Applying Change Management to Improving Smallholder Farmer Biosecurity and Animal Production

25 August 2014

James Young (right) and Sharie Avisio (left) treating a sick dog in Luang Prabang.
James Young (right) and Sharie Avisio (left) treating a sick dog in Luang Prabang.

As a young veterinarian, when I began the Masters in Veterinary Public Health Management Program in 2009 I had experienced change already in my 3 years of practice. I'd been lucky enough to have employment in NZ, Australia and China, and been exposed to situations where veterinarians and animal scientists can make meaningful change to both animal and human populations. However, with tendency to get bored quickly, I wanted to find a way to accelerate my career and skillset so I had a better chance at other exciting and challenging opportunities. I picked epidemiology hoping that would open doors but not close others by being too specialized on a particular species or disease. The concept of public health also seemed to fit in with my interest in the 'bigger picture'. I looked at degrees in UK, USA, South Africa, Massey NZ (where I did my BVSc) and Australia. The University of Sydney Veterinary Public Health programs stood out, mostly because of its flexibility and the topics of leadership, project management, economics, and change management in addition to core epidemiology skills were appealing to apply veterinary skills to a wider cross-disciplinary (including commercial) manner.

In 2010, a research project opportunity arose working with Prof. Peter Windsor, Dr Russell Bush and Dr Luzia Rast on their Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) funded projects 'Best practice health and husbandry of large ruminants in Cambodia and Laos'. This project was a huge challenge, but very rewarding. I was well supported and remain grateful to my main supervisor (Luzia) and our project leaders as well as the VPH staff whom provided technical input and project management support. But it didn't end there. Prof. Windsor had a project officer position in Cambodia, so at the start of 2012 I moved back to Asia and began working on the project full time while continuing the MVPHMgt degree part-time. Almost quite suddenly, I was to apply newly learned VPHMgt skills, and work alongside other PhD students including Sonevilay Nampanya and John Stratton. The main aims of the project were to seek sustainable interventions that would improve animal health and production, with the hypothesis that this would in turn reduce rural poverty and food insecurity. This was in every way seeking sustainable change management. We're tackling problems for which there are known solutions in the developed world, but what largely remains unknown, is how to apply these interventions and technologies in emerging countries.

Transboundary animal diseases including foot-and-mouth disease and haemorrhagic septicaemia remain a major constraint for improving smallholder large ruminant productivity in the Mekong region, producing negative impacts on rural livelihoods and compromising efforts to reduce poverty and food insecurity. Yet evidence is lacking to communicate the true impact, as there is a paucity of baseline production data of smallholder livestock systems. The traditional husbandry practices of smallholders largely exclude preventive health measures, increasing risks of disease transmission. Although significant efforts have been made to understand the social aspects of change development in agricultural production, attention to improving the adoption of biosecurity has been limited.

Last year, we reviewed smallholder biosecurity risk factors identified in the peer-reviewed literature and from field research observations conducted in Cambodia and Laos during 2006-2013, considering these in the context of a change management perspective aimed at improving adoption of biosecurity measures. Motivation for change, resistance to change, knowledge management, cultural dimensions, systems theory and leadership were discussed. Due to geographical, physical and resource variability, the implementation of biosecurity interventions suitable for smallholders is not a 'one size fits all'. Cross-cultural differences between Australia and Cambodia and Laos range from the more obvious such as food and religion, to the more subtle such as power distances in leadership structure to something simple like the interpretation of a hard verses soft handshake. Opinions on euthanasia could be quite different between a new graduate veterinary student from Australia and a rural village veterinarian in the Mekong. Imagine country A, with an annual gross national income per person in the order of USD$60,000 compared to that of country B at ~USD$900. How might that impact day-to-day decision making, motivations and consideration for risk management, particularly in the long term if the priority is finding food to eat… today? Conversely, imagine being in country A, not concerned about where todays meal is coming from and then bear upon your own values onto country B.

Our approach and belief is that smallholders should be educated in biosecurity principles and empowered to make personal decisions rather than adopt prescribed pre-defined interventions. Biosecurity interventions should be aligned with smallholder farmer motivations, preferably offering clear short-term risk management benefits that elicit interest from smallholders. Linking biosecurity and disease control with improved livestock productivity provides opportunities for sustainable improvements in livelihoods. This was made significantly obvious when farmers rapidly adopted forage growing for their cattle, motivated by significant savings in time that was previously spent searching for cattle fodder. This engagement built trust, and allowed animal health interventions to be included in a 'systems management' approach where previously farmers were skeptical based on perceived adverse impacts or unqualified cost benefit. Participatory research and extension that improves farmer knowledge and practices offers a pathway to elicit sustainable broad-scale social change. However, examples of successes need to be communicated both at the 'evidence-based level' to influence regional policy development and at the village or commune level, with 'champion farmers' and 'cross-visits' used to lead local change. Peer-to-peer learning is considered a slow tool for change in organizational management, yet the power of this in tightly connected community networks in the Mekong was clear. The adoption of applied change management principles to improving regional biosecurity may assist current efforts to control and eradicate transboundary diseases in the Mekong region.

For other veterinarians and animal scientists looking for new challenges, I would recommend the University of Sydney VPH programs. The strength is in the application as well as exposure to global citizen classmates, world-class facilitators as well as dedicated staff working throughout the region tackling animal health and management and public health issues. Applied research is very rewarding, and for those seeking to enter the field research and development I would advise finding a senior researcher within the University not only with common interests, but also with clear goals and an interest in your own career. Find out what skillset they need, and take the appropriate steps. Learn to communicate on as many platforms as possible, whether by new languages, writing, websites, and presentations. Putting some 'management' into change might take you into the unknown, but perhaps that's where you would like to be? As Prof. Windsor would say: "Serendipity and opportunism are a researchers best friend."

Contact: Emmeline Yeo

Phone: 9036 6364

Email: 2c251c34283a22021923132672214d0314061a671156371a5413