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An online remedy for the animal health sector

Trained vets are extremely rare in  many parts of Africa
Trained vets are extremely rare in many parts of Africa

"On paper, Malawi has got a strong public veterinary sector," says Ben Chimera, Deputy Director of Veterinary Services, "but in terms of actual numbers, we only have five qualified vets and four of these are in education, including myself. There is only one active vet in the City of Blantyre, a young man who is doing the actual work."

Malawi's shortage of qualified vets is extreme but other African countries face a similar situation, with falling numbers of postgraduate vets. Across much of Africa, the learning opportunities currently available to veterinary professionals remain limited to conventional postgraduate degrees (MSc and PhDs), offered as fulltime residential courses for two or more years. Concern over the lack of flexible, accessible courses and training to provide a broader range of skills was the focus of recent meetings, funded by the DFID Animal Health Programme, held in Naivasha, Kenya and in Entebbe, Uganda with the deans of African veterinary schools.

The outcome of their discussions has been to launch the African Universities Veterinary E-learning Consortium (AUVEC), which aims at building capacity within the African animal health sector through the provision of new online learning opportunities.

New skills needed

Over the last twenty years, donor-driven structural re-adjustment policies have severely impacted on Africa's veterinary services. Before the 1980s, disease control and animal health services to farmers were provided by public sector vets, often free-of-charge. But whilst most countries still have government control programmes for major diseases, most animal health services are now delegated to the private sector. In theory, private sector provision of animal health services should work quite well but the changes have brought about mixed results. Private veterinarians run their own businesses and charge for their services but this requires them to be more multi-skilled than before, particularly when farmers resist paying for services, drugs and vaccines that were traditionally provided by the government. In the context of this challenging environment, the AUVEC group has identified a clear need for higher degrees offered via flexible, distance learning formats as well as less formal opportunities for Continuing Professional Development (CPD). CPD is increasingly seen as a vital means by which animal health professionals can keep abreast of the developments and new challenges arising in their sector.

AUVEC has been established by the vet schools of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and the Republic of South Africa, and the Malawi Veterinary Service. For Malawi, this initiative provides its best hope of supporting sustainable training for postgraduate vets; sending students overseas, even to neighbouring countries, is too costly. "I think it is a solution for Malawi," says Ben Chimera. "We do not have the funds to send people for training as vets but we certainly have the facilities, like computers, and we have colleges, both private and public, who can become part of the network."

Sharing and building experience

The establishment of the Consortium has been supported by the University of Edinburgh, which has recognised and award-winning e-learning expertise, particularly in the medical and veterinary sectors with the development of virtual patients. The University has already donated CLIVE (Computer-aided Learning In Veterinary Education), a package of more than 100 multi-media and e-learning resources to the African vet schools. But perhaps of greater interest is the distance learning MSc on International Animal Health, which is currently being developed by staff of the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine at Edinburgh University. The first course, starting in October 2006, will run over three years on a part-time basis, allowing students flexibility in their studies. Most importantly, the course will allow students from around the world to participate and share their knowledge and experiences. For the vet schools involved in AUVEC, this MSc initiative will also provide staff members with an opportunity to become online tutors and to build their experience in e-learning approaches and practices before eventually developing and delivering their own collaborative online materials.

The University of Pretoria in South Africa, one of the members of the consortium, will also be able to provide valuable experience in online learning. The Faculty of Veterinary Science already runs a collaborative online postgraduate programme, primarily an MSc for tropical animal health with modules for specific career opportunities also available. The Faculty of Medicine at Makerere University in Kampala, has also established e-learning modules in malaria and diarrhoea and Sam Luboga, deputy dean of the faculty is keen to work with the Consortium to develop collaborative modules on zoonoses.

The Nairobi-based African Virtual University (AVU) will be another key partner in developing infrastructure and supporting capacity building, particularly in re-training professionals used to providing didactic teaching. AVU has experience in developing online distance and e-learning (ODEL) toolkits and already works with many of the universities involved in the consortium, albeit primarily with faculties of business, economics and education.

With the launch of AUVEC, the deans recognise that whilst there are some exciting opportunities ahead, there are also many challenges. It may be a few years before the first African postgraduate vets complete an MSc developed by the consortium and delivered using distance and e-learning approaches. But the first steps have been taken to provide part-time, flexible learning opportunities to animal health professionals, particularly rural-based participants and women who previously have not had an opportunity to study.

Date published: May 2006

 

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