By: Siera Vercillo
A veterinary services company in Ghana that uses mobile technology.
The ‘Uber’ of animal health
Animal production is critical to rural life in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the semi-arid drylands, such as northern Ghana where water scarcity, more erratic rainfall and a shortening growing season due to climate change make crop production acutely challenging (Codjoe et al., 2012). Animals often function like a family’s savings account- they are an emergency resource available to overcome climatic and market shocks, such as drought and food price hikes (Scoones, 1995). Animal production can also be essential for crops, as manure adds back essential lost soil nutrients, and fertilizes more sustainably than chemical alternatives. They are also often the only adequate source of protein in areas with high malnutrition, and serve as important symbolic gestures and gifts in customary ceremonies (Kristjanson et al., 2001).
In Ghana, animal production is low and has remained stagnate for the past 10 years because of a lack of monitoring systems, high incidents of parasitic infections among other reasons (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 2016). Worryingly, in 2015, there was an outbreak of the avian flu (HPAI) killing 17.6% of all poultry in the country (CDC, 2016). There are also 28 livestock diseases in Ghana, which are killing millions of animals, and many are infecting people at alarming rates. For example, brucellosis is a zoonotic disease that when it spreads from cattle to women, can kill unborn babies. This is acutely affecting the Fulani in Ghana, a nomadic tribe commonly responsible for cattle grazing. Parasites, tics, tuberculosis are all tormenting school aged children in particular. Fortunately, many of these diseases can be prevented with vaccines and this is recognized in Ghana’s national agri-food policy strategies. Unfortunately, the animal health systems, like clinics, drugs, tracking etc. are woefully underfunded and underserved by public, private and not for profit actors, and there are less than 100 veterinary technicians graduating each year in the country. Hence, in some communities, animal mortality rates are between 30-60% and could be reduced to 5% with simple vaccines and care.
Cattle in Dry SeasonVideo filmed by Siera Vercillo in northern Ghana during the dry season
That is why I want to tell you about a new company in northern Ghana called CowTribe which was founded in 2016 to deliver life-saving vaccines, drugs and emergency veterinary care in a reliable manner using mobile technology like databases, hotlines, SMS, and voicemails. Think of CowTribe as the Uber for animal health. Farmers subscribe to CowTribe’s services for only $5 via their mobile phone, they build a profile about their animals and CowTribe creates a health care schedule tailored to their needs, sending them reminders, information about disease outbreaks and risks. Farmers can also request for preventative assistance and emergency care, while home visits to administer drugs and conduct surgeries are coordinated.
CowTribe has already served 29,000 farmers in 119 communities in the Northern and Upper East Regions of Ghana. For 2018, their major partnerships are with the Cattle Farmers Association where they plan to directly provide animal health services to 8,910 farmers (and an expected 1 million farmers in upcoming years), as well as the Presbyterian Agriculture Station in Garu, Upper East Region to send multimedia to 4000 farmers.
Video SummaryVideo summarizing CowTribe’s services
There are a few reasons why I am proud of CowTribe and their services. CowTribe is,
Delivering essential animal health services that are woefully underfunded
According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), globally 30% of farm animals die due to preventative outbreaks and diseases by using simple vaccines. For every US$1 spent on a vaccine, more than $US100 is saved in treatment and potential mortality. Many farmers cannot adequately monitor their animal’s health, nor do they know what to do when their animal is sick or who to call to figure it out. In 2011-2012, I worked with overburdened veterinarian extension officers at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture who could not provide sufficient care to the thousands of farmers they were responsible for. CowTribe can fill in a much-needed service gap, while using new communication technology to reach more farmers.
Reaching the most vulnerable farmers and respecting their needs
I had the opportunity to advise CowTribe while conducting my doctoral research in 2016-2017 on how to design tailored made care for farmers in remote communities who tend to be left behind by the public and private agriculture sectors. Using participatory research, we asked farmers important questions about their animals, their barriers to veterinary care and what they are willing to pay for. CowTribe reaches farmers in remote communities for their services, which most companies in Ghana say they do, but do not do so in actuality. Agribusiness, NGO and government programs tend to work with farmers close to urban areas, middlemen, or educated, business elite and not the smallholders in remote areas that CowTribe works with.
Supporting women leaders and creating employment for youth
The co-founders for CowTribe, Peter Awin and Alima Bawah are Ghanaians who have close relationships with farmers and the rural communities where they come from. Many of their staff are recent graduates who are looking for work opportunities in a context where youth unemployment is among the highest in the world (at 60%) and people are abandoning rural areas at unprecedented rates. I have introduced CowTribe to a number of recent graduates from the Animal Health and Production College in Ghana who are building their network of farmers and need financial support mentorship to launch their careers. This is a Ghanaian youth led initiative intended to build a prosperous future for rural areas and who have not given up on agriculture.
I began working with CowTribe as a Veterinary Officer last year after I completed my education in 2016. My work is to vaccinate and deworm animals for farmers and give them information to register with the company using the mobile app. I help the farmers take details about the flock size, work with them to create a schedule for the treatment and prophylaxis and provide further extension. I am delighted to be pioneering CowTribe and that we are recognized internationally. As a young man, I had trouble starting, and had many problems and issues. I am very hardworking and ready to learn new things which was appreciated by the company. -Abdul Latif Sulemana
*All other photos and videos were posted with CowTribe’s permission
Siera Vercillo is a Doctoral Candidate and Instructor in the Geography Department at Western University, supported by SSHRC, IDRC, and Queen Elizabeth II (at the Africa Institute) where she is co-supervised by Dr. Isaac Luginaah and Dr. Tony Weis. Her doctoral research takes a feminist political ecology approach to conduct a gender analysis of smallholder farming and household food security in multiple cases across northern Ghana using ethnographic and participatory research, as well as an intra-household survey. She is also an agriculture development consultant focused on extension services in West Africa and has worked on a number of Canadian and British government funded projects, as well as the Future Agricultures Consortium, Agriteam Canada, Engineers Without Borders Canada, World Vision and Oxfam Canada. You can reach her as svercillatuwo.ca and follow her blog here.