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Apollinaire Djikeng: Lessons from the ugly pig

02 March 2016

Apollinaire Djikeng, Director of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub

For many years I have kept a personal association and a personal importance to livestock. At the professional level, I have developed a strong interest in livestock research. From these two viewpoints, I have become very passionate for two key important issues that must be addressed if we want livestock to provide opportunity and better opportunities for smallholder farming communities in Africa. These two issues are one, our lack of utilization of the great and rich diversity that exists across Africa in livestock. Secondly we are developing this interest in terms of creating alternative livestock production systems to support smallholder farmers who do not have the resources to actually own large animals.

I was born in a small community in the western part of Cameroon and livestock was very much part of my growing up. In that context, my parents, my family, just like many other families, rely on livestock for pretty much what they had to do, what they had to plan and all expenses that they had in life. Pig farming became a very important part of our family. In a given year my parents would make sure that every September we have a flock of about 7 pigs ready for selling at the local market. September was the back-to-school month. In developing this flock, my parents took into consideration some key parameters. They did not just invest in acquiring the same pig breed.

There was one particular breed that became very popular in the community. We had a local name which can be translated into English as the ugly pig. What is so fascinating about the ugly pig? It is the pig that had these fascinating capabilities of resisting to many stresses, diseases and even evading from detritus. They put that in the flock to make sure that if there is a danger, there will be something to survive.

In 1981 specifically in the month of May, just three short months before the back-to-school month, the Africans went through the epidemic emerged in my community. It carried up to 100 per cent mortality. My family, just like many other families, became very vulnerable. In our case, we lost all the pigs; we lost everything but the ugly pig. In many other families, they lost everything. You would imagine that your investment is gone. You are just a few weeks from back to school. Imagine the hardship that the families will face.

In my case, my mother from previous challenges with other women in the community had started to actually develop what we call Plan B. Plan B was a massive investment in raising other types of livestock. In our case, my mother invested very heavily in developing a very large population of chickens. In the community you could even see some of the women focusing on alternative, what we call neglected and underutilized species. We had grass cutters, we have cavies, regularly known as guinea pigs. We also have other commodities that you will find in your backyards, essentially the things you can hold without too much of your investment. In that particular year, sales from my mother's chicken took me back to school and you can imagine that it was not the case for many of my friends in the village and current record, just headcount shows that as many as 50 of my friends in the village never went back to school for that particular year and in fact lost the track of their education and for ever never went back to school. According to today's standards, they are considered to be illiterate. That smart investment from my family helped me to carry on with the story that I am going to share with you today.

In that particular case, there is a lot of appreciation for this type of stories that you may have heard throughout smallholder farming communities. My story is not any better or any worse than other stories; it is just a story that helps us to really identify key characteristics associated with smallholder farming. From that time up to now, smallholder farming in Africa is still associated with risk and vulnerability. What can we do to reduce that? There are several options that we can bring. Option number one: Africa still holds up to 70 per cent of the diversity that you find in livestock animals. Are we exploiting that? The answer is no, we are not fully exploiting that but there are some key parameters that can help us to get excited in moving in this direction. One, we know of some of the attributes of the livestock that we may be familiar with, n'dama cattle for instance holds a significance resistance to African trypanosomiasis and this is a significant disease that has over the years prevented livestock development across Africa.

Secondly, we know of the nguni cattle, the quality of the skin that help us to get really good quality leather sold in upper class markets. Are we making that work for smallholder farmers in Africa? Not too sure that we are fully exploiting that. We know the West African dwarf goat which is really known to be highly prolific. It kids every time and gives large flocks and we know that for smallholder farmers who are really under pressure to build assets, this would be a good resource for them, to build a large population of animals for quick access to resources and financial resources and also quick access to nutrition. We also notice red maasai sheep which is known for tremendous characteristics including resistance to high level of parasitic worms. This is a very important attribute for smallholder farmers who do not the resources to take the animal to the vet. The same red sheep maasai has the specific characteristic of striving in very challenging environments and we know that the smallholder farming community in Africa, many of the farmers actually in these marginal areas, can we harness these resources to support them.

Lastly, we know that the chicken is something that has been neglected over time but it carries very specific characteristics. We know that they scavenge and they can transform almost anything into food, some of them grow very fast, some of them present disease-resistance characteristics and also adaptation to various agro-ecological zones. I think if we harness and really look to understanding these resources, we should be able to offer a wide range of solutions to smallholder farmers.

The good news is that advances in biological sciences really create opportunities for us to rapidly characterize these assets, make them work for our generation and hope that we can make them available for generations to come.

What is the second option to help reduce the risk and vulnerability in smallholder farming? If you look at the landscape of smallholder farming in Africa, you see that smallholder farmers are not homogeneous population. Some of them do not have the assets to help them actually on large animals.

What are we doing? If we are not careful, we may marginalize a significant portion of that population but the good news is that whether we are in Africa or out of Africa, specifically from South America, there are certain elements that we can interbreed. If we look at farming communities in Africa, from West Africa all the way to East Africa, you see that for means, in terms of means of resilience, some of these marginalized smallholder farmers are focusing on what we call neglected and underutilized species. What are they specifically? You have cavies, guinea pigs for instance, you have grass cutters, you have many other creatures that provide quick access to income and also access to animal source nutritious food. Demonstration is becoming very clear that in communities where smallholder farmers have really established a very strong alternative production system for these creatures, they can rapidly generate income; they can rapidly build assets to actually end up owning large animal species.

There is an argument against, why do we have to focus on these alternative livestock production systems. We need to do it. It is the moral thing to do, otherwise we will be excluding a significant proportion of the population. It does not go against our classical livestock species. It is a complement to help us that we can actually use the different mechanism to drive many of these smallholder farming communities into mainstream livestock or classical livestock species. If we cannot raise these two issues as I mentioned, really harnessing the diversity that we have and creating a straight and sustainable alternative production system, we hope that we can turn livestock into a lifeline of smallholder farmers.