EduCOWtion: Decreasing malnutrition and increasing school attendance through live cattle

[September 2018] Grand Challenge Curriculum interviewed Maria Soroka and Abby Knoble about Educowtion, their experiences piloting the program in Uganda, and the future of bringing live cattle into schools.

What exactly is Educowtion?

Abby: Educowtion is a sustainable program that focuses on nutrition in pastoralist communities in Northern Uganda. Ideally, a school will receive heifers that will produce milk, which will be given to the students in their meals. This should decrease malnutrition and increase school attendance, as school attendance in the region is very low. It will also generate funds for the school through the selling of male offspring, through selling the milk on the weekends or school break, or making "ghee" or yogurt. It will provide a lot more funds for the school.

Maria: We wanted to make this a sustainable program. We are purchasing the first set of cattle for our partner school, and then once that herd starts to reproduce, and the offspring get to a certain size, we want the school to donate those cows and the initial funds to another school- a daughter school. We’re hoping that each school can pass on cattle to two future schools. Once the school meets the requirement of passing on to two daughter schools, it can keep the rest of the cattle and grow in that way.

Abby: The program is almost set up like a loan; we’re giving these cattle to the school and covering initial medicine costs, as well as a loan for the caretaker’s initial salary, who will take care of the cows. Then instead of paying us back, they’ll pay it back to two schools in the future with no further cost. They’ll cover medicine, initial medicine costs, and loans for the next schools.

Why should people care about this program?

Abby: This region produces a lot of homeless children that travel to Kampala and are very vulnerable to sex trafficking, child labor, and STDs such as HIV/AIDS. This region is also undergoing a lot of climate turmoil due to climate change. Traditionally, people in this region herd the cattle for a few months out of the year during the dry season, which occurs twice a year. But now because of climate change, the dry seasons are much more severe and unpredictable. People are now gone longer, which means they don’t have that steady source of income and this entire region’s going to have to adjust and adapt with future climate predictions. It’s really important to have the local community be educated so that they can lead themselves in the future and economically develop their own region.

Abby: Although we are just starting this, ideally long-term this will belong to the community. The community will take ownership of it, which was a big part of why we went to Uganda, worked with the community, and had discussions. We asked the community what they wanted, gave them the general gist, and they came back to us with more ideas and improvements. We are more than willing and happy to take their input, because it’s their community, their children, and their future.

Maria: We really wanted to harness the resources, talents, and skills of that local population. Our goal was to utilize the elements already there, including the professionals working with cattle. We are using these resources to empower the community and put more kids in school. These children are going to grow up to be the leaders of their communities.

Abby: Ideally, Educowtion will just spread by itself through the schools. We have a partner organization who will facilitate the expansion through the partner schools. Honestly, we won't be needed in the future, which is great. That’s exactly what we want.

You carried out your pilot in Uganda this summer. How did it go?

Abby: It went way better than we could have ever imagined. Everything kind of fell together. Things we didn’t even think of just fell into place, and we were really happy to work with our partner organization, Dwelling Places. They do a lot of really good work in Uganda, and their main focus is preventing children from living on the street. They are doing prevention now in the Karamoja region, which is where most of the homeless children come from.

Maria: Dwelling Places is a very holistic organization doing rescues of street children with social workers. They also raise money to help support the students by covering medicine costs, housing fees, and school fees. They are also doing rehabilitation and reconciliation work for the children, connecting them back to their families, and empowering those families and those communities. The organization now has an office in Karamoja, where they are doing research as to how things can be improved.

Abby: We spent about half the time in Kampala, and half the time in Karamoja, split between two trips. Our first trip was spent meeting with officials, the school, the headteacher, and the sub-county vet. Those were really productive meetings, and the community liked our idea more than we thought. The people we met with brought up concerns that we were aware of, but also a lot of concerns we had not thought of. Financially, we were really worried about the feasibility of the program, but the community had a lot more ideas than we did as far as sustaining costs. For example, keeping male bulls for renting to plow; one day of plowing can cover half of the caretaker’s salary for the month!

Did you pilot in one community?

Maria: Yes, at just one school.

Abby: The second time we came back, our contacts had already held a meeting and talked about the program. We took a lot of their input and adjusted our plan based on what they experienced. Then we put together a contract which includes the school, Dwelling Places and what they will provide through us, the subcounty vet, and the logistics. Right now, the community is working on building the corrals for cattle. We’re also excited because the subcounty vet is really interested in improving cattle practices, including health practices with cattle and expanding veterinary medicine throughout the region. The subcounty vet plans to be training the caretaker as well as some of the school members on good cattle care and which medicines to use. He’s really excited about that. We’re using the local cattle breed, Zebu, but we're also interested in using crossbreeding in the future with some Jersey cattle. The subcounty vet is also very interested in that. It's not offical yet, but that’s been something we’ve been talking about to have higher resistance and higher milk yield, because the Jersey have ten times the amount of milk per day as the Zebu do.

Maria: One of our big discussions was the kind of cattle we should use. There have been other programs in the region that use hybrid cattle, but we thought it would be best to use the local ones because they are very drought resistant. The people there already know how to take care of them. 

Abby: We didn’t even think of a corral which is kind of silly. I mean, they are pastoralist so we thought we would just walk them around, but then the community was like, “Oh, we’ll build the corrals!" So right now the vet is showing the community how to collect logs so it’s not damaging to the environment, and they are working on building the corrals. Hopefully we'll be buying cattle in October, but it might be November after the contract is signed and everything is in place for the program to begin.

Do you have a safeguard if a cow gets sick or dies?

Maria: Yes, if a cow gets sick, obviously the main contact for the caregiver will be the subcounty vet. He is going to come and help the caregiver for free; the school just has to pay for the transportation of the vet. They have to pay for the medicines as well, which we are providing initially. We are not going to replace a cow if it dies, so that kind of is an incentive for the caregiver to take really good care of the cattle and keep it safe. The caregivers are literally professionals in this field. They know more about cattle than anyone else in the area.

Abby: The subcounty vet even says if the caregiver disagrees with him on something, he’ll often go with what they say because they know better. We are mostly providing medicines in case the cattle get sick, and the subcounty vet is really partnering with us on this program.

Maria: At the pilot school, we are going to have ten cattle total to give to them. We’re going to have five in-calfs, which means they are pregnant, and then five that are regular females, or heifers.

Abby: The in-calf ratio will hopefully stagger so they are producing milk consistently. In-calf heifers are also very difficult to find in the region. Apparently you have to wait around until someone decides to sell their heifer, so we'll see.

Do people who have cattle often do not want to sell them?

Abby: There are markets, but they are very small. It is unlikely there will be ten cattle available on one market day,

Maria: These are small communities

Abby: And transport is difficult so it will only be local.

How will you measure the success of the program?

Abby: We want to make sure this is actually beneficial to the community. Over the summer we took a lot of data, and we’ll be taking data over the next few years on school attendance, body mass index, and just general perceptions of the community around cows. We want to see if this is worth reproducing in other areas.

Maria: By giving milk to the children, we are actually going to be putting it in the in the breakfast porridge. That’s like the main food source. That’s the main way to equally distribute everything and also make sure it’s well cooked. The staff will also be getting milk that way. Hopefully we’ll see a decrease in malnutrition in our data over the years based on body mass index.    

Abby: Yeah, or maybe less stunting in growth. We’ll have to do more research. We are also hoping the milk will make a lot of ghee because that’s really high in fat content.

Maria: People can sell ghee, but they can also put it in their lunches, which is usually just rice and beans.

How did you come up with this idea, and how did it lead to your pilot actually happening in Uganda?

Abby: I was in GCC 3003/5003: Seeking Solutions to Global Health Issues last fall. The wonderful Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson were my professors. They are very great. I was in a group with a nurse, an English major, just kind of a variety of majors, so Maria was not there. We were given the task of climate change in Kitimojo with the pastoralist communities. We did a lot of research- honestly the first ten weeks were just research- and kind of played around with ideas. We thought about improving grasslands by planting, but it’s hard because the lifestyle in the region is pastoralist and nomadic. We even thought about improving cattle drinking water. In the class there was a brainstorming session, and I think I wrote on a sticky note something like “cows in schools.” We spent a lot of nights staying up, typing the whole thing, and we worked on it but none of our group members were really interested in carrying it on, I think maybe one was, but she’s in South America right now doing her graduate program so she’s obviously occupied. They were a great group, but I was still looking for someone to take forward the idea, and Fred told me about the 5501 class. I had kept telling Maria about this class because I felt like we were actually doing something, and we are actually using our majors and information we collected. I am not just memorizing atom structures, and although very important, I felt like I was actually doing something very related to the real world. It wasn’t a case study from 1960 or something. So I convinced Maria to take the class!

Maria: Yeah! So I jumped in, and it was kind of intimidating at first. The amount of research that Abby and the group had done was intense. But then we started working together in GCC 5501, and that class provided a lot of different resources and faculty members to help us take our ideas forward. There were a lot of different people doing all sorts of different things, which was so amazing to see! We just met with our class recently at a reunion, and some of them have taken their projects forward, which is so encouraging! Then we heard about the Acara Challenge and decided to do that. We gave a lot of presentations and spent a lot of nights preparing our proposal.

Abby: It was definitely worth the effort, and I think that is when Maria felt caught up, felt comfortable, and that she owned the project too.

Maria: It was fun to re-check everything. We competed in the Acara Challenge and were lucky enough to be awarded the silver prize of $3,000. From that day, we knew it was the real deal and that we had to go and try it. Around that time, we were meeting with veterinarians, other nonprofit organizations, and people in Africa about doing something with schools.

Abby: Fred really encouraged us to try to find a partner in the region and not just go by ourselves. We had a crazy number of meetings- at least two a week- to go over details.

Maria: We were still looking for a partner when one day after church, we ran into a couple who ended up connecting us with Dwelling Places. By chance we got connected with this really amazing and holistic organization. They really helped us and answered a lot of our questions before we traveled to Uganda.

Abby: One of our connections was a man named Keith, who is from Uganda. He had worked there before, and I think it was really helpful because we knew that a big part of GCC is acknowledging where you’ve made assumptions. I obviously made a bunch of assumptions, so being able to validate a couple of those with our partners was helpful.

Maria: From then on we had a partner organization. We started working on things that we needed to do, like how do we prepare, looking at what dates we should go, creating a schedule, going to a lot of meetings, and then collected feedback. We got our tickets and then it was time to go!

Abby: But I think it is important to say that while we were in that class, we had a lot of things that we wanted to get done that just didn’t work out. We wanted to interview the community and we just couldn’t. There were a lot of things that we wanted to do and there were a lot of dead ends, but we pulled our way through with little things that connected. Then we were in Uganda, and Dwelling Places looked at our schedule and connected us with translators for 95% of the time.

Now that you've launched the pilot, what is the goal from here on out?

Maria: With the data that we mentioned before, it is important to see if the program is actually beneficial. If there is something in place that is detrimental, why continue to have people invest their time and energy into it? On the other side of things, if the results are constant, maybe there are things that need to be improved or different areas/methods that could be changed.

Abby: Initially, when we had our first pitch for this project, we had three things that we wanted to change: perceptions of education in the community, reduce malnutrition, and increase school attendance. I think the effects of this program will be a lot more complicated, possibly in areas that we don’t understand as well. For example, the economic development of the community. We are giving some of these people full time jobs. A lot more milk will be in the whole community for sale, so maybe general nutrition will improve. I think we need to start more broadly with these kinds of things. We do want to take data for several years, and we do plan to return in the fall of next year to do a general check to see how things are going and see future expansion possibilities. We were talking to someone in GCC 5501 about things we can do now to help Educowtion grow without us; he suggested that if the program is beneficial, we might want to think about publishing our work and sending it to bigger organizations. For example, people in this region are very dependent on World Food Program. Ideally, something like Educowtion could reduce the region's dependency on the World Food Program.

Maria: It would allow World Food Program to use their resources elsewhere. This is a region that doesn’t necessarily need relief year-round, but during certain times it does due to climate change.

Abby: I’m really interested in improving the cattle in the region, because the Zebu will produce four to five liters per day, while Jersey cows produce twenty to forty.

Maria: We hope to help Dwelling Places' mission in addition to ours, since their mission is to see a reduction in the number of street children. This is another program they can use to encourage children to go to school. We want to see how both programs can affect that school and community life.

How has it been working together with your different majors?

Maria: I think our personalities complement each other, and living together has helped too. We have had a lot of the same core classes, but because we do have different majors, the other courses that we have taken impact the way we think. For example, with neuroscience I was very focused on things like the exact mechanism of how Alzheimer’s works, where Abby has this whole breadth of knowledge of different topics as she dives into public health and global studies. It was cool to see that even though our majors are similar to a point, it is still easy to notice the different approaches we had to this project.

What was or continues to be your favorite part of this project?

Abby: I loved the work itself. I think that it is valuable and you get to pay attention to a lot of people that don’t often get that attention. It may absolutely fail, but even if something has the tiniest chance of being beneficial, it is one thousand percent worth doing. I love taking that risk, which isn’t even really a risk for me.

Maria: I really enjoyed seeing how everything is connected. There are so many facets to this project and seeing how so many people from different areas that are not connected can come together and work to make something like this happen.

Any final thoughts?

Abby: I would encourage everyone to take the GCC classes, especially the specialized classes that focus on creating plans. To anyone that is taking a GCC class now, I encourage you to do something with your project, because anything can happen.