Robyn Alders: saving chooks, empowering women

The first of our series of Aid Profiles is featured today on a new Devpolicy website:

Dr Robyn Alders is an Australian veterinarian scientist who has spent much of the last two decades working in Southern Africa with village women to immunize their hens against Newcastle disease, a major killer of village chooks. The profile, written by Devpolicy Director Stephen Howes, tells Robyn’s story. It describes the voyage, but it also talks about the impact of her work, and the role of Australian aid, government and non-government.

It analyses the success factors, and draws out the lesson from her work, concluding that:

Looking back at Robyn’s own journey, there was in fact never a master-plan, nor even a ten-year project. But she took a long-term view, and the Australian aid program was well-enough managed to support her over that long period. And, in the end, it worked. It’s not a new lesson, but it is one that we need to learn afresh. The sustained and dedicated pursuit of specific goals is critical for development success.

It’s a compelling read, with photos, videos, audio and links. Start here.

The article was also published by The Canberra Times.

As announced yesterday, we will be writing a number of Aid Profiles over the coming year. From these, one will be selected for the first Mitchell Global Humanitarian Award which we will announce in early 2017.

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Ashlee Betteridge

Ashlee Betteridge was the Manager of the Development Policy Centre until April 2021. She was previously a Research Officer at the centre from 2013-2017. A former journalist, she holds a Master of Public Policy (Development Policy) from ANU and has development experience in Indonesia and Timor-Leste. She now has her own consultancy, Better Things Consulting, and works across several large projects with managing contractors.


  • Wonderful to see Robyn’s outstanding work on village chickens being recognized. I have seen Robyn in action over more than 20 years, since she began work in Mozambique with Community Aid Abroad. I have admired her vision, her persistence and her long-term perspective, as she applied scientific knowledge to preventing disease in village chickens. Robyn combines the highest of academic standards with an ability to work with both governments and at community level. She is an idealist who has put her ideals into practice over the long haul. The article speaks for itself in detailing the positive results for poor rural communities in Africa.

  • I just came back from Senegal and Mali, where chickens are everywhere. And I thought of Robyn, working to make sure they don’t die off, as they do periodically just because that’s what village chickens have always done. Enabling a robust chicken population in the developing world: what a formidable task! But with such a far reaching impact! And most importantly, such a long-term, relentless effort, unlike any project I’ve ever been involved with. Kudos to Robyn for the grit, the creativity and the dedication. The poor really need more people like her!

  • Great read and very glad to see this work highlighted! I second all the comments above that attest to Dr. Alders’s work and her character. I worked with her briefly in Angola and the experience remains one of my greatest inspirations.

  • I got introduced to Robyn through Anton Van Engeles who is my advisor here in Afghanistan in an ARTF funded project works under the umbrella of Ministry of Agriculture. I am an active player for poultry sector development where women economic empowerment is the core objective. Poultry is often overlooked by the bigger agricultural players, yet they are still vital for women. They provide the “mark revolution” and the glue to keep the system going. More than 35000 women got benefit from this project in poultry production. Supporting this work as she does, is therefore vital for developing practical approaches to empowering women across the world. She is a well-deserved recognition.

  • I have had the pleasure of working with Robyn since 1999 in one form or another and she has been a true inspiration to me. Her focus on achieving a sustainable Newcastle disease vaccine supply for village chickens is amazing and through sheer determination she has succeeded where many would have given up. The support that ACIAR and DFAT have provided over the years to keep this activity going has been great and it is a true credit to Australian Aid that the outcomes of this work are providing such tremendous benefits to the “last mile” poorest of the poor.

  • An inspirational tale of persistence and dedication to a production system – village poultry – that invariably seems to be the poor relation to ruminants yet is the bedrock on which almost all other village livestock systems are built. Village poultry also provide women with valuable finance as well as proving high quality nutrition, especially for children. Newcastle Disease is the scourge of village poultry but the benefits that Robyn has bought to village poultry systems go far beyond reducing losses to this disease – encompassing better management of the birds and improved health of the poultry keeper’s family. Indeed Robyn’s work, and the way that it has been conducted, exemplifies the concept of ‘one health’.

  • I got introduced to Robyn during the avian influenza outbreaks in Africa. Though many of us had worked on small holder systems, and understood the importance of poultry, Robyn was/is one of few those amazing people who has a deep and contextual understanding of poultry within these systems. She is a true expert.

    Poultry is often overlooked by the bigger agricultural players, yet they are still vital for women. They provide the “chump change” and the glue to keep the system going. Working with her on the impact of avian influenza, it was clear that they are important for the health and education of the whole household.

    Championing this work as she does, is therefore vital for developing practical approaches to empowering women across the world. A well-deserved recognition!

  • I met Robyn before 3 years when she was participating in the meeting held in Pan African Veterinary Vaccine Centre (PANVAC), National Veterinary Institute, Debre Zeit, Ethiopia. She has been working hard (from vaccine production, particularly Newcastle to the end-users) to saving the village chooks. I understood that she has a consistent passion to improving the livelihood of the poor in Africa through enhancing the productivity of the local chickens. Village (local) chickens are life saving for rural family, particularly for women. Village chickens are an income source, and are also serving as protein source food for rural family. On the other hand, Newcastle Disease is always adversely affecting these birds in Africa. So the contribution of Robyn by reducing the devastation of this disease on local chickens is invaluable for the improvement of the livelihood of the rural family.

  • It’s definitely inspiring to read Robyn’s story. For me, as a young woman, Robyn’s story gives me hope that anything is achievable so long as you have a passion for making a difference. As much as it gives me hope, her experiences have also revealed to me how important it is to aim for long term achievements rather than short term successes. Reading abut Robyn’s journey in this blog post has also taught me that being innovative is the easy part, actually implementing an idea and seeing it through to fruition is much more difficult and a real test of character.

    I think it’s very interesting to see the crucial role that animals play in improving the health and well being of individuals and communities. This project really does emphasize how important it is to embrace the collaborative nature of scientific research. In recent years, there has been a shift towards the need to have a more multi-dimensional approach when solving global issues such as food security. The One Health approach that this project has taken really showcases how much we can achieve if we work together towards a common goal. I really look forward to seeing how this project progresses and what conclusions can be drawn from the results obtained.

  • Robyn has done a fantastic job and continues to work hard in order to help people – and chickens – to get a better life. I had an opportunity to know Robyn in Mozambique during several years and even if we – her friends – sometimes made jokes about her involvement and love for chickens, we also testified and recognized her great contritubion for well-being of people at the countryside, of those most vulnerable. Robyn has achieved great success due to her own capacity and personality – tolerance, understanding, empathy, willingness to learn and to teach, humility, perseverance.. She has worked very hard in a very unselfish way. For her the vulnerable people at the countryside – and their chickens – have always come first.

  • Livestock is said to be the ‘Cinderella sector’ when it comes to development efforts and funds; but even within livestock development, backyard poultry stands out as an unjustly neglected area.

    Given that poultry are so important to the livelihoods of women, it is fitting that chooks have been championed by Robyn, a woman vet from Australia. Myself an Irish woman vet, based in Kenya, I have had the privilege of working with Robyn on a number of initiatives over the years. Her work is highly known and highly appreciated in southern Africa and beyond.

    It is great also to see attention for good news stories on how things are getting better in rural Africa, driven mainly by the aspirations and talents of Africans themselves, but with a helping hand from luckier or wealthier countries.

  • Bravo Robyn,
    I know Robyn for long time. Her valuable experiences in developing our veterinary services especilly in controlling of New casttle disease is in Timor Leste. This article is not complete without that

    • Thanks so much Dr Antonino. I think that Stephen’s interview focussed on the early days of developing a model for the sustainable control of Newcastle disease. It’s been a privilege to work with you and your team in Timor-Leste since 2006 and we gratefully acknowledge the support given to our work by your own Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the FAO, the Crawford Fund and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (which is currently funding the Timor-Leste Village Poultry Health and Biosecurity Program through their Government Partnerships for Development Program and the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and USyd).

  • The article in the Canberra times was a great read and very moving on many levels. I have only known Robyn for a short time, having only just begun a project for my university degree with Robyn as my supervisor. However it is during this short time that I have witnessed Robyn’s positive and kind yet determined attitude that is reflected within the article. I wasn’t aware of all the work that Robyn has accomplished in her career, but has nonetheless found her career achievements inspiring. She has evidently been involved in a huge amount of work that has impacted positively on the lives of many people (and animals!). To recognize the issues and to persist with them aiming to succeed with life changing results is truly inspirational.

  • Robyn has been a long standing contributor to development in many ways. Her tireless contribution in the 1980s and 90s to educate students in Veterinary Medicine must also be commended. Robyn has trained many of her students to work in the field and save wildlife too. KYEEMA foundation was a great vision that has brought brilliant results! Robyn Alders is one of a kind and is a leading professional. She inspires many women and men.

  • Great to read the Alders article in yesterday’s CT – it is indeed an fantastic story about an amazing women and the support that the aid program was able to provide to her work – resulting in huge impacts. I have had the pleasure of travelling with Robyn through Tanzania and Ethiopia and have seen firsthand the impacts this work has had on empowering women and the flow on effects of cultural change in the villages re gender roles and improved child nutrition. The AIFSRC was really pleased to be able to continue the support for Robyn’s work, especially in quantifying the impacts of Newcastle disease control on maternal and child health. So much flows from that – congratulations on the article.

    There are a number of stories of resilient Australian women in agricultural development, who have defied the odds and the system to facilitate real global impacts.

  • I believe the accolade is well deserved. In 2011, Robyn got the OA for her work. You might also be interested in some words I wrote in a little corner of our web site. One wonders what might have happened (or not happened) without Robyn:

    I’m not sure whether they really know it but Australian development agencies top the international arena in terms of their persevering support for Newcastle disease control in village chickens. They can stand proud of the fact. They were supporting it in South East Asia in the 1980s and later in Mozambique in the 1990s. That early work was enabled with technical expertise from Prof Peter Spradbrow at the University of Queensland and was financially supported by ACIAR. During the early 2000s, the work in Mozambique expanded to several other countries with financial support from AusAID and continues to the present day. And in the midst of it all! In 2003, very appropriately, the KYEEMA Foundation was born and helped push all this along.

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