Dr. David Kios: Spearheading Kenya’s drive to increase Ai technology adoption among livestock farmers

KAGRC produces superior animal genetics to drive optimal animal productivity in Kenya and beyond

75 years after Artificial Insemination (AI) technology was first introduced in Kenya, adoption of the practice is yet to become widespread. A number of barriers ranging from costs, lack of infrastructure, ignorance, and social cultural issues are keeping adoption rates below 40%. To continue competing favorably with other livestock producers in the continent, Kenya wants to raise adoption rates to at least 80%. The responsibility to achieving that been bestowed upon the Kenya Animal Genetics Resource Center (KAGRC) currently under the captainship of Dr. David Kios.

A decades-old practice kept secret from many farmers

Artificial insemination (AI), a process of collecting sperm cells from a male animal and manually depositing them into the reproductive tract of a female, has been around for more than a century. In Kenya, the practice dates back to pre-colonial times when elite dairy farming was the preserve of white settler farmers.  “When European farmers came to Kenya, they realized there were issues of livestock diseases especially breeding diseases that are transmitted during normal mating and they realized how difficult it is to have a bull breeding many cows because of disease, so they decided to use AI,” Dr. Kios narrates.

The demand for AI services led to the formation of the Central Artificial Insemination Station (CAIS) in 1946. The center initially had only 4 bulls mainly Friesian, Jersey and Guernsey, and these were deemed adequate as the center only served white farmers. With independence, the center’s mandate was expanded to include all farmers in the country, requiring more bulls to be brought in to meet demand. A department within the Ministry of Agriculture called Kenya National AI Service was also created to do artificial inseminations, mainly in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya where farmers had taken in exotic and improved breeds.

A new name to reflect expanded mandate

In order to improve on its functions, CAIS was in 2011 transformed into a state corporation known as Kenya Animal Genetic Resources Centre and given a broader mandate. As KAGRC, the center will not just produce semen but also conserve animal genetic materials (semen embryo, tissues and live animals) and rear breeding sires for provision of high-quality disease-free semen to meet the national demand and for export. The corporation was also mandated to provide training in animal resource conservation procedures as well as serve as a reference laboratory for certification, testing of semen, embryos and related livestock production materials.

As KAGRC, the institution has been able to increase its number of bulls to 130 and is now able to produce up to 1.1 million doses of semen every year, according to Dr. Kios.

Partnership with private sector to drive up AI adoption

Partnership with the private sector dates back to the 1990’s when structural adjustments swooped forcing the government to privatize AI services. The partnerships have however rapidly expanded under KAGRC. “We now have over 70 Agents distributed all over the country and their business is to take semen closer to the farmer,” Dr. Kios says. The inseminators buy semen from the Agents supplied by KAGRC so that at any given time, a farmer will always be having access to insemination services.

Working with the private sector has also had its downsides, one of them being unregulated prices for AI service. KAGRC semen goes for KSh 200 (US$1.76) per straw but the price the farmer pays for the service can go as high as Ksh 2,000 (US$17.6).  “The AI Technicians sell the semen at a price of their choice although we give them guidelines to sell the semen to the farmers at between KSh 500 (US$4.40) and KSh 1,000 (US$8.80).  Sometimes they even charge up to KSh 2,000 (US$17.6) which is unfair to the farmer.”

Thankfully, Kenya adopted a new constitution in 2013, ushering in devolved units of government which presented new partnership opportunities for KAGRC to drive down cost. According to Dr. Kios, the counties realized that not all farmers were able to buy the semen from the AI Technicians and Agents. KAGRC partnered with the 30 of the devolved units in an arrangement that would see the corporation supply the county governments with the semen for sale to farmers at subsidized costs. “The counties are controlling and selling at KSh 400 (US$3.51) to the farmer and that is why many small-scale farmers are now taking up AI technology” says Dr. Kios.

Lack of awareness hampers progress

One of the biggest challenges in AI technology adoption In Kenya is the knowledge gap. “Farmers are not able to make sound breeding decisions because they cannot interpret the breeding catalogue in terms of feeding. These are very good genetics and with experience we have from KAGRC dating from 1946, you can be sure that we are competing with the very best internationally and the genetics are of superior quality but you still find that animals are not coming on heat because of issues in terms of feeding, either in terms of quality or quantity,” says Dr. Roselyn Wambugu, Director of Extension Services at KAGRC.

“Some farmers want to do their own feeding rations but the knowledge on how to do it best is a big challenge so there is need for extension services on feeding. Again, even those who get good calves, they may not reach weaning weight or even become mature productive cows and that is why at the moment, the country has shortage of quality heifers to supply the national herd population and even to the region,” she adds.

Some farmers also fail to embrace AI technology due to social-cultural reasons. According to Dr. Wambugu, some communities believe that that the use of AI denies the cows their ‘rights’ i. e interfering with nature. This limits them to the old practice of using bulls which is not only inefficient but exposes their dairy herds to diseases such as herpes virus- equine coital exthanema – and contagious equine metritis which are mainly transmitted during breeding.

The other challenge is the equipment mantainance. “All these equipment is imported and whenever there is breakdown, getting spare parts takes long and when one or two machines goes down, you may not have enough liquid nitrogen to reach many villages in the country. We used to get back-up from BOC, Synergy Gases and Noble Gases but with Covid-19, they are now concentrating in producing oxygen so today, if we do not have liquid nitrogen for KAGRC, the farmers have problems serving the animals,’ adds Dr. Kios.

One of the biggest challenges in AI technology adoption In Kenya is the knowledge gap. Farmers are not able to make sound breeding decisions because they cannot interpret the breeding catalogue in terms of feeding.

Expanding beyond focus on Dairy

For a better part of the 75 years that KAGRC has been in existence, a lot of focus was given to dairy cattle, and for good reason since majority of Kenyans consume cow milk. But under Dr. Kios, KAGRC is breaking this barrier and is seeking to bring more livestock to its genetic pool. Goat farmers are the first to benefit from this expanded mandate. “We realized that in some areas, they rely heavily on goats to get milk but unfortunately, they are milking half a cup but the semen we are producing at KAGRC for goats has the potential of producing up to 7 litres of milk per day so if we cross the low milk producers with high yielding ones, that farmer is assured of a dairy goat producing more than 4 litres of milk per day,” adds Dr. Kios. This transition to high yielding animals will ensure that the farmers especially in Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) areas will not suffer due to lack of proteins, he points out. Dairy goats are also resilient and with more milk, farmer incomes can also be boosted as unlike cow milk, goat milk is pricey.

KAGRC is also introducing pig AI services. Because of poor breeds and inbreeding, pigs in Kenya take long to mature thus driving up the prices. KAGRC wants to reverse this in the next few years and in the end, bring down the price of pork which might also reduce the pressure on beef animals.  “We want our pigs to grow faster. You realize that the pigs we have currently grow so slowly, eating so much with little earnings out of them but we have introduced new genes, they grow rapidly taking only 30% of the time compared to the other breeds and matures within 5 months. These are targeted at the youth and women who keep goats and pigs,” explains Dr. Kios.

The CEO adds that KAGRC is also looking into the improved indigenous chicken. These birds take a long period of time before laying but the new genes allow the indigenous chicken to lay eggs early just like the other commercial chicken, giving the farmer between 220 t0 250 eggs a year.

“These are the new genes and lines we are introducing to famers in this country because you realize that these farmers suffer a lot because if you have a chicken that will only lay 20 eggs and start brooding on the 20 eggs and you wanted more eggs to sell then you are not in business. These are the new species we are bringing on board to help the farmer,” says the CEO.

The agency also recently received KSh 600 million (US$5.27 million) from the Kenyan government to establish an Embryo Transfer Centre. The center is expected to take AI to next level. “Very soon, instead of the farmer using the normal semen for AI, we’ll be putting in a fertilized egg of 7 days into the womb of those cows and they’ll produce pedigree animals,” says Dr. Kios. With embryo transfer technology we ca give farmers a pure breed animal that can produce many litres of milk within 9 months, he adds.

Supporting Dairy unlock export potential

Kenya is surrounded by countries such as DRC and Burundi which are not self-sufficient when it comes to dairy. Sadly, these countries depend on Europe for their milk exports while Kenya is just next door. KAGRC wants to change this narrative. The corporation has developed new breeds that can be distributed in areas where traditional dairy breeds could not survive because of harsh weather conditions.  “As KAGRC, we have developed what we call ‘Magic50’ which is 50% indigenous and 50% exotic breeds.

It can produce up to 20 litres of milk in any part of the country using very minimal resources and, in most cases, using roughages in those areas with little supplementation and can survive the harsh conditions,” say Dr. Kios. The CEO added that that their plan is to ensure that farmers get the right breeds to produce the right amount of milk for export market.

Becoming better at home while exploring markets abroad

KAGRC’s main goal still remains to increase AI uptake by farmers across the country. Currently, only 40% of Kenyan dairy farmers. “We are looking at pushing the uptake in collaboration with the county governments to ensure we reach up to 80% of the farmers. A country like Holland adopted the technology after Kenya but has achieved 100% adoption and exports powdered milk to Africa,” adds Dr. Kios revealed.

KAGRC is also looking beyond Africa. ‘We have already exported to Rwanda, Botswana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria and Burundi. We are looking at assisting the African farmers through export to those countries,” says Dr.Kios. To achieve the “African Dream” KAGRC wants to improve its own internal practices to make them align with required international standards for biosecurity. With greater biosecurity, Dr. Kios is optimistic that KAGRC can raise Kenya’s profile to match South Africa’s which already exports to the United States. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step and for Dr. Kios, that first step will be widespread adoption of AI technology. “In Kenya and Africa, let’s embrace the technology. We have the ability to supply the whole world with milk if we embrace the technology because we have cheaper production systems. Let’s take up the technology, it is critical to our food security,” he concludes.

This feature appeared in the March 2022 edition of CEO Business Africa magazine. You can access the full digital magazine HERE

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