By Cath Milne and Mizeck Chagunda, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) Dairy Research and Innovation Centre
In 2008, three major entities forged a partnership to strengthen the industrial fabric of smallholder dairy development in Malawi. The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security’s Department of Animal Health and Livestock Development, Bunda College of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) created a programme focused on building the capacity of individuals, farmers, graduates and institutions to promote knowledge exchange and networking within and between institutions. Activities were implemented through individual projects of two to three years with support from many sources including the Scottish Government, British Council, the Department for International Development and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.
To better understand the institutions’ and stakeholders’ experiences and lessons from the collaborative initiative, we conducted a survey of completed projects. Traditionally, impact evaluations of programs and projects are based on surveys of beneficiaries. However, while this approach serves a specific purpose, lessons from project implementers, trainers and workshop facilitators are usually not captured and reflected. Thus, we expanded our study to encompass thirty key actors from this group of participants, which were surveyed in March and April of 2013, with a 73% response rate.
All survey respondents indicated that they had found involvement in the projects either ‘very enjoyable’ or ‘mostly enjoyable,’ which, although a subjective assessment, provides an indication that the effort required for participation was perceived to be outweighed by the benefits gained. Most respondents felt the projects had resulted in improvements to key aspects of dairying in Malawi, in particular to ‘forage and feed resource management.’
However, there were considerable differences in the views of Scotland and Malawi-based respondents of the collaboration’s impact on more obscure aspects of dairying such as ‘animal fertility and reproduction.’ Respondents may have perceived different targets of success. While some may have been looking for long-term improvements in livestock fertility, others considered conducting a training on fertility and reproduction to be a success in itself. The majority (91%) of respondents felt that the collaboration contributed to an increase in the number of dairy experts in Malawi. The survey also showed unanimous support for the projects’ ability to increase the technical abilities of dairy experts in Malawi and establish lasting links between Malawian and Scottish dairy experts.
The presence of informal links among scientists was also identified as essential for the development of the formal relationships. Specifically, respondents cited the need to turn ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain gain,’ as the Malawian diaspora has had a significant impact on SRUC. And, although the scales of dairy farming in Malawi and Scotland are vastly different — with smallholder farmers only having two to four milking cows on average in Malawi and their Scottish colleagues having on average 120 cows — the main challenges and principles are virtually the same, which creates space for transferable skills. Staff from both Malawi and Scotland were able to easily identify colleagues who exhibited talents through the collaboration that they had never seen before. Respondents also identified ways in which their own skills and knowledge had developed from the collaboration, highlighting that staff from both Malawi and Scotland had benefited as a result of participation. More importantly, through training others, many individuals discovered some hidden skills within themselves.
Despite the potential for collaboration and mutual benefit, international projects can also be very challenging due to differences in work culture, knowledge base, experience and understanding of science applications in various contexts. Bringing partners to the same level of understanding about project goals, expectations, participation and funding rules can be difficult. Identifying issues early on, understanding and voicing cultural and institutional differences among the partners, improving information sharing and increasing involvement of all parties during all stages of the project can help mitigate this problem. Long-term relationships between stakeholders should be a common goal.
Logistical issues, such as timely communication, feedback and funding structure can also be a major challenge. The differences in skills, capacity standards, values and culture can also hamper the desired outcome of the project. Effort and time should be invested in the initial stages of the project to establish appropriate communication channels and facilities. There is always a need to familiarize project implementers with project goals and activities before actual implementation. And while this may be acknowledged by many participants, international projects are rarely given a ‘settling-in period.’ Survey respondents suggest the provision of initial funding to allow the new collaborating groups time to ‘gel’ together and learn each others’ ways. Where possible, there should also be a phase to address any gaps at the end of the project.
Overall, feedback from the survey highlights the importance of investing effort and time to build understanding between partners in large-scale, integrated and international projects. Furthermore, it shows that partnerships can be synergistic and reciprocal, enabling development of not only trainers and trainees but also collaborating partners.
Read “An Innovative Approach to Integrated Training for Smallholder Dairying” to learn more about the collaboration for this integrated training approach.
Photo: Dr. Mizeck Chagunda, SRUC