In Laos: Testing mobile solutions for poultry care

December 15, 2014
Mary O'Neill
Despite national gains in tackling poverty, hunger stubbornly persists in Laos. Some 44% of children under the age of five show signs of stunting as a result of malnutrition. Laos’ National Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy notes the importance of livestock and farming in its efforts to reduce poverty. Among its goals, the strategy aims to diversify and modernize agriculture and forestry, improve rural livelihoods and food security, and support women farmers.

Since 2010, Veterinarians without Borders (VWB) has been working with the National University of Laos to support primary animal health workers in 11 villages of Xaythany District, just north of the national capital, Vientiane. These community-based workers fill an important gap in veterinary care for smallholder farmers, for whom small flocks of poultry or a few head of cattle can be an important source of income, savings, and food security. With few veterinary specialists for them to turn to for advice, primary animal health workers need timely and credible information sources to share with villagers when promoting animal health.

An animal health worker demonstrates a phone app to a local woman in Laos 

An animal health worker demonstrates the app to a local woman farmer.

Tapping rapid growth in cellular technology

According to the International Telecommunication Union, mobile-cellular subscriptions reached almost 7 billion by the end of 2014, with just over half in the Asia-Pacific region. Tapping into this dramatic shift in communications technology, VWB teamed up with the University of Calgary and LifeLearn Inc. — a Canadian educational publisher and digital media developer — to explore smartphone applications that could help animal health workers better serve small farming households.

According to Dr Mark Stephenson, Chief Development Officer of LifeLearn, "There is tremendous opportunity for mobile technology in furthering education in remote areas of the world as cellular technology becomes more mainstream."

Consultation in three target villages in 2011 had shown poultry care to be a priority. Poultry are largely managed by women, especially in low-income households, and farmers typically invest little in their feed, shelter, or health care. This presented an opportunity to increase production with well-targeted, practical advice.

“Most villagers raise chickens,” according to Sonia Fèvre, Asia Regional Director with VWB, “but they mainly let them scavenge, using no improved techniques to increase production. Chickens are mainly kept to improve family diets. In a good season, households will sell a few for a bit of income.”

But little was known about whether and how a mobile app could help part-time animal health workers and low-income households, many with low levels of literacy. How might the technology work in a farm setting? Would animal health workers use it to learn and share information? Would they see it as a useful tool? So the research focused on whether smartphones could be adapted to build animal health capacity in the context of a resource-poor, primary animal health care model.

Chickens not laying? There’s an app for that

Content development focused on poultry housing, breeding, and selection; nutrition; and brooding with information provided in text, audio, photos, and videos. Over 2012 and 2013, successive versions of the app were rolled out and tested with the primary animal health workers. When the final version was produced in June 2013, smartphones loaded with the app in English and Lao were then distributed to 22 workers from 10 different villages.

Following training and two months of field use, an evaluation showed that, despite initial challenges in getting used to smartphones, animal health workers saw the app as a convenient, relatively user-friendly tool for learning and reference. They reported using it to address questions on poultry-raising and share information with farmers. Nineteen of them had used the app to solve their most recent poultry challenge: typically a problem related to feed, housing, or egg production.  Most were also using the phones to consult with team members and their peers.

“The project didn’t provide material support other than the phones – it was mainly technical advice,” said Margot Camoin, a veterinarian and epidemiologist working with VWB. “But this was just what farmers need most to make their poultry farming more sustainable.”

Mr. Kamphieng shows off his smartphone

Mr Kamphieng, a local farmer, saved money on commercial chicken feed after learning to prepare his own natural mixes.

Picture this: extending the use of mobile information tools

Besides demonstrating interest in phone based-technology, the animal health workers were struck by how useful pictures were as a tool for diagnosis and sharing information. Some have since begun using the phones to take photos in diagnosing ailments in other animals they treat, such as pigs and goats. They can then use these images when seeking advice. The results show that the workers are willing to learn new technologies, curious about the potential of smartphones, and positive about using the app as a learning tool. Looking ahead, they expressed an appetite for adapting the application to cover other topics, such as cattle, livestock illnesses, and livestock breeding, and in becoming more involved in Internet-based phone solutions. For now, VWB is building on this most recent learning experience by integrating cell phones as a data collection tool in upcoming research.

“Given the enthusiasm for sharing knowledge through pictures,” says Sonia Fèvre, “we are looking at including photo-sharing surveillance in our newest project. And we will look at making mobile technology accessible to more animal health workers and government counterparts.”

Learn more

Sonia Fevre Researcher Portrait
Sonia Fèvre: fostering community connections

A specialist in community development and capacity building, Sonia Fèvre is Asia Regional Director with Veterinarians without Borders. Since joining VWB in 2009, she has launched animal and community health projects in Laos and beyond in Southeast Asia, and helped forge the partnerships behind recent research on smartphone applications for poultry care. 

“I’ve worked in development for many years, over a broad spectrum of issues such as agriculture, urban development, community mobilization, and health promotion. I really see myself as more of an integration specialist. I love the participation, working with communities.”

Sonia’s skills in community mobilization build on earlier studies in Social Anthropology and Environmental Technology. And she is in the process of learning Lao as her fifth language, helping her connect more directly with the communities she serves.

Seeing the spark of connection among animal health workers, as they explored how smartphones could help them support poultry farmers, was a satisfying surprise:

“One of their first questions was, ‘Can we get on Facebook?’ They really wanted to share photos, get online, and connect. They could see so much potential for sharing.”

Mary O'Neill is an Ottawa-based writer and the founder of Lost Art Media.