Traditional culture and science often seem to be worlds apart, but for Theogen Rutagwenda, the director general for animal resources in the Rwandan government, the two mix as naturally as salt and food.
“I grew up looking after cattle and knew they were productive. Then my family moved to Uganda, where our animals died from a condition termed ‘congolense’. I later understood that it was Trypanosomiasis (“TRYPS”)”, recalls Rutagwenda.
Family wealth in his community was counted in thousands of animals in the herd, so the loss was devastating. In his heart, Rutagwenda was called to action.
As a young adult, he undertook a bachelor of science, degree in veterinary medicine -at Makerere University (Uganda), then went on to the University of Nairobi in Kenya where he took his Master’s degree. His fieldwork took him to the hot and remote Marsabit district in Northern Kenya, where he studied camel diseases. Soon after completing his MSc studies, he enrolled as a PhD student on a joint program between Nairobi University and Hanover University in Germany. Here, he carried out his research on small ruminants in Isiolo, another livestock keeping district in Kenya.
He was employed then by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and ironically, once again ended up among the herders of northern Kenya as the first veterinary officer to carry out systematic disease surveillance in the region.
With the experience and expertise gained over the years, he returned to Rwanda, his country of birth and whose greatest economic asset remains livestock.
Three months of war in 1994 had practically decimated the Rwandese animal population which stood a mere 172 000 heads of cattle in 1995. Today, the national herd stands at 1.4 million animals, comprising a mix of indigenous and cross breeds to boost milk production. In the months after the war, the people of Rwanda bought milk from neighboring countries in jerry cans, now they produce 400 000 litres each day. Rutagwenda has been part of this re-stocking and development as he served in various capacities in the government ministry concerned with livestock.
“As a landlocked country, Rwanda suffers from trans-boundary animal diseases; however we have remained extremely vigilant in monitoring diseases. Some parts of the country have been free from foot and mouth disease for more than ten years with isolated cases around some of our borders”, he goes on.
In 2005 only 17 people could carry out artificial insemination of cattle in the entire land of a thousand hills as Rwanda is nicknamed. Now over 500 people are equipped with the skills. Recognizing the rising human population and Rwanda’s constrained land mass, with the average homestead owning 0.75 hectares, he believes zero grazing of the cattle is the way to go.
The one heifer per poor family program adopted by the country has lifted more than a million families out of poverty in five years.
“I want to be remembered as the person in charge of animal resources in Rwanda when livestock lifted people from poverty, and school children were given free milk to reduce malnutrition”, he said during an interview on the sidelines of a meeting that was very close to his heart and purpose.
It was a meeting organised by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the African Union’s Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) and United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), for alumni from the East Africa region who participated in the capacity building program for sustainable use of animal genetic resources (AnGR) in developing countries. The meeting aimed to catalyze changes in the strategies and practices in the utilization of AnGR within sub-Saharan Africa. Follow-up workshops for scientists, trainers and researchers organized by the ILRI-SLU capacity building project team in collaboration with key partners supporting AnGR such as AU-IBAR and FAO help to strengthen networks and institutional cooperation including farmer organizations on research for development and use of AnGR; improve on delivery of teaching/learning skills in animal breeding and genetics; and develop sustainable breeding and conservation programs on selected breeds/populations and criteria for their choice at both national and regional levels.
From the discussions that took place at the Eastern African workshop in Kigali, it was clear that more resources are needed to train people able to translate new knowledge into actions for sustainable use of AnGR in developing countries. These include extension staff who help bridge the gap between science and the farmer. Providing information on AnGR accompanied by training on science communication and teaching methodologies is strategic for advancing effectiveness of National Agricultural Research centres/institutes.
Rutagwenda was happy to set aside his responsibilities for the workshop and join the alumni for several reasons. First, he accepted to host the meeting recognizing the immense value that AnGR have to a country like Rwanda in particular and the Africa region in general. Secondly, the program is managed by his very able student Julie Ojango of ILRI, who he taught while at the University of Nairobi. A third reason was that the Rwanda Agricultural Board would like to collaborate with ILRI on developing and running livestock recording within Rwanda.