Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network
Enyew Negussie


Livestock and Livelihoods: Role of advances in animal breeding and biotechnology

The Horn of Africa suffers from recurrent drought, conflict, weak infrastructure and a limited livelihood base. In the region livestock is an important asset: it is kept by two-thirds of the rural poor, and it plays an integral role in their lives. It contributes to food and nutritional security and income generation. It is also an important, mobile form of wealth storing, it provides transport and on-farm power, contributes towards the maintenance of soil fertility and also fulfills a wide range of socio-cultural roles.

Currently, the fast population growth and the associated increase in the demand for livestock products present many development opportunities and also growing challenges. The key challenge is determining how to intensify livestock productivity in a sustainable manner to meet the increasing demand under the constraints of limited land, water and other natural resources. Current advancements in science and technology will have an important role to play in promoting the livestock sector in the region. This article examines the link between livestock and livelihoods and identifies emerging opportunities and growing challenges. The role of advances in animal breeding and biotechnology in responding to the challenges of the livestock sector in the region is also discussed.

Golden opportunities, significant challenges

The population of the Horn of Africa (160 million) has more than doubled since 1974 and is projected to increase further in the next few years. This along with drought and conflict has exacerbated the problem of food production in an already difficult environment of fragile ecosystems. About 80 percent of the population of the countries of the region is rural, and depends almost exclusively on agriculture for its consumption and income needs. Measures to address the problems of poverty and food insecurity in the region must therefore be found mainly within the agricultural sector. Agricultural development is therefore a necessity and not an option and it should be achieved in such a way that it is market-oriented and technologically driven so as to enhance the overall productivity.

Within the agricultural sector a large contribution, on average 57 percent, comes from the livestock. Livestock contributes to food, nutritional security, income generation, and forms the main livelihood base for millions of pastoralists and resource-poor livestock keepers in the region. The rapid population growth, urbanization and the associated increase in the demand for animal products have presented golden opportunities and also significant challenges to the livestock industry of the region.

The purpose of this article is to review the link between livestock and livelihoods, emerging opportunities and challenges and assess the role that advancements in animal breeding and biotechnology could play in improving livestock productivity.

Livestock and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa

In the Greater Horn, as elsewhere in Africa, agricultural growth is essential for improving the welfare of the vast majority of the continent’s poor. Roughly 80 percent of the region’s poor live in rural areas, and for them agriculture is the means to attain food security and to lift them out of poverty.

Of the agricultural sector, livestock contributes nearly 60 percent of the combined Agricultural Gross Domestic Product (AGDP), ranging from 32 percent in Ethiopia to nearly 88 percent in Somalia and it is an important component of the livelihood. As in most of the developing countries, in the region livestock is multifunctional. It serves a multitude of diverse functions that form the livelihood base for the majority of people.

Livestock contributes to food and nutritional security and income generation. Livestock products are a source of high-value food, more specifically protein for human diets. Livestock products account for almost 30 percent of human protein consumption. The consumption of even small amounts of milk can have dramatic effects on improving the nutritional status of poor people and is especially important for children and nursing and expectant mothers.

Apart from the provision of food and nutrition in people’s diets, livestock also plays important social functions. It raises the social status of owners and contributes to gender balance by affording women and children the opportunity to own livestock, especially small stock.

In marginal areas with harsh environments, livestock provides a means of reducing risks associated with crop failure and a diversification strategy for resource-poor small scale farmers and their communities.

The main contribution of livestock to crop production comes from the provision of draught animal power and manure for soil fertility. Recent reports estimate that globally livestock provides animal traction to almost a quarter of the total area under crop production. Since low soil fertility remains the primary constraint to agriculture in most developing countries, manure from the livestock can provide a critical source of organic matter and nutrients, boosting smallholder’s crop yields on farms where chemical fertilizers are often unavailable and unaffordable.

Livestock contributes to income generation and also serves as a mobile form of wealth storing. Growing and selling livestock enables the poor rural families (in particular women) to enter the cash economy. Livestock enables saving, provides security, allows resource-poor households to accumulate assets, and helps finance planned as well as unplanned expenditures (e.g., illness).

It is evident that livestock plays multiple roles in the livelihoods of people in developing communities, especially the rural poor and pastoralists. For the pastoralists in the region, any threat to their livestock means a threat to their livelihood-base. In order to further assess the multifunctionality of livestock, it is important to understand the current trends, drivers of change, emerging opportunities and challenges of livestock production in the region.

Growing population, growing consumption

Projections for the Horn of Africa show a significant increase in the demand for livestock products over the next 30 years. Projected growth in per capita consumption of livestock products is generally above that predicted for consumption of other food items. This offers ample opportunities to improve the income and livelihoods of the livestock-dependent poor but also present some challenges.

Among others, some of the key drivers of increased livestock production in the region are population growth, urbanization and changes in the consumption patterns which are related to the general economic development and rise in income.

The population of the Horn of Africa (160 million) is projected to increase by a further 40 percent by 2015. The increase has already put intense pressure on natural resources, particularly land and forests, and has resulted in increasing rural-urban migration. The corresponding increase in food demand will of course increase the demand for livestock and its products.

Urbanization is generally associated with higher average household incomes and changing lifestyles. This helps fuel the demand for food including livestock products. Current consumption data show that the share of livestock products in household diets has increased steadily in developing countries over the past two decades.

With the development of income, consumption patterns are also changing. The numbers of supermarkets and large retailers are increasing across the continent. Consumers in developing countries have diversified their diets by increasing the consumption of meat, milk and eggs. Annual meat consumption in developing countries with fast growing economies doubled from 14kg per capita in 1980 to 29kg in 2002, while milk consumption increased by 35 percent. There are predictions that in the upcoming decades, there will be a general increase in per capita consumption of livestock products globally when compared to other agricultural products, such as cereals.

As a result of the rapid increase in the demand for livestock products and associated growth in income, urbanization and expanded regional markets, there will be a relative rise in the price of livestock products compared to other agricultural products. This will open up new opportunities for the poor people in domestic, regional and international markets.

In view of the current trends and drivers of change, the ability to fulfill the growing demands for livestock products lies on the capacity to increase efficiency and productivity. The ability of smallholder livestock producers in developing countries to increase productivity can be enhanced by the adoption of advances in science and technology. The key livestock development challenge will therefore be to generate increased productivity while maintaining the natural resource-base and the environment.

Advances in animal breeding and biotechnology

Science and technology have made a major contribution to the transformation of agriculture – both crop and animal. Most of the technological gains have been realized in the developed countries. The impact of most technological progress has, unfortunately, been more limited in developing countries. As a result, smallholder crop-livestock systems which support the large majority of the poor have remained much more reliant on the locally available knowledge and production techniques. Therefore, to address the emerging challenges posed by the rapidly growing human population and urbanization there is a need for the adoption and the use of advances in science and technology. This will enable smallholder systems to respond to the changing social, economic and environmental challenges. Recent advances in animal breeding, molecular biology, reproductive technologies and information and communication technologies, present unprecedented opportunities for livestock improvement in the developing countries.

Reproductive biotechnologies

Artificial insemination (AI), embryo transfer (ET) and semen sexing are some examples of reproductive biotechnologies. AI is the process of collecting sperm cells from a male animal and manually depositing them into the reproductive tract of a female. AI is the first reproductive technique that had a major impact on animal breeding schemes worldwide. In combination with pedigree registration and milk recording, AI offers the opportunity to obtain accurate estimates of breeding values of young bulls and results in a genetic progress that is much higher than natural mating. This is due to the high selection intensity and accuracy arising from AI since only the top bulls are selected for use in producing numerous offspring in many herds.

The main advantages of AI include increased efficiency of bull usage. This means the use of AI enables the production of a very large number of offspring from a single elite sire. Hence, it makes the maximum use of superior sires possible. For instance, natural service would probably limit the use of one bull to less than 100 matings per year. AI usage enabled one dairy sire to provide semen for more than 60.000 services. Moreover, AI reduces the danger of spreading infectious genital diseases. Time required to establish a reliable proof on young bulls is reduced through the use of AI. Other advantages include early detection of infertile bulls, use of old or crippled bulls and elimination of the dangers of handling unruly bulls.

There are also a few disadvantages of AI, which can be overcome through proper management. A human detection of heat is required and thus the success or failure of AI depends on how well this task is performed. AI requires more labor, facilities and managerial skills than natural service. Proper implementation of AI requires special training, skill and practice. Utilization of few sires, as occurs with AI, can reduce the genetic base. Thus the AI industry and animal breeders should make every effort to sample as many young sires as possible.

Artificial insemination is recognized as the best biotechnological technique for increasing reproductive capacity and it has received widespread application in large farm animals. It is widely used in most African countries and the demand is growing. However, owing to a number of technical, financial, infrastructural and managerial problems its applicability in Africa has not yet matched that of its success in the developed countries.

Embryo transfer is a hormonal manipulation of the reproductive cycle of the cow, inducing multiple ovulations, coupled with AI, embryo collection, and embryo transfer to obtain multiple offspring from genetically superior females, by transferring their embryos into recipients of lesser genetic merit. The high genetic merit embryos can be frozen for later transfer or sale. Most dairy farmers who use embryo transfer simply want more heifer calves from their best cows. In most cases the bull calves are more a nuisance to merchandise than an asset. The effect of this use of embryo transfer is to increase the selection intensity of dams to produce female herd replacements.

These technologies have been commercially available since the 1980s. In ET, an increase in reproductive rate of females offers the opportunity to reduce the number of dams that need to be selected for the next generation. At the same time, it leads to an increase in the amount of information available on sibs for estimating the breeding values (BV) of male as well as female selection candidates.

Embryo transfer also allows superior females to have an effect on the genetic change. However, this technology has been only beneficial to cattle where the low reproductive rates and the long generation intervals make it economically viable. So far, ET has had some experimental and limited practical applications in most developing countries. Limitations in utilization of AI and ET in Africa are attributable to the absence of organized breeding schemes, poor infrastructure, and a lack of human and institutional capacity.

The use of sexed semen alters the sex ratio in favor of either sex. It is a great advantage for the dairy industry for producing replacement heifers. The availability of sexed semen in dairy cattle has been eagerly anticipated for many years, and recent developments in fluorescence-activated cell sorting have brought this technology to commercial application. For a long time, the large-scale application has been hindered by slow process of semen sorting and the lower conception rates.

Semen sexing provides the potential to increase the numbers of offspring of one sex in a closed population, thereby increasing the intensity of selection for that sex. A number of studies have shown that the effect of semen sexing on the rate of genetic gain is limited. Semen sexing, however, enhances the farmers' ability to obtain a larger number of replacement heifers from their own herds. This enables farmers to expand their herd size without the need for buying replacement heifers from other farmers.

Other advancements in reproductive biotechnologies include biotechniques like cloning, gene transfer, cryo-preservation of embryos, in vitro maturation, fertilization and culture which may have very limited application in the developing countries due to the high cost and advanced infrastructural requirements for their implementation.

Breeding Schemes/strategies

Sustainable livestock genetic improvement strategies that meet the needs of farmers and take the prevailing production system into consideration can make a vital contribution to food security and rural development. This requires the implementation of efficient, sustainable breeding schemes. In most of the developing countries the lack of such schemes is one of the hindrances to the contribution of the livestock sector to food production and income generation.

Developing such a scheme for tropical environments is a challenging task constrained by small flock-size, communally shared grazing, uncontrolled mating, and the absence of pedigree and performance recording. To address these issues the advances in this area include nucleus/group breeding scheme and community-based breeding system.

Nucleus/group breeding scheme is based on the principle that in each herd there is a small number of genetically very superior animals which − if brought together − will form a nucleus whose average genetic merit is far greater than that in any of the contributing herds. The important element in this scheme is therefore for a group of farmers to agree to pool their high performing animals.

Once the nucleus herd is assembled, an efficient system of recording and selection is implemented. The best males are kept for breeding in the nucleus while the other selected males are given to the base herds for breeding. By these means the improvements are quickly spread throughout the group.

The nucleus may remain open to animals from the base herds, the best females from the latter being admitted periodically and compared with those in the nucleus. Usually, only females are transferred from the base to the nucleus since sire selection will not be practicable in base herds due to managerial reasons. The main advantage of the nucleus scheme is that the genetic superiority of sire replacements coming into the base herds from the nucleus is far greater than what is achievable in each of the base herds. It is particularly attractive in situations where within-herd selection programs are ineffective due to small population size or inadequate technical skill.

The nucleus breeding scheme shifts the responsibility of operating the breeding program from the farmer to the nucleus herd. It is therefore an attractive method for the smaller communities because of the limitations discussed earlier. However, the organization of the scheme may have to be under government control because cooperative ventures among farmers may not always be practicable. As a result, implementation of nucleus breeding schemes in low-input environments has sometimes proven to be somewhat difficult. The alternatives to centrally organized nucleus schemes are community or village-based selection schemes, which are breeding activities carried out by the communities of smallholder farmers.

Community-based breeding system is a breeding program that involves local communities and institutions in the design implementation and ownership of breeding strategies. Its main objective is to improve the productivity of local breeds and thereby improve the income of rural farmers by ensuring access to improved animals that respond to improved feeding and management. Developing and implementing a community-based breeding program involves a series of interconnected activities and includes a description of the production system, definition of breeding goals, evaluating market access and policies, development and implementation of a locally adapted breeding strategy.

Community or village-based breeding programs are intended to overcome the problems related to genotype–environment interaction, to avoid the genetic lag between the nucleus and the village populations, and are also appropriate for in situ conservation of indigenous animal genetic resources. Village-based breeding programs also help to bridge the gap between the skills of the breeders and the farmers. Currently village or community-based breeding programs have gotten wide popularity and they are being implemented in a number of developing countries in Asia and Africa mainly for the genetic improvement and conservation of small ruminants.

Gene-based techniques

Gene-based techniques as applied to animal breeding and improvement include several marker-based technologies such as marker-assisted selection (MAS), gene-assisted selection (GAS), marker-assisted introgression (MAI) and genomic selection (GS).

Marker-assisted selection involves selection on markers either in linkage disequilibrium (LD) or linkage equilibrium with the quantitative trait loci (QTL) while GAS involves selection on direct markers which are the causative mutation(s). On the other hand, MAI involves the use of markers to aid introgression of QTL from a donor to a recipient line. Genomic selection is defined as the simultaneous selection for many (tens or hundreds of thousands of) markers, which cover the entire genome in a dense manner so that all genes are expected to be in linkage disequilibrium (LD) with at least some of the markers.

The implementation of GS technology involves genotyping selection candidates to predict breeding values, which can be performed in the absence of phenotypic records. With the availability of high-density marker-maps and cost-effective genotyping, GS methods may provide faster genetic gain than can be achieved by traditional selection methods. In the developed countries, genomic selection is expected to double the annual rate of genetic improvement in dairy cattle and it has been implemented recently in a number of dairy cattle breeding programs.

For the past 20 years, gene-based technologies have been applied to gene detection, genetic selection and assessment of genetic diversity and genetic transformation of livestock. Most of these developments and applications have taken place in the developed countries.

The use of such techniques in most developing countries is thus far limited. Moreover, in view of the existing problems hindering livestock productivity in the region, an immediate and wide scale implementation of these techniques may not be straightforward. However, until such time, due consideration must be given to capacity, infrastructural and institutional building to adapt these technologies to meet the specific needs of developing countries in the future.

The role of advances in animal breeding and biotechnology

Millions of people in the Horn of Africa suffer from food insecurity, drought, conflict, a weak infrastructure and a limited livelihood base. To achieve greater food security, in addition to boosting agricultural output, there is a need to create more diverse and stable means of livelihoods to insulate the rural poor and their households from external shocks. Providing a safety net in the form of liquid assets and a strategy of diversification for food production and income generation is one central role of the livestock in the region.

However, the majority of livestock in the region are still being reared under traditional systems. Livestock kept under the prevailing small-scale conditions and traditional systems of production has a low level of productivity. Therefore, traditional systems of production alone can not be the best solution to feed the ever growing population and to address the pressing issues of food insecurity in the region. One of the most important and reliable alternatives is the use of better technology. Therefore, science and biotechnology will have an important role to play in promoting the livestock-sector in the Horn of Africa. A rational and informed use of some of the above mentioned advances in animal biotechnologies and breeding strategies is thus important.

Of the different biotechnologies, a well organized use of artificial insemination in animal breeding that is based on local models is highly recommended. Artificial insemination is widely used in most developing countries and the demand is growing. It has been instrumental in many countries for disseminating the genetic potential of elite sires to farmer’s herds.

Embryo transfer could have a major impact on cattle breeding in the region, especially if it is taken as part of a nucleus breeding scheme. Embryo transfer is beneficial in increasing the utilization of superior dams. However, its successful applicability in Africa has become an issue of cost, infrastructure and capacity. There are several experimental uses of the technique in the region and its practical and large-scale applicability still needs more work at building the human and institutional capacity and the infrastructure needed.

Generally, there is an enormous potential for the utilization of gene-based techniques in livestock improvement. Its use has wide scale implications in increasing the accuracy and efficiency of the genetic progress as evidenced in most developed countries. However, owing to the factors related to cost, infrastructure, institutional and human capacity, its large scale practical implementation in the Horn of Africa and most parts of the developing world will take some time. Meanwhile, building a strong local capacity in biotechnology, the necessary infrastructure and investment in institutional developments should be made to lay a strong foundation for its future practical utilization.

An open nucleus breeding is a scheme where a nucleus herd/flock is established under controlled conditions to facilitate selection. The nucleus is established from the "best" animals obtained by screening the base (farmers') population for outstanding females. This has been implemented in several countries for the genetic improvement of small ruminants, beef and dairy cattle.

If well managed, open nucleus breeding schemes allows for greater selection intensity and could be one of the preferred methods of operation for quick genetic gain in indigenous, exotic or stabilized crossbred populations. However, in most low-input environments the implementation of nucleus breeding schemes has proven to be somewhat difficult due to the needed long-term commitment of sponsors and involvement of farmers.

Alternatively, there is now much interest towards community or village-based breeding programs. So far, several such breeding programs have been launched in the Horn of Africa and in Asia and the experiences are encouraging. The system allows active involvement of the communities from the definition of breeding goals and selection criteria to the identification and implementation of the most appropriate and acceptable strategy. Therefore, it is a more potential breeding strategy, suitable to the Horn of Africa to improve the genetic potential of indigenous livestock in low-input small-scale farmer’s herds.

In summary, proper adoption of some of the advances in animal breeding and biotechnology will have great potential to improve livestock productivity and food security in the Horn of Africa. In view of the impressive results achieved in developed countries through the use of such advances in livestock production, there should also be good prospects for adoption of similar technologies to improve the productive potential and efficiency of livestock in the region.

The adoption of new technologies should be gradual and tailor-made as the adoption levels and their corresponding impacts are dependent on the level of infrastructure as well as human and institutional capacity developments in the target countries.


Dr. Enyew Negussie
Research Scientist, Ph.D
MTT Agrifood Research, Biotechnology and Food Research, 31600 Jokioinen, Finland
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network