Luisa Olmo, PhD candidate, The University of Sydney
Building the knowledge of local people in developing countries rather than providing once-off cash hand-outs is the new-age cornerstone to aid-work and agricultural development that we should all be proud of. While the concept of increasing local knowledge sounds very pretty, in practice, it is a demanding, creative, and at times a bizarre process that eventually leads to change. A recent visit to Laos and Cambodia allowed me to be yet again reminded of some of great quirks to international agricultural research. I am now starting my second year of PhD research at the University of Sydney which focuses on improving the efficiency of reproduction in cattle and buffalo in smallholder farmers in Cambodia and Laos. This is our proactive approach to address the food security perfect storm being brewed by rapid swelling of the developing population and increasing waves of protein consumption. This will require increased production of animal sourced protein and the only way to achieve this sustainably is to promote efficient market-driven beef supply.
Domestic animals can only reproduce when all their needs have been met and this is why it is often the most difficult outcome to achieve improvement. Despite recent gains in nutrient availability through forage technology and animal health through vaccine administration, reproductive improvement relies on smallholders strategically positioning these gains in line with the reproductive cycle. This is why the project held specifically a ‘reproductive workshop’ involving agricultural staff held in the spiritual and beautiful city of Luang Prabang, Laos, in February of 2017.
Our team prepared in Sydney initially, and my job was to track down pregnancy testing gloves and lubricant. While most supplies can be tracked down in-country, our team has learnt you can never be too prepared. To my surprise, I found that you can bring 3 litres of lubricant to Asia without raising any eyebrows at customs. Day 1 of the workshop entailed bovine reproductive expert Dr Peter Alexander delivering a run-down of reproductive physiology which was translated by Dr Sonevilay Nampanya, whose strong technical knowledge as a University of Sydney PhD graduate and Lao-national was truly beneficial to the dissemination of knowledge. The entire group broke for lunch together at a small local noodle shop where we all competed in ritualistic staining of our soups the reddest with chilli sauce as a humorous demonstration of our characters.
Image 1: (From left to right) Luisa Olmo, Dr Sonevilay Nampanya, Dr Syseng Khounsy, Professor Peter Windsor and Dr Peter Alexander breaking for lunch at local noddle shop
An after-lunch makeshift pregnancy examination of buffalo reproductive tracts at varying stages of gestation provided a welcomed change of pace. The activity is to try and distinguish the parts of the reproductive tract just by feeling. A piece of butcher’s paper is used to hide the reproductive tracts and Peter Alexander guides everyone through the tracts one-by-one.
Image 2 and 3: Peter Windsor and Peter Alexander leading group examination of buffalo reproductive tracts
Not unusual to the Lao staff is an early morning start the next day at a local buffalo farm. Buffalo are led into a makeshift cattle crush constructed by the team the previous day. The gloves and lube are whipped out and everyone is given a chance to test for pregnancy, many for their first time. One of the great perks of working in reproduction is that it is a naturally a fun topic and the excitement is visible on everyone faces.
Image 4: Excited DLF staff with Luisa Olmo preparing for pregnancy testing
Image 5: Dr Nampanya guiding a district staff member through pregnancy testing
We return to the conference room for a group discussion where we hash out potential reproductive interventions to assist farmers improve efficiency of reproduction. A passionate discussion leads to the identification of a list of skills that farmers need, an image of the ‘model Lao beef farmer’ and a list of practices required for controlled breeding management. It is a long and grueling process but finally we have what we all came for, a better idea of what is needed by local farmers and district staff to promote efficient market-driven beef supply.
At the end of the day our approach to teaching is the KISS principle (“Keep it simple, stupid”). Clear, simple messages backed up with hands on activities and plenty of coffee breaks to allow the Australian and Lao team to develop personal relationships. In my opinion, building capacity of in-country staff is the only way to ensure that change transcends the lifetime of development projects. Over-complicated messages quite literally get lost in translation. However when all else fails in Laos, at least you can rely on the booming coffee industry to provide ‘turbo’ Dao coffee satchels which at least provide the guise of engagement.
Acknowledgement: This research activity is funded by the Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research and this support is gratefully acknowledged.