micro dams and watershed management to provide irrigation so small-scale farmers can improve crop productivity, said Fatouma Seid, representative for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Ethiopia.

All these contributed to “the communities’ capacity to withstand drought situations”, said Seid, whose organization has been helping farmers for years, including those in Ruwa Feleg.

CASH FRUITS AND FREE LABOR

The changes are palpable in Abreha we Atsbeha, a village two hours southwest of Ruwa Feleg on winding, bumpy roads.

Here the community has been working for more than a decade to build terraces on hills to retain water and prevent soil erosion. With about 1,500 locals working 20 days a year, they have so far terraced 5,200 hectares, a local official said.

“Before there were no plants. After (we built) the terraces, the land breathed new life again,” Kidane Gebreselassie, the official, said proudly, pointing at the lush, green hillsides.

A large part of this impressive feat is due to a government program requiring locals to work up to 20 days a year on rehabilitating the environment.

This happens “after the harvest and when people have spare time”, said Zenebu Tilahun Negrash, an official with Tigray’s Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Both Zenebu and Kidane are convinced such conservation work, which won a United Nations-backed award in 2017, helped the area during the 2016 drought.

People in Tigray have long memories of what it was like in 1984.

Tsega Asgedem, 63, a farmer at Ruwa Feleg, fled to Eritrea with her family and relatives, including two newborns. She ended up begging in the streets for a time to feed her children. They did not return for three years.

“It was very difficult to even bury the dead. There was nobody strong enough to do it,” remembered Tsega, who lost relatives in the famine.

Hidrom and Kes Berihu Hailu were only 10 and 9 then, but recall the hunger, the sickness, the food aid and the dead bodies lying in the streets.

So, when they learned of fruits they could grow and sell for cash, they jumped at the chance to leave the vicious cycle of subsistence farming.

“Previously… we planted cereals only for our own (animal) feed, and even then sometimes what we produce is not enough,” recounted Kes, 44, who is also a priest.

Now, Kes’ small plot of land grows only fruits. Life has improved leaps and bounds, he said, standing in front of a large, two-story stone building he had recently built with proceeds from the sale of the fruits.

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He spent more than 80,000 Ethiopian birr ($2,820), he said.

Aid agencies, particularly the FAO and World Vision, provided them with free seedlings and taught them technical skills, said Hidrom, the local pioneer who also keeps bees.

Despite struggling with getting enough water for his plants, he sees the fruits as his future.

“The land here is very small so planting cereal crops is not profitable. Highland fruits are the way to go.”

WHAT IS NEXT?

Demand for seedlings and technical knowledge is so high the government has not been able to keep up, said Zenebu, the agricultural official and leader of the team promoting highland fruits in Tigray.

About 33,000 people were producing fruits between June and the end of December, and they hope to raise the number to 96,000 by June 2020, to boost farmer incomes as well as nutrition, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the decade between 2006/2007 and 2016/2017, Ethiopia’s economy soared, but the country remains one of the region’s poorest, with nearly one in four living below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank.

More than four out of five Ethiopians also rely on agriculture and livestock for work and income in Africa’s second-most populous nation after Nigeria.

This makes them particularly vulnerable to weather-related disasters, many of which are becoming more frequent. Even Tigray’s restored landscape may only be able to help so much, experts said.

“Thirty, 40 years ago, there used to be rain end of May up till end of October. Now the rain comes in middle of June if you are lucky and stops first week of September,” Ehiopian aid worker Getachew said.

“So, investment in environment and water security are critical,” he said.

Farmers say they do not fear working hard, but rather the unpredictable weather and a repeat of the 1984.

“This is peace value. It allows us to secure an existence,” said Hidrom, pointing to a basket of freshly harvested almonds in his hands. -Reuters

-Thin Lei Win @thinink; Laurie Goering and Elias Gebreselassie

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