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

Follow CowTribe on Facebook or Twitter


Development concentration: When non-profit and for-profit efforts in agriculture converge

With recent talks about the impact of corporate concentration in the agro chemicals and seed industry sparked by the move of Monsanto to Buyer, I have been thinking about what the potential impacts of ‘development’ concentration could be for smallholders.

In case you did not hear, the seed company Monsanto was recently taken over by Bayer, a large pharmaceutical company. Monsanto is commonly associated with GMOs, but also environmental degradation and lack of business ethics in the way their products and services impact family farmers. One way Monsanto’s products, research and services plans to break the poor brand and reputation is to morph into a larger corporation with the hope to change the image of GMOs. This is discussed in a CBC The Current podcast here.

But, what do seeds and chemicals have to do with each other?

A lot of the seeds developed by Monsanto require pesticides. Monsanto has been trying to partner (as mentioned in this article at The Guardian here) firstly, and unsuccessfully with Sygenta. Dow and Dupont is another example of a company, which controls 40% of the corn and soybean market in the US. Related, ChemChina has also purchased Syngenta giving it the largest handle on the agricultural chemical market. The reality is that mega-mergers like this are happening because of low interest rates and cheap borrowing since the financial crisis.




What is the big deal about these corporate mergers? – It will negatively affect smallholders

Corporate consolidation of input agribusinesses also concentrate power, where they can lobby governments to shape the political economy. Government favouring large scale, industrial agriculture will disenfranchise the smallholder who prefers to save their seed, diversify farms and practice agro ecology.

Smallholders in northern Ghana where I am doing research have explained a reality that they haven’t told their government policy makers or civil society groups because of the lack of trust and perceived poor representation: They don’t want to use chemicals or hybrid seed (especially not GMO) that these corporations are providing or funding, whether foreign or locally bred. Smallholders claim that the chemicals make their physical health and soil sick and reduces the quality of their food.

These smallholders felt pressured to adopt chemical inputs and are now addicted to using them because of the lack of fertility in the soil and lack of alternative agro ecological practices and technology resulting from land and labour pressure. Shifting their open pollinated variety of seed to hybrid seed, where they can no longer save their seed each year makes them further dependent on corporations that their government is supporting. This is all something smallholders have been resisting for decades, but articulate to me that they have been left with little choice for alternatives.

The Second African Green Revolution

 There has been renewed interest in what has been perceived as the failure of the first Green Revolution in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, where farmers refused to adopt ‘modern’ technologies, such as improved seed and chemical inputs to intensify their farms. However, in northern Ghana the 1980s was the height of the agriculture sector where the country was producing enough food for self-sufficiency and export. I have been told that even smallholders owned assets, were producing on much larger tracts of land and used many best planting practices, such as dibbling and spacing. But with the onset of Structural Adjustment Progammes and the liberalization of agri-food markets (including cheap food importation), allowing for foreign investment and privatization of inputs that have been increasing prices and consolidating good quality land, the Second Green Revolution in Africa is perceived as even more problematic by smallholders then the first.


So, what are ‘development actors’ doing exactly? – Private sector growth

Something that became apparent to me on my last visit to Ghana and has sparked my reflection by the recent corporate mergers is the uniformity of agriculture development efforts. Governments, non-profits (like USAID’s Feed the Future programmes), and agribusinesses like Wienco (Masara N’Arziki) seemed to be doing the same thing in similar ways. They are striving to intensify smallholders through Green Revolution technology provision and market integration. As explained in this webinar here by IFPRI and Rockefeller Foundation on the importance of intensification of smallholders for food security. The Government of Ghana has recently established the national fertilizer subsidy program and set up a number of public seed research units (CSIR / SARI) supported by USAID to improve varieties. USAID focuses their efforts on the agriculture value chain connecting all types of agribusinesses to provide inputs to farmers. Wienco imports new kinds of technologies and provides them to farmers and does so in a viable business model.




I have been told the only difference between what is being done now to support farmers in comparison to the 1980s or the first Green Revolution is that there is a strong focus on market integration and that all efforts are led by the private sector, even if government is involved. This is communicated as an improvement, as development, but the costs of inputs are perceived to be too high and the loans impossible. Undoubtedly, there have been improvements, hunger rates have been decreasing as people have access to cheaply, imported food and storage has greatly developed with a lot less food wastage.

Although in theory sustainable intensification practices that account for a triple bottom line in agribusiness: environment, social justice and growth are proposed, this is not what is happening in practice in northern Ghana. Especially since, from what I have seen, none of these actors directly support agroecology. For example, by developing manure markets or subsidization as opposed to just chemical intensive ones. To be fair, the intercropping of soya is proposed as a nitrogen rich alternative that is more nutritious, but this does not actually address the inequitable power relations within an agri-food political economy by depending on an unregulated input market, cheap grain imports, labour migration and land consolidation. It kind of ignores the problem.

I have also been told by different staff at all three of these organizations that they find it difficult to work with smallholders. Smallholders often do not fulfill contracts or promises and ‘abuse’ their partnership by diverting inputs to other plots, lying to them about their yields and practices and sometimes go as far as burn their fields. I am told they are unreliable and reliability is the most important thing in a business model and value chain.


Artificial flavours imported that are cheaper and easier


Dawadawa – is a preferred spice, which comes from  a tree, but I have been told it is being dropped in favour of imported ones because of cost and ease with related negative health consequences

We need to ask why are smallholders resisting the Second Green Revolution (as with the first)?

Perhaps it is because the smallholders feel what is on offer (Green Revolution technology) is not useful and might actually create more harm than good to their environments –it’s not really that green (unless you count drought resistance?). This might also not meet their farming mental model, which differs than the business one. Perhaps it is because they do not like the terms of the agreements set by the unregulated private sector. Perhaps it is because they see the corruption of both the public and private sector through the catering to the business men and not the family farmer. At least this is what they are explaining to me.