Be part of the CowTribe- A veterinary services company in Ghana that uses mobile technology

First published here at the Africa Institute at Western University 

The ‘Uber’ of animal health

Animal production is critical to rural life in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the semi-arid drylands, such as northern Ghana where water scarcity, more erratic rainfall and a shortening growing season due to climate change make crop production acutely challenging (Codjoe et al., 2012). Animals often function like a family’s savings account- they are an emergency resource available to overcome climatic and market shocks, such as drought and food price hikes (Scoones, 1995). Animal production can also be essential for crops, as manure adds back essential lost soil nutrients, and fertilizes more sustainably than chemical alternatives. They are also often the only adequate source of protein in areas with high malnutrition and serve as important symbolic gestures and gifts in customary ceremonies (Kristjanson et al., 2001).

In Ghana, animal production is low and has remained stagnate for the past 10 years because of a lack of monitoring systems, high incidents of parasitic infections among other reasons (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 2016). Worryingly, in 2015, there was an outbreak of the avian flu (HPAI) killing 17.6% of all poultry in the country (CDC, 2016). There are also 28 livestock diseases in Ghana, which are killing millions of animals, and many are infecting people at alarming rates. For example, brucellosis is a zoonotic disease that when it spreads from cattle to women, can kill unborn babies. This is acutely affecting the Fulani in Ghana, a nomadic tribe commonly responsible for cattle grazing. Parasites, tics, tuberculosis are all tormenting school-aged children in particular. Fortunately, many of these diseases can be prevented with vaccines and this is recognized in Ghana’s national agri-food policy strategies. Unfortunately, the animal health systems, like clinics, drugs, tracking etc. are woefully underfunded and underserved by public, private and not for profit actors, and there are less than 100 veterinary technicians graduating each year in the country. Hence, in some communities, animal mortality rates are between 30-60% and could be reduced to 5% with simple vaccines and care.

Picture5Video filmed by Siera Vercillo in northern Ghana during the dry season

That is why I want to tell you about a new company in northern Ghana called CowTribe which was founded in 2016 to deliver life-saving vaccines, drugs, and emergency veterinary care in a reliable manner using mobile technology like databases, hotlines, SMS, and voicemails. Think of CowTribe as the Uber for animal health. Farmers subscribe to CowTribe’s services for only $5 via their mobile phone, they build a profile about their animals and CowTribe creates a health care schedule tailored to their needs, sending them reminders, information about disease outbreaks and risks. Farmers can also request for preventative assistance and emergency care, while home visits to administer drugs and conduct surgeries are coordinated.

CowTribe has already served 29,000 farmers in 119 communities in the Northern and Upper East Regions of Ghana. For 2018, their major partnerships are with the Cattle Farmers Association where they plan to directly provide animal health services to 8,910 farmers (and an expected 1 million farmers in upcoming years), as well as the Presbyterian Agriculture Station in Garu, Upper East Region to send multimedia to 4000 farmers.

Picture4CowTribe’s services

There are a few reasons why I am proud of CowTribe and their services. CowTribe is,

Delivering essential animal health services that are woefully underfunded

According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), globally 30% of farm animals die due to preventative outbreaks and diseases by using simple vaccines. For every US$1 spent on a vaccine, more than $US100 is saved in treatment and potential mortality. Many farmers cannot adequately monitor their animal’s health, nor do they know what to do when their animal is sick or who to call to figure it out. In 2011-2012, I worked with overburdened veterinarian extension officers at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture who could not provide sufficient care to the thousands of farmers they were responsible for. CowTribe can fill in a much-needed service gap while using new communication technology to reach more farmers.

Reaching the most vulnerable farmers and respecting their needs

I had the opportunity to advise CowTribe while conducting my doctoral research in 2016-2017 on how to design tailored made care for farmers in remote communities who tend to be left behind by the public and private agriculture sectors. Using participatory research, we asked farmers important questions about their animals, their barriers to veterinary care and what they are willing to pay for. CowTribe reaches farmers in remote communities for their services, which most companies in Ghana say they do, but do not do so in actuality. Agribusiness, NGO, and government programs tend to work with farmers close to urban areas, middlemen, or educated, business elite and not the smallholders in remote areas that CowTribe works with.

Supporting women leaders and creating employment for youth

The co-founders of CowTribe, Peter Awin, and Alima Bawah are Ghanaians who have close relationships with farmers and the rural communities where they come from. Many of their staff are recent graduates who are looking for work opportunities in a context where youth unemployment is among the highest in the world (at 60%) and people are abandoning rural areas at unprecedented rates. I have introduced CowTribe to a number of recent graduates from the Animal Health and Production College in Ghana who are building their network of farmers and need financial support mentorship to launch their careers. This is a Ghanaian youth-led initiative intended to build a prosperous future for rural areas and who have not given up on agriculture.

I began working with CowTribe as a Veterinary Officer last year after I completed my education in 2016. My work is to vaccinate and deworm animals for farmers and give them information to register with the company using the mobile app. I help the farmers take details about the flock size, work with them to create a schedule for the treatment and prophylaxis and provide further extension. I am delighted to be pioneering CowTribe and that we are recognized internationally. As a young man, I had trouble starting, and had many problems and issues. I am very hardworking and ready to learn new things which was appreciated by the company. -Abdul Latif Sulemana

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Ghana’s new agriculture policy is leaving behind its smallholders

In a recent meeting at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, we were presented with the designated Minister, Dr. Owusu Afriyie Akoto’s plans for what the new government is going to offer its farmers: Planting for Food and Jobs, a Campaign for Rapid Growth.

The plan makes grand claims to promote growth in food production and create 750,000 new jobs through a focus on five areas: seed, fertilizer, extension services, marketing and e-fertilizer. The growth will come from five main food crops maize, rice, soybean, sorghum and vegetables and in the north of the country where I work, the focus will be entirely on the first three: maize, rice and soy. Notably, yam, millet, livestock and other animals are not included, as well as other natural resources like shea.


Women’s shea production and processing group, Ghana


African yam mounds

The campaigns focus on getting every Ghanaian to grow food for the country is reminiscent of the 1970s Operation Feed Yourself policy that focused on Green Revolution development approaches only without the focus on mechanization and a renewed emphasis on seed and fertilizer. A novel feature is that local district assemblies will have a main coordination role alongside the local Ministry of Food and Agriculture units. We will wait to see what support to strengthening local government systems will be provided beyond hiring new extension staff proposed. The National Buffer Stock (NAFCO) will be reinvested in, operating as the market, storage and processing option. We also wait to see if support for operations is budgeted for and not just infrastructure maintenance.

Most worryingly is that the government is only registering ‘lead farmers’ those who have 10 acres or more of one of the targeted crops. In a place where virtually all farmers are smallholders who grow many crops to meet a diverse diet and reduce risk, government extension have expressed concerns about who the government is targeting and how their services will shift. As one extension staff said in the meeting, “I bet we won’t even get up to 100 farmers registered for the entire district”. Since farmers are registered for where they are farming and not where they live, it is likely that most of the farmers registered will not be those in the rural communities, but business men from the city or government staff who have the capital to rent and prepare land, hire labour and access inputs on a medium scale. Moreover, it is likely that women (especially those who do not inherit land) and the ‘teeming youth’ will not have the ten acres needed, leaving them behind.


The extension staff I work with perceive their jobs to be about developing smallholder livelihoods and rural communities and in the meeting, they began strategizing about how they could register them so they are included. One suggestion was through the registration of groups of smallholders (farming based organizations), like cooperatives where they could aggregate land. But, no, individuals are only allowed. Others suggested registering smallholders with plots next to each other, but under one name. I can’t help but think about the deep mistrust between smallholders and government and the potential community conflict that could arise because smallholders’ land, rented tractors and hired labour are already being monopolized by these business men who can afford to pay more at the necessary time. Now the government is supporting them, not the smallholders.


This campaign for rapid growth is worrying because where there is rapid growth, there tends to be rapid inequality and rapid environmental degradation. There seems to be a mismatch between what the government, NGOs and the private sector sees as the future of agriculture in Ghana and what smallholders themselves want. Chemical fertilizer for example is being widely adopted by smallholders, and government (with pressure from farmer lobbyists) have subsidized the cost from around 100 GH cedis to 85 GH cedis per 45 kg bag to reduce costs. However, smallholders have issued concerns to me about the impact this fertilizer usage has on soil health and the quality of food produced. Those both near and far away from town are reluctantly adopting fertilizer because of desperation and they perceive themselves as being addicted to these expensive chemicals. The improved, shorter varieties of seed provided produce more in times of erratic rainfall, but the quality of produce and ability to withstand drought is also a problem perceived by smallholders. We will also wait to see what kinds of seeds are encouraged in the future and perhaps the renewal of hybrids and other non-open pollinated varieties smallholders are not willing to adopt will make its way back in the name of growth. Moreover, the focus on e-extension and e-fertilizer was tried and failed last year because of the technical and literacy problems across the country. We await to see what new innovations are provided to combat this.


After all, it is the medium scale farmer who is willing to invest and depend on these inputs year after year to generate surplus, moving on when the soil is dead, but not the smallholder who needs to think about sustaining her subsistence and existence first – food quality, diversification and environmental sustainability.


Smallholder farmers in Ghana

A Day in the Life of a District Dweller

I wake up 6 AM, shake my vivid dreams away and recognize the now common sight of my mosquito net and remember that somehow, someway I have ended up in West Africa. I unlock my room and even in the hall feel the seemingly cold breeze from the Harmattan weather – cool, dusty winds in the mornings with a temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius.

My Backyard

I immediately put on my exercise clothes and sweater for fear of catching the cataah (spelling uncertain) or common cold, which everyone seems to get around this time of year – not too unlike December in Canada. 15-20 degrees is actually too cold for me so I have to make sure I cover myself. I open all the windows, unlock the doors and head outside to greet my neighbours goods morning:

“Desba” – Good morning or how is the morning?
“naaaa” – response or fine
“Agbirre” – how was your sleep?
“Gombienne” – fine
“To” – ok

They have already begun sweeping the animal droppings, dust and other debris away that has wound itself around their house during the night. I walk down the path to the public latrines across from the Primary and Junior High School and unlock the one that belongs to me – yes, I get my own latrine.

There is a goat pen behind my backyard. The people take very good care of the animals and let them roam free in the day

I then run around the football pitch located behind the school until I am satisfied and greet all the school children staring at the white girl with the Manchester United shorts who is exercising like a footballer before they begin class. Walking back to my house I continue to greet people good morning and discuss their children and work. When I arrive I finish sweeping up and prepare breakfast. By this time my roommate Moses has waken. I know because he is either chatting loudly on the phone or listening to the morning news via his mobile – some new political pitch or scandal. Moses is a National Service Volunteer who works at the Agriculture Vetnary College laboratory down the road from the building I work at. He is interested in pharmaceutical biotechnology and hopes to attend a graduate program in ‘my part of the world’ someday.

I wash my clothes by hand at least once a week

For breakfast I use my gas cooker to fry two eggs with onions and some bread with raspberry jelly that I bought from the ‘white people’ store in the ‘city’ of Tamale. Sometimes I will settle for extremely, special pasteurised yogurt and cream cheese not found in the village. If I had not made lunch the night before (leftovers from dinner) I will prepare a tuna or egg sandwich with some type of vegetable (tomato, carrot, green pepe, garden eggs or apple). I do not have a fridge so all the goods I buy have to survive in the heat of the kitchen, although the mornings are cool now so life is good.

My kitchen

I also have a French press coffee maker and coffee grinds from Cost Rica, courtesy of Father Dom who donated it to me before leaving for Canada a week ago (miss you!). I get to have actual coffee with some sugar most mornings until I run out of coffee as they do not sell it here or in the city.

Where I bathe every morning, my bucket, cup and soap

I then go back inside to the hall where my desk is, turn on my computer and begin to follow the News stories of the day. What I feel like is my only real connection to anything outside the Northern Region of Ghana. Finishing up breakfast, I take two biggish bowls, fill them up with water from the Polytank in my backyard and wash the dishes. I then fill my bucket with some small water, bathe and brush my teeth in an empty concrete room outside in the backyard. What I wear to work is dependent on what I have to do that day, be it go to the field or fulfill administrative duties behind the desk. I can also choose to walk 10 minutes to work or take the motorcycle sitting in my living room that my roommate so graciously puts back in the house every night since I cannot lift it up the two steps.

View from the front door of the hallway

I am first to arrive at the office at 9:30AM, and I spend time chatting with the Watchmen and cleaners who have begun their day much earlier than mine. They unlock my office, which happens to be the ‘Extension office’ where I share a room with the Deputy – Supervisor of Extension of crops and also the Director’s right hand man. I begin to fulfill the plan of the day, which could be to prepare to go into the field, prepare for a workshop I will host, write reports and other administrative duties or visit a few farmers. As I do this, it is necessary to greet the staff who arrive and ask about their evening away from the office. How was your sleep? How is the family? How is your body? Are you feeling healthy? Is the 40 degree Celsius heat in the middle of the afternoon paining you? Then we complain about the dryness of our skin and scratchy throats from the extreme range in temperatures of the Harmattan weather. One of the staff will usually follow me or I follow them to a room to chit chat and I also try and spend time speaking to the Director, who I get along with well.

One of the Watchmen holding my favourite type of meat – Guinea Fowel

There are a few things I am pursuing at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture District office in Savelugu-Nanton district.

1.Implement the Agriculture as a Business (AAB) Program jointly created by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) and EWB. AAB is a farmer group strengthening tool that encourages rural groups to take on small projects in agribusiness. It also builds the advisory capacity of Agriculture Extension Agents (AEA) to progress their skills in teaching and providing information to farmers. Working towards developing the knowledge, skills, attitudes and approaches to help staff perform better in the field whether on time management, innovation, facilitation, or market-oriented approaches is what I more generally work on. I am adjusting the tool so we can market and prepare it for private based extension services who have expressed interest in it. The program is heavily reliant on farmer meetings, which means I am in the field significantly more to do one-on-one coaching with the AEAs and evaluation of program effectiveness with farmers.

Rice piled up at the office

2.This one-on-one interaction with staff and farmers also provides me with a unique opportunity to pursue the favourite part of my job – testing innovations. I am working with AEAs, their Supervisors and the Director to identify existing technologies that could be further or newly invested in. More importantly, how we can prototype one or many of the identified ideas related to increasing the technology adoption rates of farmers. Some of those ideas include, peer-peer learning for farmer behaviour change, coordination, radio program on extension and a few others.

This is the time for harvesting – they are shelling maize

3.Lastly, and what I think most importantly, I am working towards utilizing district level knowledge (farmer perspectives), challenges, and needs to develop policy reports for advocacy to national level government. District level realities are often missed out in the design of projects and procedures and because decision making is extremely top-down, lobbying those district realties to regional and national level MOFA, other NGOs and projects is important influence work.

My work day normally ends between 4:00pm and 6:00pm where I either decide to walk to the taxi round where there are women selling small items: phone credit, bread, tomatoes, sugar or drive to the district capitol, Savelugu (about 15 minute drive on a paved road) to buy more complicated things.

Back home Moses is preparing food and I am greeted by all the neighbourhood children who take pride in helping with my bags and telling me about their day. I prepare for dinner that evening, either pasta or rice with vegetables to ensure a balanced diet. Multi vitamins, probiotics and anti-malarial drugs have saved me a bit. By 6:00pm the world is dark and Moses and I will share some tea and chat about the day: Canada-Ghana relations, the news or whatever else happens to be bothering us. Sometimes friends from work like Felicity or other people from different communities like Jaamal and Ganiwu will drop by and visit.

At 8:30PM I am exhausted from the day and decide to clean the kitchen, and prepare my bathwater. Fill the bucket half with water and heat small water in the kettle. It is just too cold for cold bucket bathes in the evening these days. Settle in my bed, under the net again to have a phone conversation with a fellow EWBer, family member in Canada or the boyfriend.

My bedroom

That is an average day in my life here in Ghana and I am so pleased that it is mine!