Gender-Based Research Project Provides African Women Farmers with Access to Livestock Vaccines

The SheVax+ project, headed by an associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, aimed to close the gender gap and increase access to livestock vaccines for women smallholder livestock farmers in rural areas of East Africa

Before they had access to livestock vaccines, many women in rural parts of Africa who manage livestock had to resort to traditional medicines when their animals got sick, or suffer loss of their animals.

“I used aloe vera and tobacco,” recalled one woman interviewed for the video below, as she held up an aloe plant that she used as medicine.

She’s one of about 400 million women globally who keep livestock as a source of income. Each year, millions of women suffer financial losses when livestock diseases infect their animals. Yet some of these diseases, such as Newcastle disease (NCD) in chickens and Rift Valley Fever (RVF) in goats, sheep, and cows, are preventable with vaccines.

The problem, according to Hellen Amuguni, VG11, associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, has to do with gender disparities  and limited access to animal health information and livestock vaccines. Access to veterinary vaccines has been shown to improve both human and animal health through more productive livestock, better livelihoods for women, and improved well-being and food security for their families. But in some countries, cultural gender roles and power dynamics mean that women are less likely than men to get access to vaccines.

Amuguni is one of the principal investigators of the SheVax+ action research project, “Hearing Their Voices, Action Research to Support Women’s Agency and Empowerment in Livestock Vaccine Distribution, Delivery, and Use,” which aims to empower African women smallholder livestock farmers and help them benefit from livestock vaccines as entrepreneurs and livestock owners. The SheVax+ project spans Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, where 75% to 90% of small-scale poultry farmers are women, whose livestock is frequently decimated by NCD and RVF.

SheVax+ represents a collaboration between Tufts University and Africa One Health University Network (AFROHUN) together with their implementing institutions: Makerere University, University of Nairobi, and University of Rwanda. It’s funded by the Livestock Vaccine Innovation Fund, a partnership between Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Global Affairs Canada, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2019, the action research project will end in July 2023, after the annual Women Deliver Conference in Rwanda.

“We accomplished a lot, and it has been a very transformative project,” said Amuguni. “One of our biggest focuses was empowering rural women and creating a group of allies, who can provide support to ensure the project is sustainable. We worked with the local women and community leaders and moved the project into their hands in such a way that even when we are leaving, the project is not ending. We created a system and a network including government regulators, vaccine distributors, veterinarians, and agrovet owners who will support our women smallholder farmers and animal health service providers (AHSPs) going forward.”

Building from the Ground Up

Amuguni and her fellow co-principal investigators—Winnie Bikaako of the Africa One Health University Network, Catherine Kaingu from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Anthony Mugisha of Makerere University in Uganda, and Denis Majyambere of the University of Rwanda—faced several challenges. In rural parts of these countries, there is a general lack of access to information about animal health and vaccinations and a serious shortage of AHSPs. For example, in parts of Machakos County in Kenya, there is one veterinarian providing services for 30,000 households—far below the Kenya-required recommendation of 1:3,000. There is also a lack of a reliable source of electricity, which meant no guaranteed refrigeration for vaccines that require cold storage.

The investigators started the project by assessing the vaccine value chain (VVC) and identifying entry points along the VVC in which women could contribute to and benefit from livestock vaccines. The researchers also assessed the state of women’s empowerment and tested models to empower women farmers along the VVC and enhance their participation in livestock vaccine distribution and use.

They trained 29 women across the three countries as AHSPs and equipped them with vaccines to provide vaccination and animal health-related services to about 140,000 livestock-keeping households. And in rural parts of Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda without reliable sources of electricity, they distributed 33 solar-based refrigerators that store vaccines at the necessary temperature and enhance women’s access to livestock vaccines. The team trained more than 3,000 rural women in animal health and livestock management, and distributed 1,200 vaccination calendars containing information in English, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda for women who keep livestock as a source of income on where to access vaccines and veterinary services. Using comic books, animated videos, locally created zines, and policy briefs, the team provided information on animal health to rural women and reached policy makers.

In the end line analysis, 80% of the women smallholder livestock farmers in the SheVax communities have been able to vaccinate their chickens against NCD. More than 70% of rural communities can now access AHSPs. There is an increase in access to goat vaccines from less than 10% to more than 50%. The ratio of service providers has been reduced from 1:30,000 to 1:6,000. SheVax has been able to elevate the AHSPs into entrepreneurs, making an income between $50 to $300 dollars a month.

The research team also deployed gender experts to have conversations with men and women in the communities about gender division of labor, access and control over resources, and power dynamics in households to change beliefs and behaviors affecting women’s decision-making regarding vaccine use, access to training, and livestock ownership.

“What I think is very atypical and special about SheVax+ is that instead of having a vaccine researcher or an immunologist lead the research, we decided to have gender specialists lead the research. It was an innovative idea to deploy experts who focus on gender for use in the veterinary sector, and in our case, to focus on the delivery of vaccines through women's empowerment,” said Renee Larocque, program leader of the animal health team at the IDRC. “Without this approach, we would've never gotten the results that we saw. This project is a really great success, and it’s a model that has a lot of potential to be scaled up.”

A Sustainable Future

The researchers envision progress will continue even after the project ends. To accomplish this, they identified critical collaborators in the livestock vaccine chain already on the ground in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda—such as government regulators, veterinary officers, vaccine manufacturers—and worked with them to integrate gender and women’s participation into their training materials.  

Another critical collaborator on the ground was the population of men in the community. About 40 male “role models” were deputized to help raise awareness around cultural and traditional stereotypes and advocate for women’s roles in livestock vaccination.

“Our project is not just a vaccine project, it's a gender transformative vaccine project, and it looks at both the technical/logistical issue of helping women access vaccines, as well as the social/cultural issues that stop women from taking their role in the vaccine value chain,” said Amuguni. “We brought in critical allies from the beginning, which allowed us to build those relationships for when they took ownership of this, and they became allies for our women smallholder farmers.”

“Before the SheVax+ intervention, I was more into disease treatment and giving advice to farmers. However, since the trainings, exposure from big agrovet shops, and the solar fridge I got from SheVax+, I am now also involved in vaccination of local poultry and goats. I opened my own agrovet shop in Mateete, Uganda, and many farmers are buying vaccines from me. My income has greatly improved."

Rebecca Bayiga, a single mother and private animal health service provider in Mateete, Uganda, who holds a diploma in animal production and management from Bukalasa Agricultural College

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