Friday, November 25, 2011

Inside Ethiopia (part 2)

 This is a continuation of a previous story describing my experiences in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Day2 (21.11.2011): Setting the scene

I just returned from the workshop, which was going on for the whole day. As I found out this workshop is sort of a feedback to the previous activities done by people from SLU and ILRI. The participants are from all around Africa, sharing their experiences, challenges they face as well as proposals for improvement for the current situation. Most of the day was taken by these presentations from representatives of 15+ countries, some additional ones from the FAO representative and ILRI people.

Two main take home messages, at least for me, was the need for improved collaboration between countries and the need of implementation of national recording schemes, or even better: the combination of these two. I will explain more in the next few lines.

One of the major challenges that every country mentioned was the lack of funding. This is an unhappy situation that it might well appear in other parts of the World as well. In addition there is the lack of trained personal and facilities for research (e.g. molecular labs).  To come out of this the need of intensified cross country collaboration was suggested, as the countries have often common issues to deal with. The lack of finances also forces the people to select priorities they should work on. 

One of the burning issues raised by multiple countries as both challenges and suggestions for improvements was the implementation of national performance and pedigree recording schemes. A short simplified description for those who don’t know: Performance recording is to measure the production of each individual animal (e.g. kg of milk), so when the farmers could select those with high production and eventually get better animals. The performance recording is the backbone of animal breeding virtually non-existent in most of the countries presenting today. The establishment of such a recording scheme is a huge task, so this is where the across country collaboration comes in. Additionally the same breed is often present in multiple countries eventually exchanging breeding stock, so there is a huge benefit of a compatible recording system for a certain breed or species at multiple places. The other key issue is that the recording is done on the farm level, so one has to convince the farmers to participate.  So the purpose of the recording is not only to have a nice database which is eventually used for selection, but also the farmers need to have benefit from their participation in the recording, which can be either getting information on the performance level of their animals so they can compare themselves to others or a proof of a high performance which increases the market value of their animals.

From the description above I left out many details, but I hope you got a feeling about the complexity of the issues. Frankly, this is one of the most challenging goal I can imagine. 

Day 3-4 (22.-23.11.2011): Two days later

I am coming back to write this report after two days of workshop. The participants were discussing various around conservation strategies of animal genetic resources and the needs of their respective countries. The open aim of this workshop is that the participants take over the initiative and move the things forward in the region. In order to achieve this goal they were divided to small groups of 4-5 people from 2-3 countries, so they can discuss future collaborations. Although one can not guarantee that they will eventually work together, the selection of the groups and their common sub-regional interests are good reason for optimism regarding their joint work.

I have to mention that yesterday I put forward some of my thoughts on data recording, basically proposing that one should try it with a single huge push. Right after during the coffee break I was confronted by a much wiser person than myself, telling me that the procedure as I outlined would lead to failure in African context. He was even pointing out a similar case from the past. I have to admit that it was not one of my brightest moments… But at least I learnt something new.

Half of today’s discussions were devoted to computer based applications such as the Animal genetics training resource and the Mistro database. It was a pleasant surprise that our ABG Hub (my blogpost) is linked from the main page of the Animal genetics training resource.

Tomorrow is THE day for me, where I will present the R to the workshop participants. Quite a few people were already asking questions or said that they are looking forward to my part of the workshop. The presentations are prepared, so let’s see what happens…

Day 5 (24. 11. 2011): The course and beyond

Today I held my course, teaching about 20 people about the basics of R. (attach photo of the room, upload presentations in a separate blogpost). It went reasonably well with lots of questions from the “students”. Clearly they were very interested in the program as it gives a zero cost alternative to SAS. I started on with the installation and the very basic features slowly going towards statistics and data visualization. I constructed the presentations in a way that I could drop the programming part if necessary. And was necessary indeed, as I run out of time in the mid of the “statistics and visualization” part. But I have to say that we explored some of the features of R in more detail. The people were particularly interested in data loading from text files and Excel which were not covered very deeply in the initial plan. Also they asked various questions about genetic analysis, with focus on animal breeding data. I answered what I could or pointed out resources where they could find more. I guess it would make sense to make a course in R with a special focus on animal breeding and genetic analysis related issues, it was clear for me that there would be a clear interest for something like that.

Just after the lunch we hoped on a bus and went out to the town to do some shopping. Frankly, it was one of the most devastating experiences I ever had. (ref to a blog post, or some pictures to the end of this post). We visited two places in Addis. One of them was near the main post office with a bunch of small shops selling traditional clothing, small statues and such things, but clearly oriented on tourists. The other place (as far as I could guess) was a more central one with huge concentrations of jewelry shops, mostly gold and silver.  I saw a similar environment as few days ago, so I knew what to expect. There were people trying to sell various stuff which I kind of expected, but there were also small children all around, asking people for money. One can find this in any major city in any country, but the sheer numbers were shocking for me. I saw children even younger than my son alone on the streets, mothers with children on their backs, people sleeping on the streets. Just a shocking experience. I am not sure if I want to go back there again. 

What I also know is that my denial does not change anything. Why is that some people bath in money, others don’t have anything? 

Day 6 (25.11.2011): Homecoming

Yesterday ended with an unexpected twist and I saw yet another side of Ethiopia. All workshop participants were invited to a restaurant with traditional music and dances. As I steped through the door I found myself in a huge hall with low tables and plenty of people inside. Majority of them were tourists I guess. Of course there were two guards and a security check at the entrance. After the previous experiences in town I was not in a high mood to go for such a place, but since this was the last evening of the workshop I went on. At some point I was pulled up to the stage and served as an entertainment show for the rest of the guests. Apparently they liked it, as I received many congratulations from friends and strangers alike.

 Today is the packing and leaving day. Already packed most of the things, but I will fly only during the night. I will go around the campus once more and then close the chapter of my first ever visit of Ethiopia. Most likely the work will go on, as many of the course participants will re-connect via email, but for now I am happy to go home.

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