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The importance of a good goat

It was the sight of sheep giving birth that riveted most visitors. When lambs popped out into the world before their astonished eyes, people felt their £2 entrance fees had been well spent - and there were still tractor rides and a canal walk to be taken, an Easter egg hunt to be entered, and two skewbald donkeys, of incredible furriness and charm, to be fancied.

Yet it was not merely to entertain the public that Richard and Anna Knight staged two open days at Plummers Farm, near Cirencester, over Easter. Their purpose was to raise money for the charity FARM-Africa, which aims to improve agriculture at grass-roots level, and is running numerous projects in East and Southern Africa.

In common with other European farmers who have seen the charity in action, the Knights were fired up by a tour of Ethiopia, and for their open days last weekend they converted part of their farmyard into an African exhibit, with a stylish grass hut, a shed full of native artefacts, and a pair of Anglo-Nubian goats.

Presiding over this little assembly was Patrick Mutia, a burly and jovial Kenyan who ran FARM-Africa's goat-improvement project at Babati, in Tanzania, and is soon to take over similar schemes in his own country. Goats, he explained, are of critical importance in his part of the world. Historically, they have a terrible reputation for roaming the countryside and stripping every leaf in sight; but now, with the introduction of better strains, their position in society has changed.

"Goats are wonderful!" he beamed. "They're far more efficient than cows, and a much better bet if land-holdings are very small. In Tanzania the average is three acres per family, in Kenya it is under three acres, in Ethiopia, only one acre.

"But a good dairy goat is very expensive. It's a family's most important asset. You can't leave it to wander around, because it's too precious. So you keep it tethered, or in a kraal, and feed it on kitchen waste, or rough forage not part of the main crop."

When small local goats are crossed with the big, lop-eared Anglo-Nubians, or prick-eared British Toggenburgs, the milk yield of the offspring increases so dramatically that a single animal can transform one family's economy. (The milk is drunk, or made into yoghurt or cheese, and the surplus can be bartered or sold.) FARM-Africa is therefore encouraging the import of good stock goats, and at the same time teaching women (who do almost all the work) how to look after them.

In another stock-improvement programme, camels are being imported from Pakistan and crossed with the Samburu strains used by the nomads of north Kenya. In Ethiopia much effort is being put into reafforestation and the establishment of tree nurseries, as well as into the conservation of water.

Another small but vital project has been to spread word about a new form of stove - an East African Aga saga. The device is much more efficient than traditional fireplaces of stones, and therefore an important saver of fuel.

The central point about FARM-Africa's schemes is that they are not imposed from outside, but evolved after close consultation with village elders. Hence the importance of men such as Patrick Mutia, who is not only an expert agriculturist, but modestly admits to speaking seven languages or dialects, and so can gain the confidence of even the shyest farmer. One problem, he says, is to persuade Africans to share new knowledge: "If somebody finds out something to his advantage, his natural inclination is to keep it close to his chest."

Another enthusiastic supporter present last weekend was Richard Parry, who farms in Wiltshire and is proposing, this autumn, to drum up support for the charity by riding a trail bike down a route that links all the projects in the Rift Valley. Leaving Massawa in Eritrea on 10 October, he will cross into Kenya on Guy Fawkes' night, and reach Dar es Salaam on 10 December, having covered 5,600km. In each country he will have one companion, associated with the schemes there, but otherwise will be on his own.

What is it that drives people to make that kind of effort? What was it that led the Knights to give up their Easter weekend and raise over £1,000 for the cause? Simply this: that everyone who sees the projects in action comes away moved by their obvious success - but also by the immense amount that still needs to be done.

FARM-Africa is at 9-10 Southampton Place, London W1A 2DA (0171-430 0440)