Global Agriculture

Sowing the Seed of Passion and Enduring Commitment on African Soil: Duan Zhenhua, Leader of the Expert Group in São Tomé and Príncipe

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25 May 2024, China: In 2013, a stirring news on the “China-Aided South-South Cooperation Project for Ethiopia” recruiting veterinary technicians sparked the interest of a young veterinary professional from Yulin, Guangxi. Driven by a profound desire to share China’s cutting-edge technology abroad and benefit more people, he wasted no time in enlisting. Since then, he has participated in agricultural aid projects in Africa five times, bringing advanced and practical veterinary knowledge and techniques to African countries. He is Duan Zhenhua, a senior veterinarian from the Yulin Animal Disease Prevention and Control Center in Guangxi.

For more than ten years, Duan Zhenhua has worked in Ethiopia, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, and other countries on agricultural aid projects, gradually evolving from a novice to a pillar in agricultural assistance to Africa. His passion for agriculture has not only taken root in the soil of these nations but has also blossomed into a testament of enduring commitment. 

On August 12, 2023, Duan Zhenhua embarked on his sixth journey to Africa, this time entrusted by the Center of International Cooperation Service of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs to lead the fourth phase of the agricultural and animal husbandry technical assistance project in São Tomé and Príncipe. As the leader and laboratory veterinary expert of the project, alongside fellow Chinese experts, he championed the dissemination of advanced agricultural practices, planting techniques, animal breeding, and disease prevention and control. 

Laboratories need to be built and professional work has to be carried out simultaneously 

The veterinary laboratory stands as a vital hub for research into animal disease etiology, epidemiology, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, and control—a cornerstone for veterinary experts in their work. Upon his arrival São Tomé and Príncipe National Veterinary Laboratory, what caught his eye first were the cramped space, dilapidated equipment, and halted experiments. It was clear that refurbishing the facility, updating equipment, and ensuring its functionality were urgent priorities for the team of veterinary experts. 

“The National Veterinary Laboratory in São Tomé and Príncipe occupies a two-story building. However, the ground floor is primarily utilized for slaughter, and although there are three rooms on the second floor, two are used as offices, leaving only one room for experimental work,” explained Duan Zhenhua, highlighting the formidable challenges faced in carrying out their tasks. 

“While waiting for the equipment and materials arriving from China, we first repaired the laboratory’s roof, doors, windows, floor, walls, and electrical circuits. We also started up previously unused equipment such as centrifuges. This way, once the materials and equipment arrive, we can start experiments immediately,” he said.   

Amidst the multitude of tasks within the aid project, Duan Zhenhua, drawing upon his wealth of experience, recognizes the importance of multitasking. “Some disease monitoring and testing tasks can be done without the need for specialized equipment. While the laboratory needs to be built, our professional work has to be carried out simultaneously,” he told the reporter. Following discussions with the head of the São Tomé and Príncipe laboratory, he initiated a nationwide surveillance campaign for brucellosis in cattle and sheep. 

Brucellosis is a zoonotic infectious disease. Infection in cattle and sheep can cause abortion, while in humans, the bacteria can affect the spine and major joints, posing a threat to life and health. Therefore, it is necessary to monitor the disease. “We took the staff of National Veterinary Laboratory to conduct epidemiological investigations and collect blood samples from cattle and sheep on livestock farms across various regions. These samples were then brought back to the laboratory for serum separation and testing using available kits. This allows us to assess the preliminary prevalence of brucellosis,” Duan Zhenhua explained. Subsequent monitoring reports and recommended prevention and control measures would be submitted to the local agricultural department. 

“It is heartening that we have not yet found any positive results for brucellosis in the collected samples. Furthermore, through demonstration and guidance on sampling and testing procedures, the technical staff in São Tomé and Príncipe have gained proficiency in conducting animal disease surveillance. After the nationwide surveillance of brucellosis is completed, we will impart more techniques for animal disease investigation and surveillance in veterinary laboratories, enhancing the capacity of veterinary personnel in São Tomé and Príncipe to conduct comprehensive disease surveillance and investigation,” Duan Zhenhua remarked. 

Training professionals effectively is the essence of teaching people to “fish” 

How to teach people to “fish” is a question that every aid project team in Africa must consider. As the work of animal disease surveillance progresses, Duan Zhenhua realized that the shortage of professional talent and the lack of standardized inspection and quarantine processes were constraining the development of animal husbandry and laboratory veterinary levels in São Tomé and Príncipe. “São Tomé and Príncipe only has national-level veterinary laboratories with relevant veterinary professionals. At the regional level, there are hardly any,” he said. This means that when animal diseases occur in farms or breeding grounds in various places, only professional personnel from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development can be contacted to solve the problem, which is very inefficient, and there are often missed treatment opportunities due to delayed rescue or poor communication, resulting in animal deaths and losses to breeders.     

To tackle this problem, Duan Zhenhua systematically carried out veterinary skills training, inviting professional technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development and various regions, as well as breeding farm managers and farmers, to teach them common standardized operations and methods such as animal blood collection and pharyngeal and cloacal swab sample collection. “The main goal of our training is to impart theoretical knowledge and practical skills to the participating breeders, such as the steps for submitting animal disease samples for testing, general principles and quantities of sampling, preparation of sampling instruments and supplies, as well as recording, preservation, packaging, and transportation of samples, covering the entire sampling process,” Duan Zhenhua explained.    

“Hands-on demonstrations alongside the locals” emerged as a preferred training method for Duan Zhenhua and his team. Following theoretical classes, trainees were able to engage in practical exercises under guidance. According to his recollection, Joseldo, head of National Veterinary Laboratory, initially struggled with blood sample collection from cattle. However, with repeated hands-on sessions, he has since mastered the skill. “Joseldo’s progress is evident. Initially apprehensive, he either couldn’t find the blood vessels or couldn’t collect them. He now adeptly performs blood collection tasks for cattle,” Duan Zhenhua noted with satisfaction. 

It is understood that as of now, the project team has completed 29 sessions of specialized training in the Central São Tomé and Príncipe Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Technology Training Classroom and six regions, covering six specialties, with a total of 860 participants. The enthusiasm among agricultural and animal husbandry professionals, growers, and breeders for such training is palpable. They listened attentively, asked detailed questions, with each session extending well beyond the scheduled duration. Duan Zhenhua emphasizes that “training professionals effectively is the essence of teaching them to ‘fish’.” Mastery of correct techniques at national and regional levels is indispensable for promptly and effectively addressing breeders’ challenges across various locations. 

Sustainable assistance teaches local people practical, hands-on skills 

Over the past eight months, the project team in São Tomé and Príncipe has made significant strides, achieving various milestones in the mission. However, navigating the intricacies of their work hasn’t always been a seamless journey for the experts. Duan Zhenhua said that in his own field of laboratory veterinary medicine, everything progressed relatively smoothly, but he found himself tested in his dual role as a team leader and a negotiation expert, which poses both a test and a challenge for him.  

Duan Zhenhua has been grappling with the challenge of effectively communicating with local officials to enhance the implementation of agricultural and animal husbandry technology trials and demonstrations. Several months ago, when the project team was reclaiming experimental fields, they faced obstacles arising from additional requirements imposed by the individual overseeing the fields. To overcome this hurdle and ensure the project’s progress, Duan Zhenhua took proactive steps. Through a combination of emotional resonance and logical persuasion, he engaged in constructive dialogue with this individual, ultimately reaching a consensus. This approach not only resolved the immediate issue but also facilitated the smooth progression of the experimental field reclamation efforts. 

“Mere offering of technical assistance or donation aid is neither our means nor our ends. Our goal is to instill the ethos of sustainable development of Chinese agriculture in every facet of local life. We pride ourselves not just on monetary support but on the presence of dedicated experts who reside in recipient countries for the long run, imparting practical, hands-on skills,” he remarked. His greatest fulfillment and pride lies in leveraging his expertise to directly and effectively assist farmers in São Tomé and Príncipe and across Africa to bolster food production and agricultural production. 

According to Duan Zhenhua, he and other experts in the project team will continue to promote various professional trial demonstrations and promotions, technical training and research, and carry out work such as introducing vegetable varieties, developing chicken breeding, and fruit processing, etc. These endeavors aim to not only enhance the living standards of farmers in São Tomé and Príncipe but also bolster their income levels. 

As the project unfolds, Duan Zhenhua and his team continue to craft a legend of unwavering dedication and transformative impact on the soil of Africa.  

Also Read: IARI Starts Sale of Imazethapyr Tolerant Basmati Rice Varieties

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