Jenny Hanks has a chat with Myo Thura in rainy Yangon while we wait for the power to come back on…
Tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Ye, Mon State which is in the southern part of Myanmar, close to the border with Thailand. My grandparents and parents were farmers there and I had fun visiting their farm during school holidays where they grew lots of different fruit (durian, rambutan, mangosteen). This was the reason why I went to study a bachelor degree at Yezin Agriculture University from 1994-1999. After that I worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation for 6 years. Then I left the ministry and worked for the United Nations Development Programme and a couple of non-government organisations, such as Welt Hunger Hilfe and Care Myanmar. After this I joined the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) where I have worked as the program coordinator for ACIAR’s Myanmar Program since 2012.
What are the biggest challenges facing agricultural production in Myanmar?
I think the biggest challenge is that we have no exact data; this makes it very difficult to plan for the future and ways to improve production. Another challenge is the limitation of capacity and facilities of extension services. A third challenge is that often government and private companies work independently in their own ways without collaboration. Generally, they only interact when necessary for the company to be registered. Therefore public private partnerships could be improved. Strengthening these kinds of linkages between stakeholders is key to improving agricultural production.
What makes ACIAR projects or other international development projects successful?
Whether a project helps to improve the livelihoods of the farmers is the most important way to determine if a project has been successful. Good collaboration between government and non-government stakeholders is needed for long term impacts. Using participatory approaches by working together with farmers is the best way for learning, techniques such as field days and demonstrations are very useful to do this.
Picture 1. Farmers participating in a system of rice intensification (SRI) demonstration plot in Shan State. This is a cultivation method which is beneficial for small holder farmers.
What is the most useful training/support Australian researchers can provide to young Myanmar scientists working on ACIAR projects?
I like the Australian researchers; they work together with the young researchers from Myanmar. They provide practical experiences and the chance for hands on learning which is a great opportunity for young researchers in Myanmar. Working and learning together on all the activities of project implementation such as planning, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting helps young researcher gain skills in these areas. Coaching young researchers and continued contact by email helps to continue the learning from each other. If a young Myanmar researcher has a question they can ask easily by email and can plan their research very well. I have no doubt that opportunities for postgraduate study in Australia, such as through the John Allwright Fellowships, provide a lot of benefit to those Myanmar scientists who do this. However, it is not only a benefit for themselves but also for the Myanmar agricultural research workforce.
What are the most important skills an Australian researcher should develop to successfully conduct agricultural research in Myanmar?
They should be patient and take time to develop relationships with research partners as Myanmar people are often a bit shy. Language can be a barrier and working in a group can be a new experience or challenging for Myanmar researchers which should be taken into consideration when developing projects. Myanmar people are gentle and not demanding, therefore Australian researchers need to be prepared to follow up with people, activities and partners.
What have you enjoyed most about working with Australians?
We have become like family members; they are very friendly and very open.
Did you have to adapt/learn new skills when you started working with Australians?
I had to improve my English and sometimes my critical thinking so that activities and events would go smoothly. Previously most of my experience was working in the field and now I am working in the office so I had to learn about financial management, and logistical arrangements.
Do you have a favourite experience about visiting Australia?
It was my first trip to Australia and one of my Australian colleagues invited me to visit her farm. It was great to see an Australian farm; we collected chicken eggs, picked strawberries, and went horse riding. What I mean by horse riding is sitting on the horse and taking pictures whilst the horse was stationary! It was a remarkable and memorable experience.
Picture 2: Horse riding at the farm during my very first visit to Aussie
By David McGill & Jenny Hanks
Having students, whether they be undergrad/postgrad/local/international/short-term/long-term, engaged in your R4D project opens up great possibilities for innovation, engagement, stirring up some passion and in many cases, a whole lot of fun!
My first real experience working with students on a project occurred on the back of a random thought bubble I had driving around in Pakistan. I was having trouble collating and synthesising some basic training material and decided that a little bit of help from Australian based students would be a great way to work on multiple modules simultaneously. I took the idea to my boss at the time, Peter Wynn, with the pitch that the students could gain some hands-on experience and coordinate with local students to develop training material. It wasn’t a completely far-out idea, as Peter was (and is) a firm believer in engaging students, particularly in Pakistan. However, the catch was the costs to the project and whether we could convince students to travel to Pakistan or not. Fast-forward a few months and we had four incredible students getting involved, having fun and most importantly working hard with local students.
1.1: David McGill working with students Amanda-Lee Charman (Charles Sturt University) and Faisal (University of Faisalabad) at the calf feeding shed.
1.2: Group shot (from L-R); Amanda-Lee, David, Emma Hand, Shahid Khalfan and Rhys Duncan.
1.3: Emma working with students from all over Pakistan to piece together information for a fodder production module.
The time spent in Pakistan with this first group of students really showed me the power of involving youth. These students spent the first two weeks working on a calf trial and helping set up a protocol of feeding, data recording and maintaining animal health. This was a simple experiment, but having the students there really helped kick it off. Not only did they get straight into it, but they had an incredible ability to break down barriers with local staff, led by example and in many ways livened up the activity with energy and enthusiasm which is infectious to both younger and more experienced local collaborators. They spent the last two weeks, preparing for a student forum and collating research and ideas to help develop their assigned extension material module. The last few days in Pakistan involved running a student forum with students from all over Pakistan, breaking up into four groups, each lead by one of the Australian students and preparing material targeted to help improve smallholder dairy farming systems.
The success of this first trip lead to three more student trips organised throughout the project; in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Each group had their own tasks, projects and dynamic – always making for an interesting few weeks in sunny Lahore. Jenny Hanks, one of the other RAID Committee members, was on one of these Pakistan trips and has had an interesting career develop out of this initial interaction with R4D.
[David exit stage right]
A long time ago (2010) I travelled to Pakistan as a 4th year vet science student with the student trips that David set up. Waking up on the first morning in Lahore to the sound of the call to prayers was a unique way to start off what was my first international trip. There were many memorable moments and some of the best were working with the local students from the University of Veterinary and Animal Science (UVAS). We were three young Australian women paired up with three young Pakistani women. We visited women and children in villages where the project was, carried out surveys and then organised a student forum together. We invited students from all the animal science universities around Pakistan and focussed on key themes for dairy production, as well as research and presentation skills. This gave me a glimpse of life as a student in Pakistan and showed me how much Australian and Pakistani students could learn from each other.
Fig. 2: Three Pakistani women from UVAS and three Australian women from CSU with some of the project team
After a month in Pakistan I returned home to Australia and finished off my vet degree. But I wasn’t content that my experience in Pakistan would become a distant, happy memory while I treated cats and dogs in a vet clinic. Instead I headed to Laos for a couple of months where the University of Sydney have a great program set up with final year veterinary and animal science students spending time working with an ACIAR funded project. While I was there I met Sonevilay Nampanya, who had left Laos to study at Sydney Uni and then returned home to work on the ACIAR project. He had an amazing rapport and understanding with farmers and I could see what an asset he was to the project. He was also working with the Sydney Uni students who came to visit and we worked on a drench trial (deworming of cattle) and some teaching programs whilst I was there. In a similar way to Pakistan I got to see how much you could contribute as a student by working with the local team.
Fig. 3: Sonevilay teaching Laos students how to identify worm eggs under the microscope.
Fast forward a few years, I was keen to involve Australian students on the ACIAR project I work on now in Myanmar. We used a similar model to the Pakistan student trips and had four University of Melbourne final year vet students working alongside four University of Veterinary Science Masters students. This time around I was organising the trip which gave me quite a different perspective. My colleagues, Angus Campbell and Elsa Glanville supervised the students on four research areas and their involvement in project work for two weeks in September last year. This trip undoubtedly generated the most enthusiasm both in Myanmar and in Australia of any trips we’ve had over the past three years. Showing not only was it a great experience for the students but also for the project team.
Some closing thoughts on the benefits of engaging students;
- Allocating specific tasks to students helps to maintain focus and get the most out of the students. For example; data collection for an honours project or a review report which can be drafted and addressed during the trip. This can also help to finish off/kick start project specific task which helps to attain project objectives as well
- Students become an alumni of the project and help to advocate the excellent work R4D is contributing, and promote international/extension opportunities to other students at your University.
- Interaction between groups of students across borders and oceans gives a unique opportunity for individuals studying a similar degree in an entirely different country to connect. This gives perspective to Australian students and local students alike driving new ideas and approaches to their studies and research challenges.
- Students share their experiences with their friends and family which can also change the way they look at the world.
- Most of all students invigorate and energise project team members and make activities more vibrant!
My many moments in Myanmar continue this year. Although now they are a little less frequent, as at the end of last year I moved back to Australia after two years living and working in Myanmar. I’m now looking out to what is a rather wet and cold Melbourne day, where a month ago I was in a goat pen in the middle of Myanmar weighing goats and feeling a little hot… it was 46 degrees.
Figure 1. Goats are weighed on a monthly basis to better understand current production and assess whether new aspects of husbandry management trialled by farmers are helpful.
To say living in Myanmar in 2014 and 2015 was a remarkable experience remains to feel like an understatement. It was a historic time, at the end of last year the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi, won the national election and after a transition period started governing in April this year. Many NGOs and projects have been busy trying to contribute to various sectors in Myanmar. This includes the ACIAR project I work on, which has been able to provide training for many postgraduate students in field research skills and provide some ways for farmers to adapt their current livestock management to improve their livelihoods.
Some of the changes working with the farmers have been expected and some less so. After introducing Sesbania, a fodder tree that is a good energy and protein source for cattle, sheep and goats, there were numerous requests from farmers who wanted to grow the trees. Normally they often only request to grow a few trees. This may be because Sesbania is also very popular for adding to soups for people to eat. Hopefully there will be enough left over after preparing the soups to share with the cattle, sheep and goats too!
Figure 2. Making preparations for a nursery of trees that can be distributed to farmers as seedlings. They are nutritious for more than one species of livestock.
Now I’m in the very fortunate position to continue in my role managing a livestock research project based in the Central Dry Zone of Myanmar, while living in Melbourne and regularly visiting back to Myanmar. People talk about experiencing reverse culture shock after returning and to be honest I’m not completely sure if this is something that I have experienced or not. I certainly miss my friends and what now feels like family from Myanmar. Luckily I still get to see them pretty frequently.
The things I compare with friends now living in Melbourne do vary quite a bit compared to what I would compare with friends when I was living in Yangon. In Melbourne we might talk about favourite cafes and health insurance. In Yangon we also talk about favourite places to eat but also the number food poisonings and electric shocks experienced!
I was given two pieces of advice for avoiding food poisoning while living in Yangon: (1) disinfect your stomach with a shot of rum before you eat food that you think may cause an upset stomach and (2) wash your salad in whisky. These gems of wisdom were given with a straight face. I don’t necessarily recommend them!
Getting back to the project it has also all been about the people… my colleagues in Myanmar, in Australia, the students and the farmers I get to work with. In the same way that my experience living in Yangon was shaped by the great people I met, so too has the project been shaped by the dedicated and hardworking people I work with.
In the past couple of months my Mum has been to visit. So as with any visitor I wanted to show her what is unique and special about Myanmar… in short there is a lot. Here are some of the things I find really fascinating, I’m not sure if these are covered in the lonely planet for Myanmar!
- The Myanmar longyi- women where long skirts in a huge array of colours and designs and so do the men. The style for men tends to be checked and tied in a knot at the front which if you have a good technique can also serve as a pocket. I have never had so many compliments of beautiful “Hla deh”, as when I am wearing a longyi. The women and children also wear thanika on their cheeks. It is a type of traditional sunscreen and makeup made from powdering wood from the thanika tree.
- Pickled tea leaf salad. It is commonly eaten with fried nuts and beans, tomato and cabbage. Sound kind of strange I know, but really delicious. Probably one of those things you just need to try!
- Kind and generous people, not necessarily unique to one country. But Myanmar must have a high percentage of them. My neighbour continues to pay my bills for me because I can’t read the bills (I reimburse him). My colleagues continue to be patient with my terrible pronunciation and asking multiple times how do you say… in Myanmar.
Picture 1. My colleagues showing how to wear a longyi and work in one too.
A highlight of the visit with my Mum was spending time in the village. One of many friendly farmers wanted to know how old she was from what I could understand and wanted to know how many children she had. He seemed to be complementing her on how young she looked. It really reinforced how much I wish I could communicate with the farmers I work with directly.
I continued as a tour guide after my Mum left with Sarah, a vet student from Massey University coming to stay with me. She had booked into a guesthouse only to discover after swapping rooms three times that all the beds had bed bugs and so arrived at my place at midnight on her first night. She came here to see what kind of roles vets can have in interesting places and to see the farming systems in Myanmar. She had her 15 minutes of Myanmar fame at the livestock show with a TV interview for the farmer channel, visited farms around Yangon and in Shan State and helped with vaccination of chickens against Newcastle Disease with our ACIAR Dahat Pan project team.
This month I have been working more with masters students from the University of Veterinary Science to finalise their proposals for the short research projects they are going to be doing linked with our project. The results are going to be used to help build up the bigger picture about livestock farming systems in the Dry Zone of Myanmar and the types of changes which have potential for increasing production and profits.
The cuckoo bird started to sing outside my office window a little while ago meaning summer was coming and now it is well and truly here.
Until the next month or two…. Aung myin par say! (be successful/ cheers in Myanmar)
Picture 2: After a hard day preparing the fields, undoubtedly this friendly farmer from Kyauk Aoe village was working harder than me.
About 3 months ago you saw a blog from me about moments in Myanmar and I guess this is the sequel… I’m going to be writing a blog about once a month over the next year on what I’m doing in Myanmar. Before I go any further I thought it might be a good time to introduce myself, which I neglected to do in my previous blog. My name is Jenny, I have now been working in Myanmar for just over a year. Before I moved to Myanmar I was working for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) in Canberra, before that in a veterinary clinic in Bacchus Marsh and before that I studied vet at Charles Sturt University. Now my job is to manage the ACIAR/ Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) research project for livestock in the dry zone of Myanmar, affectionately known as Dahat Pan. Dahat Pan is a flowering tree that greens the dry zone when sometimes there is little else that is green. I am living in Yangon, attempting to learn some of the Myanmar language and working my way through a masters of veterinary public health at a somewhat slow pace.
Towards the end of 2015 Myanmar plans to hold democratic elections. In our Dahat Pan project in 2015 farmers will be using coops for their chickens, supplementary feeding their chicks and vaccinating against Newcastle disease. We will run a drench trial for deworming of cattle, sheep and goats, farmers may trial growing grasses and trees to cut and carry to their animals for feed. We will continue monitoring health and production of livestock and a number of male goats will be castrated. So there may be a few unhappy goats but hopefully happy farmers who are able to increase their income. 2015 promises to be an interesting year!
In the past year my life experiences feel like they have been accelerated tenfold, there has been rumours, surprises and misunderstandings in our project, like any good day time soap opera really. Misunderstandings and communication became the catch phrase of our annual meeting. The misunderstandings have ranged in scale from the budget, to who has the box of gloves for sample collection, to the look of total panic on our very helpful drivers’ face when I asked him if he was meeting friends for dinner. At least that is what I thought I was asking in Myanmar language but judging by the expression on his face it didn’t sound like that.
Figure 1: Our procession through Ya Thar village to collect samples for worm egg counts (we still had the gloves then).
The past year has also been a steep learning curve for two of my colleagues and friends Nandar & Ei Phyu, who work as junior scientists in the villages where we are doing research. Their jobs are to collect and manage data on production and health of cattle, sheep, goats and chickens, to manage trial plots of grasses, legumes and trees and to work with farmers to be involved with these activities. For every one of the activities they have learnt new skills, which they have applied very effectively. You might be able to tell that I am really proud and privileged to be working with them.
Figure 2: Nandar, Ei Phyu, Tu Tu and I preparing record sheets for collection of data on weights and body condition scores of cattle, sheep and goats.
2014 has been a big year and who knows what will be install for another year in Myanmar in 2015 but I’m in a unique and incredibly lucky position to find out.
Until next month…. Aung myin par say! (be successful/ cheers in Myanmar)
Six months ago I arrived in Myanmar ready for the adventure of getting a livestock research project started, not knowing what to expect really but being prepared with a large wad of US dollars. (I’m not a drug dealer it is just very difficult to get money into Myanmar).
In the past six months there have been moments…. moments that I have felt more than I have ever felt before. Moments that have made me want to tear my hair out and in the same day moments of elation as step by step the project has started to take shape.
There have been moments of misunderstanding…. when a cattle crush was built large enough to house an elephant. And not only that, but there were two “elephant” crushes built side by side rather than at either end of the village.
There have been moments of frustration…. not being able to get a visa to enter into Myanmar or getting stuck in the airport with my Myanmar colleagues because they were unable to get a visa to enter any other country.
There have been moments of surprise when after initial reluctance of farmers to use ear tags we were offering for their cattle, sheep and goats they became quite a fashionable item. Of course the ear tags were also useful for farmers to identify their animals and for us to be able to do the same.
There have been moments of pride seeing two young researchers from Myanmar go from not knowing how to use excel to competently entering production data for cattle, sheep and goats after only a short amount of training and practice.
There have been moments of hard work with shared enthusiasm… getting up early to work with farmers and researchers to plant forage trials. We would have been there the whole day planting seed except that there were so many farmers interested in what was happening and willing to help.
There have been moments of satisfaction going from the chief field trip planner to one of my Myanmar colleagues emailing me the itinerary for the next field trip and telling me they will be able to organise everything and will call me if there are any problems.
There have been moments of drinking tea…more than one. Watching the tea making is half the fun. It is far more than boiling the kettle, but is made by tea baristas. It looks a lot like a barista in one of the trendiest cafes in Melbourne making coffee, only with condensed milk and large pots simmering with Myanmar tea.
There has been well meaning respect that has turned into rather funny moments… being greeted at any time of the day by the grounds keeper with a very polite “Good morning Sir!” and a salute.
Some of the moments so far have been amazing, some just hard. Regardless they feel worthwhile, and that has been the strongest feeling by far, that I am making a contribution to something that empowers researchers and farmers in Myanmar.
Working with farmers to weigh goats
No small task, but this is what the Crawford Fund conference last week grappled with. I was lucky to be there as a Crawford scholar as well as to help in the launch of Researchers in Agriculture for International Development (RAID).
Catherine Bertini started the conference with a very real example of the importance of understanding gender when working in agriculture. The example was of women farmers being unable to use the hoes that they were given for weeding because they required different hoes from the men. They required hoes with a shorter handle and a different angle on the spade to allow for them to squat whilst working as it was less back breaking that way when carrying a baby on their back. It was a startling and thought provoking example, highlighting some of the challenges to feeding the 9 billion well.
The bar had been set high for speakers for the following day at the parliamentary conference, all of which were from highly renowned organisations with diverse and interesting careers. The way in which questions posed by the delegates were answered eloquently when put on the spot was very impressive.
On Wednesday evening following the parliamentary conference RAID was officially launched! We invited young researchers and “young at heart” researchers to join us for drinks and networking at the Realm. The enthusiasm by everyone who came was staggering…the free drink may have assisted. However the overwhelming feeling was that we were a group of people motivated to make a contribution to feeding the 9 billion and motivated to help each other do this.
It was exciting the following day to start the Young Scholars day with Nick Austin the CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) describing his highlight of the conference as the RAID event we had held the previous night. This was an inspiring day to be a part of, we heard from Catherine Bertini again and also from many who have had incredibly interesting careers in agriculture both in Australian and overseas. The insight into what is was like to have a career doing international work and what the possibilities might be to be able to do this was fantastic.
I owe a huge thanks to the Crawford Fund for sponsoring me to attend the event. The Crawford scholarships are awarded to young people working or wanting to work in international agricultural research. Already some of my fellow scholars have been emailing about keeping in touch and about the work they are doing. I think this represents the biggest benefit from being a part of this conference. It has been a chance to network in a way that is more than a handshake. It has been a chance to get to know people who I want to stay in contact with, to learn from and to share experiences with.
Picture: The RAID committee after our launch on the 27th of August. From left to right. Back row: Rebecca McBride, David McGill, David Parsons, Emma Zalcman, Rowan Smith, Jack Koci. Front row: Jenny Hanks, Di Mayberry, Bonnie Flohr.