Eight months ago I started working as a junior assistant (BTC) for Veterinarians Without Borders in Burkina Faso. Ever since I have been absorbing new impressions and information each single day.
When I revealed my plans to work for the NGO Veterinarians Without Borders in Burkina Faso, the reactions in Belgium were almost unanimous: taking care of cats and dogs is not part of the major challenges in Africa. Time and again my reaction was that in the first place we are helping people, e.g. livestock farmers, who depend on their animals to survive. By developing a veterinary network in remote areas of Africa we fight famine and poverty.
As a matter of fact Burkina Faso has an impressive livestock population : 9 million bovines, 8 million ovines, 12 million caprines… More than 85 percent of the households derive at least part of their income from livestock breeding. “The veterinarian who saved my goat’s life did not only safe the life of an animal. He prevented me from losing my source of income ”, as states Missa Dicko in Ouahigouya. “The veterinarian playing a hero?”, I ask. “That’s slightly exaggerated” is Missa’s reaction. “After all it is his job, but it’s a most important job.”
Only 102 veterinarians work in Burkina Faso
Only 102 veterinarians work in Burkina Faso. In Belgium, by contrast, some 5,000 veterinarians are active. The differences between the Belgian and the Burkina Faso veterinary medicine even start in the training. In any event, Burkinese who want to start a veterinary training must go abroad. Also in terms of gender there is considerable difference. Whereas in Belgium mainly women opt for this training, the opposite is seen in Western Africa where female veterinarians are very much in the minority.
In Belgium more than one household in four has a pet dog or cat, whereas in Burkina animals mainly have an economic value. A visit to the weekly animal market of Fada n’Gourma (in the east of Burkina Faso) can only confirm this. It’s incredibly busy and the price negotiations are often fierce. This is obviously the place to be, at least for men. Women do not take part in the negotiations or sale. They sell fruit and vegetables at the entrance of the market.
Although Burkina Faso has three times more cows than Belgium, it is not always easy to find local milk in the capital Ouagadougou. The average Burkina cow provides 2 to 3 litres of milk per day (compared to 25 litres at most for a Belgian cow). A few causes of this low production are the lack of feed and water and the limited veterinary services. However, production is not the only problem. Both transport and conservation are problematic. Refrigerators or refrigerated vehicles are not available everywhere and even if they are available, power failures often cause problems. Fortunately, solar energy is becoming increasingly popular in Burkina Faso. Moreover the small-scale dairies supported by Veterinarians Without Borders in Dori, in the north of Burkina Faso, are equipped with solar panels.
However, the milk processed in these small-scale dairies must endure competition from the cheaper imported milk and from milk powder. Each year Burkina Faso imports approximately 40 million litres of milk, worth 6 to 10 billion FCFA (9 to 15 million euros). This import figure represents 90 percent of the total milk consumption in Burkina Faso.
However, for the Peul shepherds, a nomadic people living in the Sahel, milk is more than an essential nutritional element or a matter of trade. Milk has an important cultural value. Their word for milk, “kossam”, proves it. Literally it means: “The best there is.”