Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
On November 16, the French Development Agency (AFD) and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) signed an agreement with the Department of Veterinary Services and the University of Zimbabwe to promote research and prevention of animal disease with a view to safeguarding human health and boosting the livestock sector. In this report, Sifelani Tsiko (ST), Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor, speaks to Dr Mathieu Bourgarel (MB), Cirad representative in Zimbabwe and Laure Guerrini (LG), a senior researcher at Cirad about how France is moving to strengthen Zimbabwe’s capacity to manage animal diseases at a time the country is on a re-engagement drive to improve its relations with other countries.
ST: What is the major aim of the PACMAN project signed between three French institutions and two others from Zimbabwe?
MB: The PACMAN project aims to create a Biotechnology Platform with international standards to improve the autonomy of Zimbabwe to rapidly diagnose diseases circulating in the country and strengthen the surveillance and control systems of the diseases. Ultimately, PACMAN project will support Zimbabwe animal and public health strategies. The major aim is to improve Zimbabwe’s capacity to manage animal diseases.
We are going to set up a biomolecular laboratory at the University of Zimbabwe which will be fully equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. We are also going to train all veterinary and scientific staff.
We will strive to reinforce the autonomy of Zimbabwe in terms of disease diagnoses and management of zoonotic diseases.
ST: For how long will the project run and what is the estimated value of the programme?
MB: PACMAN is a three-year project which started in January 2021. The PACMAN project is in line with Zimbabwe’s national priorities which are to strengthen agriculture, food security and the environment, improve animal health programmes and establish institutional structures to promote applied research, training through research and the adoption of new technologies.
The project is all about strengthening technical partnership with the University of Zimbabwe and the Department of Veterinary Services. It will run to 2023. We also have another project, the Livestock Production Systems in Zimbabwe (LIPS-Zim) project which is working to increase agricultural productivity in the dry regions of Zimbabwe which will run to 2025.
It aims to promote the adoption of climate-relevant innovations in livestock production systems and improving surveillance and control of livestock diseases. They all connected because we are talking about control and surveillance of diseases.
We are going to be looking at animal diseases that impact livestock production and also zoonotic diseases which are diseases transmitted from animals to humans, which impact on human health.
LG: All the programmes are in line with Zimbabwe’s national priorities to increase agricultural production. Global all the three programmes we are running are worth 7,8 million euros.
MB: PACMAN project is a two million euro project funded by the IRD and the LIPS is a five million euro project funded by the EU.
ST: What do you hope to achieve under this project that will be implemented in partnership with the Department of Veterinary Services and the University of Zimbabwe?
MB: The modification of an initial molecular biology laboratory (created through the CAZCOM project) into an autonomous and adapted biotechnology platform capable of implementing cutting-edge technologies including molecular biology and serology in the detection of diseases (animal and plant), the identification and the characterisation of microorganisms, population genetics and species identification and shorten the time frame from several months to a few days in responses or health actions during epizootic events.
The Biomolecular Platform will be equipped with the latest equipment available for virology and serology analyses. Its biosecurity level will comply with the international standard to study pathogens like coronaviruses or rabies. It will definitely be an asset to the University of Zimbabwe and the research community in Zimbabwe to capacitate through research the new generation of students and researchers, to attract new scientific partners at national, regional and international levels and to fight against animal and zoonotic diseases that can emerge in Zimbabwe.
LG: We want Zimbabwe to have a functional animal health system, to be autonomous in the diagnosis and control of animal diseases. First thing, is to equip this platform, to train researchers and veterinary technical experts and then to help the country to monitor disease trends and shorten the reaction time to animal disease outbreaks.
MB: A few years ago there was an outbreak of avian flu in Zimbabwe. Initially, the reaction was slow. When you have such an outbreak you need to have information very quickly in order to react and control that outbreak. Samples had to be sent to South Africa to be analysed and that took a couple of months before Zimbabwe got the results. This time frame doesn’t augur well for the control and management of the outbreak. The disease can spiral out of control whilst the country awaits the results. Between the time when samples are taken and the results are finally known, nothing can be done to control the outbreak. With the Biomolecular Platform, we will implement cutting edge technology with equipment that could be found in Europe and in South Africa.
Zimbabwe will have exactly the same capacity of analysing the samples. Zimbabwe will have the capacity to get the information within a short space of time to help the Department of Veterinary Services to react very quickly. The idea is for Zimbabwe to have cutting edge technology and also to capacitate the people. We are also aiming to capacitate the private sector too.
ST: Are there any plans to help Zimbabwe to open beef markets in France, once animal, plant and other diseases transmitted from animals to humans are under control?
MB: This project is a development research action project through reinforcement of the laboratory capacities and capacity building of technicians, students and researchers. We will provide adequate and needed services to the livestock sector in Zimbabwe. As scientists we will provide information and capacities to control diseases and this will take some time. So let’s do one step at a time. Our work at Cirad is dedicated to research to help support developing countries — Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. We are scientists and we are only here to provide support for research in animal health and issues to do with trade are not part of our mandate.
ST: In the long term, how do you intend to expand the project so that more smallholder farmers can benefit from it?
LG: The PACMAN project is part of a strategy to strengthen Zimbabwe’s capacities in biotechnology and genetic analysis initiated at the level of the RP-PCP (Research Platform — Production and conservation in partnership involving all the main universities of Zimbabwe) by a FSPI CAZCOM project funded by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs entitled: “Improve the Capacities of Zimbabwe for the control and the surveillance of animal and zoonotic diseases.”
PACMAN is also complementary to the strategy of the European Union delegation for Zimbabwe which has just financed, within the framework of the 11th FED, a 40 million euros programme called Zimbabwe Agriculture Growth Program (ZAGP), for the development of a diversified and efficient livestock sector which is setting up a project under the DESIRA (Development-smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture) funding to improve animal production systems and animal disease control in the context of climate change. The biomolecular platform aims to become a centre of excellence to attract new partners and to ensure its long-term sustainability.
MB: Cirad has been working in Zimbabwe since 1993 and we have developed very strong partnerships with Zimbabwean institutions. We developed this to bring all the French and Zimbabwean institutions to work together. The whole idea is to develop a high standard laboratory which is well equipped and can help Zimbabwe to meet its obligations under the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization. Having such a platform will attract international institutions to carry out projects with Zimbabwean institutions instead of sending genetic samples abroad
ST: Do you have exchange programmes or scholarship programmes in the field of animal health that you are extending to Zimbabwean students or animal health technical experts?
MB: In the CAZCOM, PACMAN and LIPS-DESIRA projects, an important component is the capacity building through technical and academic training.
PACMAN will benefit students and technical staff from veterinary services through training in critical technical and scientific subjects. Master and PhD students will be capacitated. Their research will be financially supported by the projects and some of them will travel to Europe for specific training. There will be as well the possibility for the Zimbabwean students to be registered at the University of Zimbabwe and any university in France.
ST: How many are you likely to support through training and other capacity building programmes?
MB: We want to capacitate a new generation of researchers. We do work with students at Msc and PhD level. We have six students at Msc level and two PhD as well as 50 technical and scientific staff trained in diagnostic techniques for animal and zoonotic diseases. Permanent staff dedicated to the platform are trained in cutting-edge techniques for the detection and characterisation of Animal and Zoonotic diseases.
Private sector will have access as well to the technical training to strengthen laboratories capacities in the country. The students work in Zimbabwe and develop their projects here in Zimbabwe. We have exchange programmes, it’s part of the project but we haven’t been able to do this because of Covid.
ST: The animal health sector requires a huge capital outlay in terms of laboratory equipment and vaccines. Can you tell us how the French institutions are going to be supporting our own institutions here in terms of laboratory equipment and vaccines?
MB: The French Institutions will invest in total more than one million euros — 525 000 euros for laboratory equipment, 240 000 euros for reagents and consumables and 275 000 euros for a lab building refurbishment to create a biotechnology platform at the University of Zimbabwe. All equipment will be donated to the university and partners when the project ends. The Platform will not produce vaccines, but it will help in the strains identification and will collaborate with institutions involved in vaccines production.
LG: We will create a laboratory with proper biosecurity features which meet international standards. We want Zimbabwe to have a Level 2 Laboratory which can be managed well without collapsing. We will have a Level 2 plus laboratory but with options for up–grading over time. They are steps which are taken to upgrade from one level to the other. The higher the level of the laboratory, the higher the level of biosecurity, the higher the cost of running and maintenance of the laboratory. In France there is only one Level 4 lab and South Africa has one, that can handle deadly viruses such as Ebola. It’s a big lab and it’s very costly. We want Zimbabwe to have a lab that it can manage sustainably.
ST: When everything is done and said, what does this project mean to the relations between France and Zimbabwe? How do you want co-operation to develop between the two countries?
MB: It’s a long term bilateral cooperation. France and Zimbabwe signed an agreement around 1985 and the main area of collaboration and cooperation were culture and science. For us as Cirad, Zimbabwe has had very strong historical ties. Having such projects helps to increase our cooperation and partnerships. Apart from this, the Platform will also help to strengthen the publication of research works by Zimbabwean scientists. This will bring a lot of light, because not much has been published on zoonotic diseases since 1988.
LG: We have had long standing ties with Zimbabwean institutions. In all these projects, we are just reinforcing the collaboration that has existed between France and Zimbabwe for a long time. The projects are now attracting more French research institutions to come and work closely with Zimbabwean institutions. We want to capacitate through research, the new generation of students and researchers, to attract new scientific partners at national, regional and international levels and to fight against animal and zoonotic diseases that can emerge in Zimbabwe.