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Keeping cows in the city, chickens under the bed: ‘The Atlantic’ magazine explores Africa’s urbanization

Meat Store in Kawangware Slum

Butcher shop in a slum in Kawangare, Nairobi, Kenya (picture on Flickr by Brad Ruggles).

It’s not only people who are rapidly urbanizing in Africa: people migrating from rural areas are bringing their livelihoods with them, which in Africa largely means their cattle, goats, sheep, chickens and pigs. A scientific report from researchers based in Nairobi, Kenya, investigating the benefits and harms of livestock keeping in two of Africa’s most crowded and sprawling cities —Nairobi and Ibadan — recommends that people ‘keep on keeping cows’ but keep them more carefully so as to reduce the risk of diseases being transmitted from livestock to people.

Importantly, the study also finds that  peer pressure — not health codes — is the answer to more careful management of the growing livestock enterprises in Africa’s slums and urban centres.

The Atlantic, one of North America’s most popular and distinguished cultural and political magazines, explores this unusual aspect of Africa’s rapid urbanization. Some excerpts below.

‘One of the stranger aspects of Africa’s rapid urbanization is the influx of livestock in new, unplanned towns — and the diseases they bring with them. . . .

‘Today, about 40 percent of the African population lives in urban areas, a rapid migration that’s expected to triple in size over the next four decades.

But the people who are moving to cities aren’t entirely leaving their rural lives behind. Instead, they are bringing their livestock with them, often keeping them right in their backyards, even in densely populated areas.

‘As a result, low-income countries have started to see a dramatic spike in a class of disease known as zoonoses, which pass from animals to humans. These can cause everything from tapeworms to fatal diarrhea, and they’re concentrated near major cities in Africa and India.

A recent study by the International Livestock Research Institute found that zoonoses make up 26 percent of the infectious disease burden in low-income countries, but just 0.7 percent in high-income countries. Now, researchers are beginning to trace these ailments to the livestock that sleep just over the windowsill from the residents of the developing world’s newest cities.

‘In Dagoretti {in Nairobi, Kenya], one in 80 people keep cattle, and 60 percent of households have poultry. A typical house there might have a shed full of rabbits or chickens under the bed. A cow kept in the yard may graze by the roadside or munch potato peels from a local eatery.

‘But animals and cities don’t always mix well. Throughout history, as cities modernized and developed, any lingering livestock were soon banished to the countryside.

‘That’s not an option for people in places like Dagoretti, where there are still very few grocery stores, and low incomes mean many residents rely on raising and selling their own food. For the town’s infants and children, the nutritional benefits of ready access to milk outweighs some of the cow-related drawbacks.

“In cultures where you don’t do fridges or freezers, there’s a huge demand for milk and meat and it needs to be close to where it’s eaten,” said Delia Grace, a Nairobi-based researcher for the International Livestock Research Institute. . . .

‘For these and other reasons, Dagorettians won’t — and probably shouldn’t — get rid of their cows and other animals. . . .

‘Grace and her colleagues determined that the best way to stop the spread of [livestock diseases to people] was not to discourage the keeping of animals, but to get residents to do it more carefully. And the best way to accomplish that, they found, was peer pressure.

“Much of the conventional communication — ‘don’t do this, it’ll make you sick’ — we know that’s not very effective. There’s a new approach that’s trying to change peoples’ behavior based on social norms,” Grace explained. “People are more concerned with how they appear in the community than following health codes.”. . .

Read the whole article by Olgo Khazanapr in The AtlanticRural Kenyans are bringing their cows with them to cities. What could go wrong?, 7 Apr 2013.

Delia Grace leads ILRI research on food safety and zoonoses. She also leads a component of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health on Prevention and control of agriculture-associated diseases.

See a Factsheet on Urban Agriculture and Zoonoses in Nairobi, which provides key facts about urbanization, urban livestock keeping and the study in Dagoretti, where most residents are poor and many raise livestock inside city limits.

Read a previous ILRI blog on this study: Livestock in the city: New study of ‘farm animals’ raised in African cities yields surprising results, 15 Oct 2012.

Read a special supplement of the August 2012 issue of the journal Tropical Animal Health and Production on assessing and managing urban zoonoses and food-borne disease in Nairobi and Ibadan.

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