Improving livestock productivity through biotechnology

Image: Alumnus Christopher Simuntala from Zambia.

Zambian Alumnus Christopher Simuntala is a leading player in creating modern equipment and infrastructure for biotechnology labs within his country. He has designed and set up laboratory infrastructure for Zambia’s first animal health biotechnology laboratory for the Central Veterinary Research Institute (CVRI), a structure of the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock. The CVRI provides various solutions to the livestock industry, using innovative veterinary services and responding to a changing environment.

Through the development of the biotechnology lab, the CVRI ensures that livestock breeds are improved, diseases are alleviated and prevented and the country’s livestock productivity is enhanced. The infection of livestock poses a burden on the industry’s productivity. Previously, a lack of modern technology and infrastructure meant that disease diagnosis and response were slow, as conventional methods took longer to diagnose and treat diseases. The lacking infrastructure would negatively impact the industry’s ability to implement suitable treatment and resulted in the death of large numbers of livestock.

Christopher envisioned and researched the possibility of a biotechnology lab to respond to the industry’s challenges before undertaking his Australian studies for a Master of Science in Biotechnology (completed in 2011) course. He surveyed the country to establish whether a biotechnology lab existed and what comparisons could be found between existing labs and the lab he envisioned. At this point, he recognised that, although labs existed, none had the biotechnology facilities required. Upon realising this gap, he identified the Australia Awards scholarship opportunity as critical to adding value to his professional initiatives, differentiating himself as a scientist, and providing him with the professional development and exposure he required to implement his vision.

The scholarship turned out to be the professional breakthrough that Christopher had hoped for. Not only was he exposed to new technologies and methods on designing a biotechnology lab, he also strengthened his understanding on diagnosing diseases and understanding the manipulation of organisms to determine the molecular epidemiology (study and analysis of health and disease conditions) of animal diseases in Zambia. While in Australia, he continued to work on the biotechnology project and developed the specifications and design for the lab and its equipment, in consultation with lecturers at the Swinburne University of Technology, notably Professor Murina and Dr Tonny Burton. Upon his return to Zambia, the new building had been completed and Christopher was prepared to continue with the labs operations, which would serve the nation and livestock industry. The equipment and construction costs were funded by the Zambian government, regional boards, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, reflecting a cross-sectoral and regional buy-in for the lab.

The implementation of biotechnology labs and new diagnosis methods, using both conventional and molecular diagnosis, has resulted in shorter disease diagnosis and disease confirmation timeframes. The infrastructure and diagnosis methods have improved the ability to save livestock, due to quick response and treatment implementation. Furthermore, biosecurity measures have been put in place to avoid the spread of disease through various livestock herds, resulting in the continued raising of herds which constitute people’s livelihoods and sustain food security.

The developmental impact of Christopher’s work is positively systemic, as the design and set-up of the biotechnology labs have improved the institute’s workflow and enhanced biosafety, thus preventing large-scale loss of livestock. Furthermore, the institute’s effectiveness has increased through molecular diagnosis which is specific, prompt and has reduced the time it takes to receive results to three hours, whereas previous disease diagnosis would take days or weeks, often resulting in the death of livestock.

The ability for CVRI, through the biotechnology lab, to diagnose and respond to disease, thus increasing the health of livestock has had a multiplier effect on farmers. Most subsistence farmers use ox-drawn power to cultivate the land. The ability to maintain the health of their livestock has a positive impact on crop production. Zambia’s agricultural industry reflects the interrelatedness of crop and livestock production and the country has been able to export maize, due to the surplus maize production experienced since 2012, contributing to the country’s efforts to increase food security and reduce poverty. Both subsistence and commercial farmers, in all 10 provinces, have directly benefitted from the lab’s work and Christopher’s intervention.

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