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Putting Pen to Paper in a Digital World


Working in the UN offices in Johannesburg, Fred Musisi found himself faced with a problem. As Regional Emergency Livestock Officer, supporting national veterinary services was constantly hindered by a lack of timely data coming from remote field locations on potential outbreaks of animal diseases. Chatting with a colleague, Phillip Fong, who worked in IT, the two minds had a brainstorm.


Fong had previously worked on the South African census, and had faced the same dilemma of gathering population statistics in remote villages quickly. An innovation that had led to success with the census could also work for gathering disease outbreak information from those same remote locations: digital pens.


The pen is the size of a magic marker. It has a built-in digital camera, Bluetooth connection, and a memory chip. The user writes normally on pre-printed paper or forms, and the tiny camera snaps images of the ink as the person writes.


Digital pens could scan written information on animal disease reports to cut reporting times from the field. The pens could transmit the data via a Bluetooth wireless connection to a mobile phone and then onward via the cellular network to central servers in capital cities, where central veterinary authorities can immediately analyze the information and take emergency action if necessary.


“The pens were revolutionary. Suddenly, we could overcome the challenge of gathering data from the field and making timely decisions in case quarantine needed to be imposed. We are talking seconds to minutes, rather than several weeks to a month,” Musisi said.


“In Malawi, we calculated the time it took for people to collect information in the field to the time it reached headquarters – it was up to 30 days.”


Delays can result in mass losses of livestock and the resulting economic damage for farmers dependent on livestock and halts in trade flows.


An estimated 60 percent of the SADC population depends on livestock. Livestock makes up a considerable proportion of agricultural production in the region. It accounts for 20 to 40 percent of the agricultural gross domestic product and holds a high social value for rural communities in the region.


In addition, there is ever increasing demand for livestock and animal-based products in the region. Estimates by the SADC Secretariat indicate that over the next 10-15 years, the average annual consumption of meat and milk will more than double from 7 to 15 kg of meat and from 20 to 50 litres of milk per person.


In Zimbabwe, for example, livestock production is one of the major sources of livelihoods. An outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 led to the suspension of beef exports to European countries. In Botswana, thousands of cattle had to be slaughtered following an outbreak of Contagious Bovine Pleuropnuemonia in 1995 and subsequent control of the disease and restocking has been a costly exercise for the government.


Transboundary disease surveillance using Digital Pen technology was piloted by FAO first in remote border areas of Malawi, Namibia, and Zambia.


“We figured if we could transmit data successfully from these areas with difficult terrain, harsh conditions and poor telecommunication infrastructure, it should be workable in all countries in the region,” said Fong.


“If there is a case of rabies or an outbreak of a deadly disease, a field worker can send the detailed surveillance data immediately only using a mobile. Worst case, if there is no mobile phone network nearby, the field worker has to move to a location with network or must find the nearest internet connection. But no longer do they have to drive hours back to a capital city before the information can be confirmed,” explained Musisi.


From January 2006 until July 2008, the FAO implemented a three-year project entitled “Surveillance and control of epidemic foot-and-mouth disease and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia in southern Africa”.


The project’s objective was to strengthen regional preparedness against the spread of transboundary animal diseases, and its main undertaking was to strengthen animal disease surveillance through improving disease data collection and processing for decision-making.


DPT was piloted in five SADC member states (Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia). Remote areas in each country were selected in which to use the technology to collect information. After evaluating all five pilots, the SADC Epidemiology and Informatics Subcommittee (EIS) recommended adopting DPT in the region as a tool to enhance animal disease surveillance. DPT has since been implemented on a slightly larger scale in four SADC countries (Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia) under FAO’s contribution agreement (OSRO/RAF/720/AFB) to the SADC-TADs project funded by the African Development Bank.