Send a Cow is a nonprofit based in the United Kingdom that supports in-country training programs in East Africa for families who might not have the proper resources to utilize the land they live on to feed their families.
Despite its name, Send a Cow doesn’t only focus on livestock maintenance. Although they used to ship cows to East Africa to give smallholder farmers a source of income and food for their families, they’ve found their newer practices of training and community support much more effective: a take on the adage “give a person a fish, and they eat for a day; teach a person to fish, and they eat for a lifetime.”
Farmers are taught a variety of skills to create sustainable farm systems, including organic growing, animal husbandry, water harvesting, even how to turn cow urine into organic pesticides.
Their training programs include gender and social development. They believe that changing attitudes on gender equality creates highly productive communities. “We help men see their roles differently, and we help women feel more empowered to claim more space for themselves,” says Richie Alford, Director of Research and Impact of Send a Cow. Food Tank spoke with Alford about the organization’s work in East Africa.
Food Tank (FT): How does your organization improve the lives of smallholder farmers in East Africa?
Richie Alford (RA): We’ve spent nearly 30 years working with smallholder farmers, and over that time we learned what works and what doesn’t. We began by physically putting cows on an airplane and send them to Uganda. We’ve learned how to work more effectively. The name only carries a part of our story. We’ve learned we need to focus on people—to help them help themselves and their communities. We’ve learned farmers want to learn how to be farmers.
We’ve learned they want to be positive. The language is not one of depression. It’s simply missed opportunity, and in some areas, lack of skill. They can see their resources in a new way. We come in and help them with that. For example, if you’ve always been told that your soil is poor and won’t grow anything, you will believe that, but we can teach them to work the soil in new ways.
While our name might suggest that we take an input-based approach to development; we actually take an asset-based approached. This begins by asking people ‘what do you have’ versus ‘what do you need.’
FT: What are the lives of these families like before you begin working with them?
RA: Hard. There’s untapped potential. We want to convey the idea that their poverty is not an inevitable consequence of their location and context because we know that it can get so much better.
FT: Why do you focus on livestock?
RA: We don’t focus on livestock as much as our name suggests. Our focus is impact and the changed lives of those we work with. Now we want to find the optimal way that the land that the family has can produce food through training that helps farmers learn to use their land better.
FT: Is value in livestock for these communities/families?
RA: Livestock fulfill multiple roles—nutrition, manure for organic compost and healthier soil, transport, traction, walking savings banks, assets for trade. However, we don’t want every farm to become just the biggest dairy farm they can be. We want to see a balanced farm system because we think that’s the most appropriate for smallholders in East Africa. It’s about optimizing a farm system to build social, environmental, as well as economic value. This is done through the integration of different crops and livestock together, rather than through singular intensification of growing monocultures because the market rewards those farms less, and they also provide fewer nutrients and leave farmers dependent on monocrops.
FT: In addition to providing seeds and other inputs, what other help do you provide to farmers?
RA: It’s not just livestock, it’s what we call the whole farm system. It’s the integration of farms and livestock and ensuring that communities become more prolific and resilient to economic, environmental, and cultural shocks.
Send a Cow has national offices based in every country we operate in across Africa. These offices work with government and other development actors to identify communities in geographical areas that show more challenges of poverty or soil deprivation and places where life is harder than in other areas. We work with the local leaders and communities to understand what they need and what’s the best way to support. In some areas, there are already established groups. In a situation where we want to form a group, often the community is to some degree self-selecting. Some group members would say, we might not want to join a group because we don’t want to be associated with being in need of technical support. We tend to find that the families who choose to join are fed up with their circumstances, know that there must be more, and want to learn new things.
We then work to build a supportive environment around them, instil confidence to learn, and put that learning into practice. We facilitate to enable groups and communities to work effectively to make better decisions and see opportunity, not challenges. More specifically at the family level, we facilitate learning in gender, nutrition, land and soil management, animal management, income generation, savings, and credit, among other things.
FT: Who trains the families?
RA: All our programs are delivered by nationals from the country. Members of the staff come from a mixture of disciplines, such as gender and social development, organic cropping, and livestock management. We build the capacity of the farmers so that they remain as the ‘knowledge banks’ for their communities.
FT: What does the training involve?
RA: Regarding food, we are about farms growing a diverse diet to feed a local community. The role of the farm systems is to enable a family to eat fruits and veggies every day—to help build a balanced diet. We want to see everybody eating more than just five or six food types a day. We care about the quality of food consumption, as well as the quantity of food consumption. We think about how the farm system in the place where you live can enable you to feed your family well throughout the year. Though food is not simply a production problem, the reason why we are so people-focused is because a lot of the problems are social problems or gender problems.
FT: How do you work to empower and educate women? How does your work help to equalize gender roles in these communities?
RA: By talking both with the men and women and pointing out the inequalities between their daily lives within the home, the changes in behavior and attitude of both can be striking.
Typically we target women’s groups because it’s the women who are suffering more, and it’s the women who care about everyone else. A tremendous way to improve the whole community is to target the women. We focus on social issues, social norms, social values, and gender norms. How do we change social behaviors in local communities? How do we help men change so that they carry water, bathe the children, prepare the meals? By working with all women together and women in their families, we help to strengthen their ability to influence their future and the way that they are then able to contribute decisions in the family and the community.
[Changing those gender roles] is evidenced through how the farm is run and how decisions are made about the farm—what crops to grow, who sells what products in the market, how do we want to use our land, what purpose is our land.
FT: Is it difficult to reshape gender roles in these small communities?
RA: We find less resistance than you’d imagine, perhaps because by targeting women we make a statement that women matter. We instantly say to the community, ‘these women are important, and their voices are important, and that’s why we care about them.’ They’ve been sidelined for too long. We are saying to the men, ‘actually, we believe that women can be trusted.’ All our training is delivered by nationals. They are saying that there is a different way to look at the world than the one you and I grew up believing to be true.