Emily Ayers Guest Blog

When asked to think about major public health issues in developing nations, hunger and starvation may be some of the first things that come to many peoples’ minds. However, hunger isn’t always, or necessarily, the main issue. According to Dr. Geoffery Anguyo, a medical doctor and director of KIHEFO, a healthcare organization in Uganda, malnutrition (in particular, protein deficiency) is a large public health problem in his country. In rural parts of developing countries like Uganda, many families make their living through subsistence farming. Their land may be limited; and they may share with many other family members. Popular crops in Uganda include cabbage, cassava, bananas, plantains, pineapples, sweet potatoes, millet, sorghum, beans and groundnuts. Aside from beans, there is one thing all of these crops are lacking – protein. Protein deficiency is a leading cause of malnutrition – particularly among children – in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

I had the privilege of conducting primary data collection with KIHEFO, or the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation, in the summer of 2014. I surveyed local Ugandans about many public health issues, one of which was nutrition. There was a common theme to responses – impoverished Ugandans do not eat meat. As I mentioned before, many of these villagers live off of subsistence farming — the crops they grow on their land is what they have to eat. They may trade with others, cabbage for bananas, etc., based on what they produce on their land. But in this area, meat is something that must be purchased, and most of these individuals have no means of income. Every Ugandan I interviewed reported that they only eat meat once a year — on Christmas. Some Ugandans may have some livestock; cows, goats, and pigs are the most common. But these animals are not eaten, at least not for some time; they are viewed more as a sort of savings bond. This lack of protein in their diet is a serious issue, especially among children under five. Some families do grow beans, but they are not grown or eaten frequently enough, especially by children, to balance their diet. The children of these families are highly likely to have protein deficiencies. The WHO reports that nutrition-related health problems currently contribute to around 45% of deaths in children under the age of five in these areas.

One healthcare organization in Uganda that is tackling this issue is KIHEFO. As I briefly mentioned before, KIHEFO is a non-profit health organization in Kabale, Uganda, a rural area in the southwestern part of the country, very close to the Rwandan border. Dr. Geoffery Anguyo leads the foundation by providing a multitude of services; primary care in his local clinic, maternal and child health clinics, an HIV clinic with testing and counseling services, educational sessions on HIV transmission, nutritional seminars, etc. In addition, he travels to rural areas which are unreached by other doctors, areas where some residents haven’t seen a doctor in over 10 years due to lack of access. Hundreds of Ugandans line up at these travel clinics, for services such as HIV testing, or for primary care for chronic and infectious diseases.

In addition to providing health services in his community, one of Dr. Anguyo’s latest ventures is one I’m particularly fond of – rabbit breeding. To Dr. Anguyo, rabbits can have a large impact on the public health problem of malnutrition in his area. In order to address protein deficiency in the area, KIHEFO established a rabbit breeding center. The main breeding center is in Kabale, with a second, smaller breeding center in Kicumbi. KIHEFO receives donations for their project through fundraising, and uses the funds to donate rabbits either to families KIHEFO has identified as being severely in need, or on a slightly larger scale to communities, like Kicumbi, where many families benefit from the project.

Why rabbits? For a small donation, KIHEFO can buy the building materials, pay workers to build a hutch, and provide a family with 1 male and 2 female rabbits. Rabbits are free to keep, because they can be fed with weeds. They reproduce very quickly. Their gestation period is 30 days, and they can produce between 4-12 offspring at a time. In an ideal and realistic situation, 1 male and 1 female rabbit would produce up to 80 rabbits in one year. This project helps introduce protein into families’ diets on a more regular basis, and can also help these families generate income. Rabbits can be sold for around 15,000 shillings, or $6 USD, which can help provide a source of income for other family needs. Rabbits are all white meat, they are very high in protein, and have on average 795 calories per pound. They are less fatty than chicken, turkey, beef, or pork, and the cholesterol level in rabbit meat is very low. The fact that rabbits can essentially be raised for free makes them a very valuable resource in these communities. In addition, the trapping of rabbit manure can help to produce compost for their crops, and urine, if able to be trapped, can be utilized as a pesticide. Although KIHEFO began implementing their rabbit project just a few short years ago, it is showing promise as a sustainable solution to protein deficiency, and ultimately malnutrition, in southwestern Uganda.

When I went to Uganda, it was for a public health internship/volunteer program with KIHEFO. I was an Epidemiology student, so I left Atlanta with ideas and plans of helping them do nerdy things, like creating databases, conducting primary data collection, analyzing their survey data. I did get to do some of these things, but while surveying Ugandans in villages I developed an unexpected compassion for these people and the inherent public health problems in their community. I went to Uganda for Epidemiology, but I left with a love for global health and community development. The rabbit breeding initiative truly makes a huge difference in the recipients’ lives, and is a small step forward in the large challenge of achieving health equity worldwide.