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Dairy training aims to boost Rwanda to health

June 16, 2014

In Rwanda, the expression “have milk” — “gira amata” — is not part of a milk-mustachioed marketing campaign. It’s a wish for prosperity.

UC Davis scientists hope to make that wish come true in the small African nation, by improving dairy cows’ health and productivity -- and thereby people’s health, too.

Dairying is a centuries-old enterprise in Rwanda, but production levels are quite low, and the milk is often contaminated with bacteria that pose health risks for cows and people.

“The underproduction of milk in Rwanda is heartbreaking,” said Professor Ray Rodriguez, executive director of the UC Davis Global HealthShare Initiative.  Rwandan cows produce just 5 liters of milk per day on average, whereas if the cows were healthy and well cared for, they should produce 25 to 40 liters per day, he said.

Partnership with Rwanda

The UC Davis Global HealthShare Initiative is coordinating a partnership among campus scientists and students, and their colleagues in Rwanda.

The UC Davis partners are not only teaching Rwandan veterinarians, veterinary students, university faculty and government officials how to improve the health and productivity of dairy cows and the safety of milk, but how to provide the same training around Rwanda, a nation of smallholder farmers.

Faculty members on the team are Rodriguez and Jim Cullor, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and director of its Dairy Food Safety Laboratory.

Their team comprises Somen Nandi, co-founder and managing director for Global HealthShare and principal investigator for its Rwanda project, and several graduate and undergraduate students.

“It’s about feeding the kids,” Cullor said. “It’s the children of Rwanda who are our customers.”

Rodriguez added that the project also is a reminder of the international aspect of modern health issues. “All health is now global health; we can’t just look at our health in the U.S. in isolation,” he said.

Focus on mastitis and ‘rural tech’

The UC Davis team is focusing on mastitis, a bacterial infection of the cow’s udder and the most common dairy cattle disease in the United States. In Rwanda, mastitis reduces milk production, causes milk to be unfit for sale and may result in the cow’s death.

During the past year, the UC Davis team has provided training to 40 Rwandan veterinary students, university faculty and government officials, teaching them practical techniques for preventing mastitis and identifying the different types of bacteria that are likely to be found in milk.

The success of the Rwandan program relies upon developing a collaborative partnership with the Rwandan government, and identifying technologies that are appropriate for that country.

For example, sophisticated laboratory tests used in the United States are not economically practical for Rwanda. Instead, the UC Davis team is training the veterinary professionals and students to prepare petri dishes on which microbial cultures can be grown.

“It’s not low tech; we call it ‘rural tech,'” Cullor said.

When an autoclave for sterilizing the laboratory instruments proved to be prohibitively expensive, a pressure cooker was purchased to serve the same function.

Said Nandi: “We don’t come with big money; however, we can make small but important changes."

Dairy management training

The Global HealthShare team is passing on Dairy Dynamic Management techniques developed through the Dairy Food Safety Laboratory and implemented through the Global HealthShare Rural Tech program. This on-farm training is designed to improve animal health and well-being, ecosystem health, food safety and the economic well-being of Rwandan smallholder farmers. 

To make sure that the benefit of the training spreads, the UC Davis team is training the Rwandan veterinary students so that they can go go from village to village, training farmers how to raise healthier, more productive cows.

Nutrition for children

Underproduction of safe milk presents a serious human health dilemma as well as an economic challenge for Rwanda.

“We’re trying to emphasize that because the milk is loaded with bacteria, there is a food safety issue,” Rodriguez said. He noted that some bacteria in milk cause intestinal infections in children, and repeated infections leave children unable to adequately absorb nutrients.  

Nearly 60 percent of Rwandans live below the poverty line — 40 percent subsisting on less than 90 cents per day, according to U.S. Aid for International Development. And 44 percent of Rwandan children under the age of 5 suffer from stunting.

“Nutritionists use the term ‘the first 1,000 days’ — that window of time when nutritional interventions can prevent permanent damage to the body,” Rodriguez said.

And if children are raised on contaminated milk during that time, Nandi said, their cognitive development can be permanently damaged as adults.

There is a particular poignancy for the UC Davis team to be introducing the dairy program and its promise of health and prosperity to Rwanda during the 20th anniversary of that nation’s 1994 genocide, which resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 people. 

Team members were pleasantly surprised to find that Rwanda today is a safe, stable, almost litter-free country, with a strong commitment to civil society and civil obedience.

“The country is safe and the people are very hopeful,” Rodriguez said. “They want Rwanda to be the gem of Africa.”

The UC Davis team hopes that, in some small but important way, the dairy program can help achieve that goal.

The team’s work is part of the Rwandan Dairy Competitiveness Program, funded by grants from Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, through USAID; and from the Land O’Lakes International Development Division.

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UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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