Interview by Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor

As a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Windy Wilkins aims to maximize the benefits livestock can bring to people struggling to pull themselves out of poverty. Heifer International is proud to work with Wilkins and the Gates Foundation on the East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) program. Now in its second phase, EADD links small-scale dairy producers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania with the equipment, customers, marketing strategies and training they need to grow their businesses and strengthen their communities.

In this interview, Wilkins shares what we’ve learned so far and delineates the goals we’re still striving to reach.

WORLD ARK: When did you start with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and what attracted you to working there?

Wilkins: I  have been with the Foundation full-time since April 2011. What drew me was the potential to really create transformative change and the chance to tackle some of the world’s hardest problems.

Growing up I had family living in Central America, so I was able to visit them and see at a young age how life is different in developing countries. I grew up on an island outside Seattle, and we had a sister island in Nicaragua. In high school I lived with a host family there for two weeks. It opened my eyes to just some of the inequalities of this world, and I saw that I—growing up in the U.S.—was quite privileged. The experience instilled in me a desire to try to create change in some of these communities.

What do you see as the role of livestock in development?

We’ve been deepening our understanding of the fact that when we talk about smallholder farmers, we can’t talk about a maize farmer and cattle farmer. It’s usually the same person. A huge number of smallholder farmers raise livestock. Nearly a billion of the world’s poor living on less than two dollars a day own livestock and depend on those animals for their livelihood.

We also look at the role livestock plays in the lives of a poor family. Selling milk can bring a regular cash flow, and milk and eggs are extremely nutritious, particularly for women and children. Animals also provide manure and draft power, so there are a lot of different roles animals can play on a farm.

Our work focuses on animal health, animal genetics and making sure farmers have access to the inputs they need to increase production and sell the surplus into the market.

Windy Wilkins
Windy Wilkins

What work are you most excited about?

I’m very excited that we are increasing our investment in livestock. This has been a very underfunded area for a long time, yet it is an area of significant potential impact for smallholder farmers.

I’m also excited about the work we do to put female farmers at the core. There’s evidence to suggest that when you target women you can have a larger and more sustained impact.

And third, continuing to support phase two of EADD is a great opportunity.

How do you address concerns about livestock’s potentially negative impact on the environment?

While there are environmental concerns associated with raising livestock, there are also ways to abate livestock’s footprint. Within our grant making, we evaluate and plan for potential environmental impacts and develop interventions to mitigate the negative impacts and enhance the positive impacts. We are focused on helping smallholder farmers increase the productivity of their livestock and farms while protecting the environment for future generations. 

What are the qualities the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation looks for in grantees?

For me, the number one quality is the ability to achieve significant impact  on the ground for smallholder farmers. We have ambitious goals, and we want partners who can drive impact. In order to do this, we look for grantees who have a really strong understanding of the communities in which they’re operating.

Heifer has now begun Phase II of the East Africa Dairy Development program. What were the most important things we learned during the first phase?

The main accomplishment from the first phase has been in refining what we’re now calling the dairy hub approach. We went into EADD Phase I with a prescriptive view around how you set up a dairy hub with a chilling plant. One of the big successes of Phase I was to tailor the dairy hub concept to be more adaptive to local conditions in a specific country, including the stage of industry development.

In Phase II, we are now using a refined hub approach we call Hub 2.0, which emphasizes taking an evolutionary approach to hub development with a clear exit strategy defined, focusing more on productivity growth for farmers, and ensuring strong management and governance from the beginning. Our hope is that this approach will get hubs to sustainability faster and deliver more impact to farmers.

The other thing I would say is we have some evidence that there are a lot of spillover benefits around the dairy hubs, and that these hubs can be economic engines in the communities in which they operate. We’re still trying to understand and measure what that looks like. Phase II will include a strong evaluation and learning component to help us understand this better. 

Third, I’m very encouraged by the potential EADD has to develop an approach that can be replicated by other parties. EADD has had some successes with this already, with the governments of Rwanda and Uganda incorporating the hub approach into their national dairy strategies. However, there is more to do be done to prove this approach so it can be scaled by private sector and government partners. 

What are some of the goals for Phase II?

There are four primary outcomes we’re driving toward. We’re focused on the sustainability of dairy hubs, and we’re expecting these businesses will be on a path to operating successfully on their own. Two, we’re looking at farmer sustainability. We want to double the dairy productivity and income of smallholders. We also have some goals around gender, including engaging more women in dairy hub businesses, and increasing women’s participation in decision making and control over productive assets, going back to the role women play in agriculture. Finally, we’re interested in scale and replication, getting others to learn about and adopt the hub model so it can be scaled beyond what EADD can accomplish on its own.

What are the biggest challenges with EADD?

There are many challenges. A big one is that EADD is just a very complex project. It’s a consortium with multiple partners in three different countries, so a lot of challenges fall around ensuring all of the people are aligned and moving in the same direction and executing on the ground.

Two is that we need to implement a better monitoring, learning and evaluation system to better understand and respond to challenges on the ground. We are working in complex environments, and we need to have adaptive management to allow us to adjust and redirect programs as appropriate.

Third is deeper engagement with the private sector. Cultivating relationships with private sector processors is key to the success of Phase II and to replication, and is an area we need to deepen in Phase II. 

Is there one person you met who embodies your hopes for EADD?

I’ll speak to one woman I met in Tanzania, Deborah Njombe. It’s really impressive to see what she has been able to do. She started with one cow, then increased productivity and started growing fodder to sell in her community. Njombe’s story really shows the power an animal can have in growing a family’s livelihood. She was able to increase what she was doing with her dairy business but also diversify into other businesses as well, and had a number of thriving businesses—very inspiring. 

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