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Lessons learnt out of Africa: 19 factors not to underestimate in rural livestock/agricultural research for development

Robyn Alders at her poultry work with her village partners in central Tanzania (photo via The Canberra Times).

Robyn Alders, a veterinarian, village poultry expert and associate professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, gave a particularly candid and interesting presentation at a seminar/webinar held on 4 May 2017 at the headquarters of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya. The one-day seminar/webinar was on the subject of ‘Animal-source foods for nutrition impact: Evidence and good practices for informed project design‘. This was the fourth in a Livestock and Household Nutrition Learning Series of seminars/webinars organized jointly by Land O’Lakes International Development and ILRI and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

View, watch and listen to Alders’ half-hour slide presentation—‘Impact of poultry interventions on household nutrition in Tanzania and lessons learnt along the way’—on Slideshare and on Youtube (Alders filmed presentation on YouTube starts at the 2:19:02 timestamp and ends at 2:51:39; note that there is some noise contamination in parts of the audio.)

Alders described some of the positive associations between her project’s poultry interventions and household nutrition, particularly in Tanzania, and lessons her team has learnt along the way. Her five-year project, running from Feb 2014 to Jan 2019, is titled: ‘Strengthening food and nutrition security through family poultry and crop integration in Tanzania and Zambia’. The partners in her poultry project are the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR); project partners in Tanzania and Zambia, the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), in London; the KYEEMA Foundation, and the University of Sydney; and collaborative links with Land O’Lakes International Development (LOL-ID), of USA; and ILRI.

Alders began by describing the two main aims of her project. The first, she said, is to reduce childhood undernutrition by enhancing women’s capacity to strengthen household nutrition through improvements in the integration and efficiencies of smallholder chicken-plus-crop food production.

‘But my main aim’, Alders continued, ‘is to see if our research could convince ministers of finance that investments in the health of the chickens kept by these women can also help improve human health, thereby reducing the heavy burden on national health budgets.’

Alders next showed a schematic illustrating that once a year or so village chickens tend to die off in big numbers, typically due to Newcastle disease, which can be prevented by vaccination. ‘We also know that in rain-fed agriculture, supplies of foodstuffs vary throughout the year, with supplies high just after the crop harvest and decreasing after that, leading to a “hunger period” before the next crop is mature and ready to be harvested.’

‘My colleagues and I are interested in determining whether introduction of vaccination against Newcastle disease to stablize poultry numbers could significantly benefit household food and nutritional security in these two countries. We’re looking to see if Newcastle disease vaccination benefits women. We are a large team involving Tanzanian and Zambian frontline and research organizations, including universities, ministries and agencies; a London college; an Australian non-governmental organization; and three faculties within the University of Sydney —medical, agricultural and veterinary.’

Bringing the three academic faculties together in this project, Alders said, has been the most challenging aspect of her project. Her project staff at the university now come together within a new interdisciplinary centre based at the University of Sydney, called the Charles Perkins Centre, which works to break down disciplinary silos in areas of environment, food and health.

Alders said that her project site in central Tanzania is a particularly challenging area to work in (e.g., low rainfall, inhospitable climate, variable weather, poor soils). Her team is looking at the impact of selected poultry and crop interventions. On the animal side, the intervention chosen was vaccination against Newcastle disease. Interventions on the crop side were determined with the participating villagers. Project staff are looking to see if and how the interventions affect women’s roles in food production and the community, particularly regarding their impacts on childhood nutrition.

Lessons learnt
Alders spent much of her talk candidly detailing the lessons she and her team have learnt in this project. What follows are some of the examples she gave.

  • Do not underestimate the time it takes to obtain human ethic approvals for this kind of research from both the countries where your project is operating and the universities leading the project.
  • Do not underestimate the value of conducting cluster randomized controlled trials. While used sparsely before the 1980s, these trials, which reduce selection bias by randomizing groups of subjects (as opposed to individual subjects), are well suited and now commonly used to evaluate public health issues, policies and interventions.

I’ve spent 20 years working on the better control of Newcastle disease in village chickens. In all that time, while our projects have offered the vaccination to whole communities, we always ended up working most closely with the farmers who wanted to work with us. This project’s adoption of cluster-randomized controlled trials, which have us working in households, both extremely poor and better off, has taught me a lot. Not using this method in the past is part of the reason why it has been so hard to scale up earlier results where we had great results with early adopters of our interventions.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate the need to combine qualitative with quantitative methods and to use interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral teams.
  • Do not underestimate the value of staggering implementation of the chosen interventions.
  • Do not underestimate the greater expense of working and spending time with people in rural rather than urban settings.
  • Do not underestimate the scarcity of food diversity and the huge seasonal variations in food availability in resource-scarce rural environments. These can render much well-intentioned advice from nutritional agencies, for example for breast-feeding women, impractical if not useless (and, adds Alders, ‘in some cases even insulting’).
  • Do not underestimate the importance of employing gender-sensitive (male and female) and participatory and nutrition-sensitive methods to agriculture, landscapes and value chains.
  • Do not underestimate the utility of using government ministries rather than research institutions as your frontline partners to have real impacts.
  • Do not underestimate the ‘fabulous contributions’ that can be made by graduate students and community assistants and vaccinators.
  • Do not underestimate the difficulty in getting good data on dietary diversity.

There are prejudices that eating certain foods is uncivilized or backward. Who wants to say that they ate an antelope or a field mouse the week before? It can be hard for people to answer dietary questions honestly, when we’ve spent a long time telling people what is and isn’t ‘good food’.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate the lack of research understanding of the need to include animal-source foods in research questionnaires and projects promoting dietary diversity.

As researchers, we’ve all made mistakes, and we’re about to make more mistakes, but by sharing them as we are doing here, we can work to minimize them.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate the work involved in getting an interdisciplinary team to work really well together.

I’m not sure five years is long enough to create an interdisciplinary team that functions well together, but we’re having a go.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate the lack of real understanding of field conditions in low-income countries by university staff from high-income countries.

I apologize for those of us who come in to a field situation and think we know and then don’t hang around long enough to understand what we don’t know.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate the disjunct between university calendars and the need for university staff to spend large amounts of time in the field, listening and learning from farmers.

Most university staff teach, and teach in blocks of time that cannot be changed and do not correspond well to agricultural calendars, so it means people are not on the ground in their field sites when they need to be to learn lessons and listen to farmers. It’s a real challenge and something donors do have to grapple with—about who should be on the scene, and how they learn and listen to the people who know the situation better than anyone else.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate disruptions to your research project due to significant and relatively frequent changes to political and administrative management in a single country.
  • Do not underestimate disruptions to your research project due to poor rains, or to flooding, or to poor harvests.

Such shocks can lead to severely malnourished or anaemic mothers and children being referred to the nearest health facility to treat their conditions, when they are of course then removed from a study as an enrolled household.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate the barriers presented by some traditional food practices, for example beliefs relating to the consumption of eggs by pregnant women and children.
  • Do not underestimate the need for careful research design work, spelling out adequate and appropriate sample sizes, tools and timeframes.

It can be very hard to do these things. All you can do is do your best and do your best with the budget you have available. Public health projects tend to have more money than we in animal health have, so you have to be realistic about what you can achieve, or partner with those who have a bit more money.—Robyn Alders

  • Do not underestimate the importance of interdisciplinary research and its longer time requirements and financial costs.

True interdisciplinary science cannot be rushed. Not all research needs to be interdisciplinary, but think about when it is required and use it at the right times.—Robyn Alders

About Robyn Alders
Robyn Alders is an associate professor and principal research fellow with the faculty of veterinary science at the University of Sydney. For over 20 years, she has worked closely with smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia as a veterinarian, researcher and colleague, with an emphasis on the development of sustainable infectious disease control in animals in rural areas in support of food security and poverty alleviation.

Alders’ current research and development interests include domestic and global food and nutrition security/systems, One Health/EcoHealth/planetary health, gender equity and science communication. She leads the Charles Perkins Centre/Marie Bashir Institute Healthy Food Systems: Nutrition–Diversity–Safety research node.

In Jan 2011, Alders was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for her distinguished service to veterinary science as a researcher and educator, particularly her work to enhance food security in developing countries through livestock management and disease control programs. In Feb 2017, Alders was the inaugural recipient of the Mitchell Global Humanitarian Award, which recognizes Australians and others supported by Australian aid who have made outstanding contributions to international development.

Twitter:  @RobynAlders   @SydneyUni    @ACIARAustralia
Flickr: 40 photos of the LOL–ILRI 4 May 2017 Nairobi seminar/webinar

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