Edinburgh Impact

Cracking the cattle conundrum

Cows are plentiful in East Africa, yet many children in the region lack the vital nutrients the animals could provide. One researcher is on a mission to tackle hunger by finding out why.

By David Lee, research writer

A Maasai farmer with his herd of cattle, Kenya
A Maasai farmer with his herd of cattle, Kenya

Malnutrition is often viewed as purely a health issue, but it has far wider implications. By affecting the growth and cognitive function of individuals, it has social, developmental and broader economic impacts.

Dr Taddese Zerfu encountered cases of malnutrition regularly during his time as a clinician, public health official and nutrition specialist in East Africa. He also has a policy interest in the issue, as he was an adviser to a federal minister in Ethiopia.

He is especially interested in nutrition during what is known as the ‘first 1000 days’ of a child, from conception to two years. It is, he says, a “critical window of opportunity” to ensure children do not suffer malnutrition and all its subsequent negative impacts, and a chance to break the intergenerational malnutrition cycle.

Dr Taddese wanted to research the impact of children’s intake of animal source foods such as meat, milk, eggs and cheese. The consumption of diverse diets, particularly including nutrient-rich animal source foods, is essential to meet children’s nutritional requirements and protect against stunting and wasting.

With this in mind, one particular issue has long puzzled him: many families kept cattle, but often chose not to feed children regularly with meat, milk and cheese. Dr Taddese is on a mission to find out why – and is taking the unusual step of giving digital cameras to families in a bid to help.

Searching for the magic bullet

To get to the bottom of this conundrum, his research is combining a range of disciplines, notably agriculture, health and nutrition. Large secondary data sets from the three countries of his study - Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda - will be crucial to underpinning his research as a Marie Curie Fellow.

The large, national data sets will be supported by primary data gathered in the field to find out why people might be making decisions not to feed animal source foods to their children.

His work is supported by the European Union Horizon 2020 fund, the Data-Driven Innovation initiative in Edinburgh and industry partner, the International Livestock Research Institute.

Children herd cattle in East Africa
Children herd cattle in East Africa

“During my earlier research, I found an interesting link between eating chicken and a lower incidence of anaemia,” says Dr Taddese, who is based at the University's Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security. “My interest in linking agriculture, nutrition and health has mounted over the years and led me to this latest work. There are very few professionals in our region working in this multidisciplinary way. It is important to do this because the three areas are so inter-linked.

“In eastern Africa, we have a lot of cattle, but the intake of animal source foods is very low, which is one main reason why we have very high rates of malnutrition. Iron and zinc deficiency is very common in sub-Saharan Africa and is linked to a lack of animal source foods.

“What I wanted to know is, why the cattle are not being used to give milk, cheese and meat to children?”

Dr Taddese is looking at large national and regional data sets from all three countries to understand more about that link between availability and intake, especially in vulnerable population groups. His focus is on low income areas of the three countries.

“In some communities, you see that the intake of animal source foods is better. But in others, it is very low, and there is very little evidence of what links availability and intake,” he says.

The impacts can be very severe. In northern Ethiopia, for example, Dr Taddese says almost half of all children – some 46 per cent – suffer from stunting. “They are shorter than they should be for their age, and this is associated with poor cognitive and social development as they grow older,” he explains.

“I am looking at the large data sets to try to understand what the social and demographic variables are to the ownership of cattle, and how the same forces affect the availability and intake of animal source foods. What policies can we devise to help children?

“Making this link and identifying policy actions could be a magic bullet to tackle intergenerational malnutrition, but we lack knowledge and evidence. That’s why I am using data to examine this.”

Ethiopian woman milking a cow in a village near the town of Lalibela
Ethiopian woman milking a cow in a village near the town of Lalibela

Food insecurity; insecure countries

Dr Taddese’s research speaks to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and especially Goal Two, which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

Half of child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa are related to poor nutrition. Dr Taddese says the first 1000 days is crucial. “Once nutritional problems are formed during early ages, it is very difficult to curb its effect later in life. The first 1000 days is the time to intervene - the critical window of opportunity. Children who have been malnourished during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes later in life, which creates a huge burden.”

Dr Taddese stresses that the cognitive development impacts of malnutrition do not just affect individuals, but have far wider implications. The economic contribution of those individuals is limited and leads to lower productivity across the wider population.

He says there are even graver social implications of malnutrition. The lack of cognitive development has been linked to individuals being drawn into civil wars, leading to constant instability in the region.

Despite the lack of research in large populations, Dr Taddese is hopeful that his work can make a real difference. “Demographic and health survey data is collected regularly by experienced experts in all three countries and is of high quality,” he says. “What is lacking is advanced analysis of the data. That’s what I’m doing in this research - and supplementing it with primary data from the field.”

A large herd of ankole dairy cattle block the roadway as the farmer herds them in for the evening milking.
A large herd of ankole dairy cattle block the roadway in Uganda as the farmer herds them in for the evening milking.

Worth a thousand words

This primary data involves the use of an innovative technique called PhotoVoice. Participants are supplied with a digital camera to capture images – in this case of children’s foods – which are then used to discuss decisions about diet and nutrition. This will be supplemented by questionnaires to get additional qualitative information.

“Rather than using interviews or group discussions, PhotoVoice should shed more light on what is happening and give us richer information and more trustworthy, mature data,” says Dr Taddese. “Pictures speak louder than words. It is about avoiding theoretical assumptions and allowing families to create real-life photo-stories. I have experience of using it in Kenya and believe it will offer strong results.

“We want the families to talk about pictures and explain how many cattle they have, but also why they might still be feeding the baby thin maize porridge and not using the milk or meat. We might find, for example, that there are cultural reasons - meat is being saved for a special celebration, or for the adults of the family.”

After collecting the primary and secondary data, the next phase of the three-year research project is to engage a range of experts in workshops in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. “We will segment the findings and use experts from a range of disciplines to analyse specific aspects and offer their insights,” says Dr Taddese. “What does it mean to health experts, nutritionists, agriculture experts?

“These workshops will enrich the data and I hope my research will be published in high-impact journals and used to help influence policy in the sub-Saharan region. My personal ambition is to become a research scientist in this important area, where agriculture, health and nutrition meet.”

Dr Isabelle Baltenweck, Principal Scientist and Programme Leader at the International Livestock Research Institute, one of the project partners, says: “The nutrition and health benefits of keeping livestock are complex, with many pathways that also vary by livestock system. The work led by Taddese Zerfu is key to better understanding that relationship with a focus on children under five, and it is rewarding working on this topic with him.”

Funding information

European Commission logo

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 801215. 

Photo credits: Maasai - Andrew Linscott/Getty; children herding - Lingbeek/Getty; woman milking - hadynyah/Getty; ankole cattle - Joesboy/Getty