07/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hungry Cows, Hungrier People

Cattle have always held an important role in Rwandan society. They are a key source of protein and an important status symbol. Over the last couple of years, the government, working with Heifer International and other groups, has promoted a policy of "One cow per poor family" in an attempt to build household-level nutrition and wealth.

In a country where ethnic distinctions were often linked to the number of cows owned (at one point in Rwanda's history anyone with more than 10 or so cows was labeled a Tutsi, any with fewer a Hutu), the free distribution of cows is seen as a great equalizer. Poor farmers across the country receive one high-producing European dairy cow. Mostly from Ireland, these cows have to ability to produce over 20 liters per day, compared to just 3-5 liters from the local variety.

This is a boon to poor, rural Rwandans, who finally have adequate protein for their children and enough milk left over to sell. They can earn as much as a $6 per day profit, and in a country where the majority live on less than $1 a day, this income can transform the poor into the moderately wealthy. All that is asked of program participants is that they pass their first-born female calf onto another family, ensuring that the program goes cycling productively forward.

This program is a huge step forward, but it may require some help to deliver its potential social and nutritional benefits. Although we know an Irish dairy cow can yield over 20 liters a day, here it may not necessarily reach that total. In reality, the poorest farmers are rarely able to provide for their animals, whose needs -- medicine, vaccines, veterinary care, water (over 120 liters a day), and mineral licks, to name a few -- can be overwhelming. But the most pressing need of all, not just for cows but for all Rwandans, is food.

Simply put, if the cows are hungry, so are the people. And in the case of Rwanda, the cows are often starving.

This means Rwandans have very low milk consumption -- an estimated 12 liters per capita per annum as opposed to the 220 liters recommended by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. With low consumption and limited alternatives, few Rwandans get the protein they need.

Here, where nearly 60% of the population is under the age of 20, poor nutrition affects the young disproportionately. An estimated 23% of children are underweight, 45% suffer from moderate malnutrition, and 19% are severely malnourished. One in six children also dies before reaching the age of five. Lack of protein in children's diets too often leads to physical and cognitive stunting; chronic protein deficiency causes delays in brain development, impacting attention, memory, visual perception, verbal comprehension and other higher cognitive processes.

Babies and young children here rely on breast milk, but once weaned, they have few nutritious alternatives. In developing countries, weaning foods are commonly gruels made from staple cereals such as rice, maize, and wheat. The African Council of Food and Nutritional Sciences estimates that these gruels supply only half of the energy content of breast milk and little of the protein.

It is essential that milk output be maximized to provide adequate protein for the population, especially young children. For a European cow to produce to its maximum, it must be fed protein, grain, and a slew of vitamins and minerals. In contrast, what Rwandan cows get is low-protein, nutrient-deficient elephant grass. While some fodder grass is a critical component of a cow's diet, it cannot come close to providing adequate nutrition. As a result, cows remain unhealthy, underweight, and critically, under producing.

The good news is that solutions abound. Rwanda Works, a group with which I am active, and its partners recently launched a concentrate feed program. Mostly consisting of soya bean, cotton seed, maize bran, and vitamin mixes, concentrate feeds contain the nutrients (especially proteins) that cows need to be healthy and high producing. With concentrate feeds, farmers increase production by up to 100%. In addition, their cows are stronger, healthier, and less prone to diseases and miscarriages.

By giving the poorest Rwandans cows, the government has not only helped erase ethnic division, but also given their people the potential to be more prosperous. That is an action that will impact the next generation and resonate further into the future of the Rwandan people. It deserves our support.