ILRI geneticist wins prestigious ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’ award for innovative way to improve livestock breeding services in poor countries

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) visit to project sites, June 2011

Fidalis Mujibi, a geneticist at ILRI, collecting information from a smallholder livestock farmer in Busia, Kenya. Mujibi is one of the winners of the 2013 ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’ award for an idea to improve livestock breeding services (photo credit: BMGF/Lee Klejtnot).

Fidalis Mujibi, a Kenyan geneticist working with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, is one of the winners of the 2013 USD10,000 ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’, announced in July.

The award is given each year by the American National Science Foundation and is part of the ‘Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program, which is co-funded by the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This year, the award recognized 13 innovators amongst many applicants ranging from scientists, professors and graduate students from around the world. The winning challenges focused on ideas of solving pressing and largely ignored issues affecting smallholder farming in developing countries.

Mujibi received the award together with American scientist and beef reproductive management specialist George Perry, from South Dakota State University. Their idea is to eliminate the need for liquid nitrogen in livestock artificial insemination services in developing countries.

Liquid nitrogen is needed to preserve the semen used to inseminate dairy cows artificially, but it’s expensive and raises the costs of artificial insemination services for poor farmers in developing countries. Most of those providing artificial insemination services are unable to maintain a steady supply of liquid nitrogen in their tanks, leading to cases of dead semen being used for insemination. This in turn necessitates many repeated insemination procedures, which not only are unduly expensive but also result in long calving intervals, reducing the lifetime productivity of cows.

‘Our idea focuses on alternatives that could eliminate the “cold-chain” from the artificial insemination delivery process’, says Mujibi. ‘We’re exploring ways of delivering semen to remote villages in Africa where there is no infrastructure to support liquid nitrogen systems, so that farmers can access the germplasm they need easily.’

‘I want to explore new ways of helping Africa’s smallholder farmers to improve their livestock production through new germplasm delivery and novel reproductive tools. This will help them better cope with pressures from climate change and reduced farmland,’ says Mujibi.

Mujibi and Perry are preparing a full proposal they will submit to the American National Science Foundation in September.

‘The BREAD challenges range from the global to the local and across diverse disciplines’, said John Wingfield, assistant director for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation. ‘What they have in common is that they represent topics that have not had the attention or funding to prompt a solution. Solving any of these challenges would have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of smallholder farmers around the globe.’

Read more information about the BREAD award:

Find out more about ILRI’s work in livestock genetics


Improving cattle genetics with in vitro embryo production technology

Livestock scientists from ILRI and the Clinical Studies Department of the University of Nairobi (UON) recently succeeded in breeding Kenya’s first test-tube calf using a technique called in vitro embryo production (IVEP). IVEP makes it possible to rapidly multiply and breed genetically superior cattle within a short generation interval.
Why is this important?
For several reasons. First, livestock is the fastest growing sub-sector in the world, as increasing trends of 114% in demand for meat and 133% for milk attest. To improve on food security, it is essential to double livestock production in the developing world by 2020. IVEP is clearly one of the most efficient ways to accomplish this.

Second, let’s consider the problem of environmental impact. Doubling livestock production through traditional breeding techniques increases pressure on natural resources—water, land and biodiversity. So the need for enhanced efficiency without degrading natural resources is urgent. Again, IVEP, which requires only laboratory equipment in the production process, comes to the rescue.

Third, there is the biodiversity issue. Matching genotypes to environment is crucial. Scientists need to take several factors into consideration—among them adaptation, tolerance for disease, tolerance for new environments and alignment to market development. Although plenty of genetic diversity exists, thus far we’ve done little with it. Once more, IVEP could be the answer.

Fourth, IVEP has significant commercial potential because farmers can rent their best cows as donors and their lower-quality cows as surrogates.

Most importantly, we need to look closely at the constraints faced by small-scale livestock keepers.

  • Cattle genotypes and production environments, as often as not, do not match. Result:  low productivity.
  • Heifer replacement programs take a long time and are rarely done properly. Result: supply is low, prices are high.
  • Sex ratios are often disadvantageous. Result: too many males and high production costs.
  • The commercial relevance of many indigenous breeds is not optimised. Result: farmers incur unsupportable losses.
  • Programs for breed conservation and preservation are often improper. Result: some breeds are threatened by extinction and no gene pool for replacement exists.

IVEP does not—and should not—completely replace traditional reproductive technologies such as conventional embryo transfer (ET) and artificial insemination. Each of these techniques has its place, and each of them utilizes tissues, embryos and semen for improvement and reconstruction of cattle breeds. The difference is that while the traditional ET techniques involve more animals and are wholly done in the field, IVEP is undertaken in the lab and involves fewer surrogate animals in the field. IVEP eliminates the tedious steps of synchronizing donor cows.

Specifically, IVEP technology as a breeding tool has the distinct advantage of maximizing utilization of appropriate dam and sire genotypes by:

  • increasing efficiency of multiplication in breeding;
  • permitting  determination of sex of the offspring; and
  • permitting pre-testing of actual fertility status of the bull.

Thus, while natural mating or artificial insemination are necessarily slow and inefficient, producing only 10-15 offspring per life span of a cow …

…IVEP can produce up to 300 offspring per life span.

The SIFET Project: a successful IVEP program
The Sexed semen in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer (SIFET) project was designed to exploit and promote the potential of applying IVEP reproductive technique to:

  • develop, multiply and disseminate female crossbreeds that appropriately match with production environment;
  • provide a system to preserve top bovine genotypes in cases of accidental culling in a recycle-like scheme (slaughterhouse collection); and
  • identify, multiply and conserve selected superior desirable breed traits.

The project involved collecting ovaries from slaughter houses or picking ovum from live cows. When the genetic material is brought to the lab, oocytes with high developmental competence are selected and morphological evaluation done. Once the ideal oocytes are identified, they are matured in vitro for 22-24 hours. The subsequent in vitro fertilization process is conducted for a period of 18-22 hours with a high sperm concentration. The fertilization itself requires removal of seminal plasma and extenders, separation of motile sperms from dead ones and induction of sperm capacitation. Once the embryos are formed, they are cultured in the lab for 7 days and then transferred to surrogates.

A conception rate of about 40% has been achieved, with calves born without abnormalities.


  1. IVEP technology is feasible in Kenya.
  2. Commercialization of the process should be facilitated as soon as supportive policies and proper legal/regulatory frameworks are in place

Poor field heat detections leading to poor uterine synchrony and lower conceptions are concerns, as is the high genotype variability characteristic of animals brought to slaughterhouses.

Way forward and prospects
Looking ahead, the collaborating scientists anticipate bringing ovum pick-up (OPU) and cryopreservation into the picture as well as capacity building.

Clearly, such programs can help match breeds to appropriate production systems to ensure sound breeding programs. Where and when necessary, new breeds can be introduced within a relatively short period of time. Above all, embryos are far easier to transport across continents than live animals.

Through IVEP technology and well-planned crossbreeding programs such as SIFET that integrate the use of indigenous cows as donors and surrogates while using semen from appropriate (more productive and reasonably adapted) dairy breeds such as Jerseys, F1 heifers suited to the smallholder farmers’ conditions can be produced.

Niche markets for the technology and its F1 products should be further explored and exploited, notably with regard to the potential of forestalling the threat to key wildlife species.

Funding for the project was made available by Heifer Project International. UON provided the technical team and recipient animals. Administration and laboratory facilities were provided by ILRI. The cooperation of the abattoirs (the source of ovaries) and the animal owners are gratefully acknowledged. The capacity building program through a joint CNPq grant for the Embrapa-UON-ILRI partnership, as well as support from Dr Luiz Carmago and Dr Joao Viana of Embrapa, are highly appreciated.

The collaborating scientists are Mwai Okeyo, Henry Mutembei and Bridgit Syombua from ILRI; and  Erastus Mutiga, Victor Tsuma and Henry Mutembei from Clinical Studies, UON.

For more information, contact Dr Okeyo Mwai, Animal Geneticist/Breeder, Biotechnology Theme, ILRI, at

The future looks good: With the right support, policies and investment

Iain Wright, ILRI's regional representative for Asia gives his views on the livestock sector in India in an article published in the Jan-Veterinary Today (India).

India, Andhra Pradesh, Ramchandrapuram villageThe value of livestock is rising
Publication of Veterinary Today marks a milestone in development of the livestock sector in India – a sector that until now has received less prominence than it deserves. Livestock production has a diverse as well as critical role to play in food and nutritional security, rural employment, development and economic growth. Perhaps even more than cropping agriculture, the focus of most developing-country agricultural strategies, it can reduce poverty for millions of people in India. Here on the sub-continent, livestock are more equitably distributed among the poor than land and most of poor people who own no land depend on livestock to some extent for their livelihoods, as do millions of farmers who own small plots of land and nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists who make use of common rangelands.
Although the share of agriculture in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 37.9% in 1980/81 to 19.7% in 2005/06, and is expected to continue to fall as the country’s economic development progresses, the share of the value of livestock in agricultural GDP has been rising steadily from about 16% in the early 1970s to 26.6% in 2006/07.

But government expenditure is falling
Despite its growing importance, government expenditure on livestock as a proportion of total spending on agriculture has generally been falling for the past 40 years (although it did increase during the Tenth Five-Year Plan, 2002–07). Nevertheless, as a percentage of the value of output, public expenditure has fallen over the past 15 years from about 3.5% to just over 2%.

Despite this fall in public expenditure, the livestock sector is growing rapidly at 4.3% per year, fuelled by growing demand for milk, meat and eggs. In India as in other developing countries, demand for livestock products increases as incomes rise and people replace a proportion of the staple foods in their diet with higher value foods (livestock products, fruit, vegetables, fish etc.). Interestingly, although we tend to associate these changes with urban centres, the same change is happening in rural areas as well – in any small town or village in India and you will see a booming trade in milk and other livestock products. 

The phenomenal growth in the dairy and poultry industries is well recognized, but the increasing demand for livestock products does not stop at milk, poultry meat and eggs. Demand for mutton and pork is growing too. For example, research by ILRI in India’s northeastern States shows that the increased demand for pork has pushed prices up by about 20% in real terms in the past 5 to 6 years – good news for the many smallholders who keep a few pigs in their backyards. The opportunities for commercial production of goat meat are good in many areas of India, but so far little attention has been paid to commercialization of small ruminant production.

So the future looks good, with a rising demand in the domestic markets and opportunities for export as well. India is now exporting about US$600 million of buffalo meat to countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. But there are technical, institutional and policy constraints threatening the livestock sector achieving its potential.

India, Andhra Pradesh, Ramchandrapuram villageFocus needs to shift to productivity per animal
A large part of the increase in output from livestock in the past has come from increasing animal numbers. This is not sustainable in the long run and the focus now needs to shift to increasing productivity per animal, which will require better feeding, breeding and veterinary care. Providing enough feed is a challenge. Almost 50% of this country’s feed supply to ruminant animals comes from crop residues (paddy straw, wheat busa, sorghum stover, and other remains after harvesting), with green fodder in scarce supply, India’s grazing areas rapidly shrinking and few farmers outside the poultry sector able to give their farm animals concentrate feeds. Crop residues are relatively poor in nutrients but there is a big range between varieties. The digestibility of different varieties by animal stock, for example, ranges from 36 to 52% in Kharif sorghum and 43 to 60% in Rabi sorghum stover. Research trials have shown that farmers who switched from poor- to high-quality stover increased their buffalo milk yields by about one litre per day. Those who substituted low-quality for high-quality groundnut haulm produced an extra half litre of milk per buffalo per day.

For India to achieve high levels of livestock production, however, the country’s livestock will need more than the wastes of crop production. We need to develop other cost-effective feed supplements that provide better nutrition for selected animals at key times in their production cycle.

The future looks good with the right supportHolistic approach to animal health needed
Genetically improved livestock will be important in this livestock development work. Most of India’s past efforts have focused on developing cross-breeding schemes, with some notable successes, but artificial insemination (AI) services still reach only about 10% of India’s dairy producers. While cross-breeding can increase milk yields, we also need to explore programmes for improving the country’s existing native breeds, which have evolved adaptive traits suited to local conditions. And we have yet to accurately assess the value of lost production due to animal diseases, which has been estimated at 10% of the value of the output of the livestock sector but could easily be twice that. Animal health care needs to cover both preventive and curative measures. While programmes to control foot-and-mouth disease are being implemented by the Government of India in selected districts and will be extended in a planned manner to other parts of the country, other diseases continue to take their toll. For example, mastitis probably costs the dairy industry Rs70 billion every year in lost production.

India, Andhra Pradesh, Burgaiah Thanda villageSupport services desperately needed
India’s agricultural extension and support services have traditionally been weaker in the livestock sector than those in the crop sector; if India is to realize a flourishing livestock sector, it will have to make available to farmers support services, including animal health, breeding and feeding as well as credit. These should be provided by the private sector as well as the government, especially in the country’s high-potential areas. Studies show that farmers are willing and able to pay for good-quality services; what’s missing are enabling and supportive environments provided by the government that will allow the private-sector to operate. By encouraging the private sector, government can then use its scarce resources to target more marginal areas and communities, which are less attractive to private companies. Even here, government does not have to be the front-line service provider: it can provide funding while non-governmental organisations or even the private sector actually provide the services in innovative public-private partnerships. Key  to successful extension is provision of advice and services in an integrated manner— complete integrated packages that deliver information on breeding, feeding and health coupled with business support services. Such integration needs staff with a comprehensive understanding of livestock and its role in farming systems and this in turn has implications for the way in which professionals are educated and trained.

India, Andhra Pradesh, PatancheruLivestock’s unrealized potential needs to be exploited
Given the size of India’s livestock sector, it is surprising that India has no overall livestock policy. I am encouraged that the National Livestock Policy is in the final stages of development and look forward to its launch. This policy will be important to give direction to the livestock sector and to provide the context within which programmes can be developed and implemented. But since livestock is a State matter, it will be important for State Governments to consider whether they too should develop livestock policies. Chhattisgargh and Orissa have led the way in this respect, with Madhya Pradesh also developing a policy and the policy in Sikkim yet to receive cabinet approval.
India’s livestock industry has come a long way in recent years. There remains, however, a lot of unrealized potential in this sector. There is no simple way of achieving this – the country is too large and too diverse for a simple ‘one-size fits all formula’. The requirements of a large dairy farmer in Punjab are a world away from the needs of a tribal household in a remote part of Madhya Pradesh with a few chickens and goats. Nevertheless, with the right support, policies and investment, each of these farming households can develop and flourish.


This article appeared in Veterinary Today Volume 1, Issue 2 (Jan-Feb 2009) published in India. It has been adapted for the web and reprinted with permission from Veterinary Today.


Dr Iain A Wright
ILRI’s Regional Representative in Asia
CG Centres' Block B, National Agricultural Science Centre
Dev Prakash Shastri Marg
New Delhi 110012
Iain Wright
ILRI’s regional representative in Asia