Viengxay Photakoun recently completed a Masters degree at Charles Sturt University with support from the ACIAR John Allwright Fellowship program. He returns to Lao PDR with some firm views on how to build the capacity of agricultural extension officers to benefit livestock producers. Prior to coming to Australia, Viengxay worked on an ACIAR project introducing fodder crops for livestock production in the uplands of Lao PDR. He worked closely with Dr Joanne Millar who has a special interest in developing successful extension methods. Viengxay came to Australia to complete his Masters with Dr Millar at the School of Environmental Sciences at Charles Sturt University near Albury. He previously studied English at the University of Canberra and in Vientiane. In his Masters degree Viengxay investigated ways to build institutional capacity to implement participatory research and extension in Lao PDR. On his return, he is expecting to work for the National Agriculture and Forestry Extension Service (NAFES), responsible for extension services for livestock and fisheries.
Prior to his departure from Australia, Viengxay Photakoun spoke with ACIAR’s Public Affairs Officer, Mandy Gyles.
How important is the raising of livestock in Lao PDR?
Lao PDR is an undeveloped country where more than 30 per cent of people are poor farmers. Raising livestock is an important component for farmers. In upland areas, livestock provides about half of a farmer’s income. So livestock can contribute to reducing poverty and can slow shifting cultivation, and support the Lao economy.
How has the work to introduce fodder crops into the upland areas of Lao PDR helped livestock production?
My responsibility has been with the extension approach. Links between research and extension can help farmers get an impact from research, for example, by involving more farmers in a project they can expand the impact to a large area from family to family, from village to village, from district to district, and from province to province. The number of farmers and the number of livestock involved in the project to extend the use of forages is increasing. The use of new technology for fattening livestock is expanding quickly. District staff can gain knowledge, skills and experience from this project by working closely with farmers. They also gain knowledge and learn from the farmers too.
So how has your experience been in Australia?
I’ve been here since November 2007. I’ve learnt a lot from Australian experts, from Australian extension workers, and from Australian farmers. I visited 13 farmers, small medium and large in NSW and Victoria. I also gained a lot by exchanging knowledge and ideas with other students – Australian and international – in group meetings, discussions, tutorials and seminars.
Tell me more about the work you did for your Masters where you examined different ways of building the capacity of extension officers.
I conducted interviews with a range of extension staff including the senior staff down to district extension staff. The project looked at different approaches to capacity building, depending on the objectives, the situation, the project size. From my research I now know that the most commonly used methods in the northern part of Laos are workshop training, on the job learning, staff meetings, cross visit, study tours or mentoring. My research showed that it is important to have a range of capacity building activities for extension agents. One of the most popular methods is cross visits, when a group of farmers travelled to another area to see what other farmers are doing. Both the farmers and the extension officers learnt a lot that way.
Are workshops used regularly to the exclusion of other methods?
Workshops have advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are bringing researchers, extension workers, stakeholders, and donor organisations together to present the results. They exchange experiences with each other, but the disadvantage of this method is that it is expensive for travel, accommodation, etc. It also depends on having a good facilitator. If they’re good, then participants can get good information.
What have you gained from studying in Australia?
I have gained experience, not only technical knowledge, but also improving my English proficiency. Now I will have a much better ability to communicate with foreigners. I will use this knowledge to help improve the experience of people in my country, starting with teaching my children, the children in my village, and in the office where I work. This will help in discussions with Australian experts and other foreign experts that come to Lao PDR.
Did you ever imagine when you were much younger that you would have a Masters degree from Australia and a senior role in the Lao Government?
I came from a small village near the capital Vientiane which only offered schooling until Year 3. From then I walked around 10km each day to get to and from primary and then secondary school in a neighbouring village. When I was young I used to read about people living in countries like France. I wished I could study overseas. Well, my dream has come true and I am very proud, as is my family and my village.
A summary of Viengxay’s studies: Capacity Building for Lao Extension Staff is available in the pdf below Read more about the use of forages by farmers in South East Asia in a new book published by ACIAR: