Translational Research for Transformational Change: One on One with GALVmed’s New R&D Executive Director

Beginning of October 2021, GALVmed appointed Dr Johnson Ouma as its new Executive Director in charge of Research & Development. Johnson is a seasoned researcher and has provided leadership in establishing and managing strategic product and technology development partnerships which have led to the development of breakthrough products for animal health.

Johnson will play a leading role in shaping and delivering GALVmed’s Research & Development strategy centred on sustainable technologies addressing animal health challenges facing small-scale livestock producers. We sat down with him to know more about his life, career, motivations and his plans for his new role.  

How would you describe yourself?

I am a passionate people person. I thoroughly enjoy what I do, and I love meeting and getting to know new people and finding common ground with them. I like it when people feel comfortable around me. These traits have served me well at the workplace and contributed to my success as a leader.

What are you most excited about in your new role?

I am thrilled to know that this role offers a unique platform through which, together with my R&D team, and working in collaboration with other departments within GALVmed as well as with GALVmed’s esteemed partners, we would be able to develop and roll out products and solutions that would significantly contribute to the improvement of livelihoods of hundreds of millions of smallholder livestock producers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

What experience would you say prepared you for this role?

Over the last 10 years, I have served as the Director of Africa Technical Research Centre (ATRC), a multicultural R&D Centre, where I established and managed product development partnerships and built and inspired a strong R&D team, leading to the successful development and commercialization of a portfolio of products for agriculture (livestock and crop protection) and public health.  Before joining ATRC, I worked as a senior scientist with the then Kenya Trypanosomiasis Research Institute (KETRI) and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI, predecessor to the current Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization – KALRO) for nearly 17 years. At KARI, I was a senior member of KARI’s Animal Health research programme. I coordinated KARI’s Epidemiology and Disease Control sub-programme and served as Deputy Director of KARI’s Trypanosomiasis Research Centre.  I am therefore excited to have accepted this role and look forward to leveraging my over 25 years’ experience, skills, knowledge and networks in R&D and R&D leadership to contribute towards the achievement of GALVmed’s strategic goals.

What is your vision for GALVmed’s R&D work?

I envision a vibrant R&D department with a highly inspired team working with our partners to develop and roll out safe (to humans, livestock and the environment), efficacious, easy to use and affordable livestock vaccines, medicines and diagnostics that are pro-poor. I am privileged to be joining GALVmed at a time when the organisation is just beginning to execute its 2030 strategy implementation plan. The R&D department will contribute to achieving GALVmed’s strategic objectives by delivering on four strategic themes: 1) end-to-end product development, 2) use of current antigens with new technologies, 3) industry support for localized animal health product development technology platforms in LMICs and, 4) establishment and support of specialized manufacturing capabilities. Collectively, these four themes will provide a systematic and comprehensive framework for impactful interventions across the animal health product development chain. Effective product development partnerships have been a key contributor to GALVmed’s success.  Thus, in all our efforts, we will continue to work closely with GALVmed’s traditional partners in research, academia, and the animal health industry.  Where and when necessary, we will seek and establish new product development partnerships.

What are your aspirations for GALVmed’s mandate?

I very much identify with GALVmed’s vision, mission and core values. I am passionate about the use of translational research to develop products that would bring about transformational change in the lives of smallholder livestock producers. It is unacceptable that in this era and age of cutting-edge scientific and technological advancements, smallholder livestock producers should continue to lose their livelihood due to livestock diseases that are controllable. It’s my aspiration that working with GALVmed’s partners and other stakeholders, we shall one day (soon) be in a position whereby, leveraging scientific advancements such as genomics, have a sufficiently diverse portfolio of tools/solutions that meet the needs of smallholder livestock producers. Such solutions should be affordable, abundantly available and widely accessible to the end users.

What are you most proud of accomplishing in your career?

As the founding Director of Africa Technical Research Centre (ATRC) at Vector Health International (VHI), the Board of Directors tasked me with the responsibility of setting up and operationalising a state-of-the-art R&D centre. Prior to joining ATRC, I had worked as a research scientist for nearly 17 years in well-established research institutions (KETRI and KARI). So, the successful establishment of ATRC, building and managing R&D teams and establishing strategic product development partnerships was a significant highlight in my career. By the time of my departure, just about 10 years since ATRC was officially inaugurated, together with my R&D team, and working in close collaboration with our product development partners, we had managed to develop over 10 products for agriculture (livestock and crop protection) and for public health. These products are currently being commercialized across Africa and creating positive impact in the livelihoods of millions of people in this region.

In life, what experience would you say has influenced you the most?

My childhood played an important role in making me the person that I am today. I grew up on a resource poor smallholder farm in rural Kenya (in the then Nyanza Province), where I experienced first-hand, the devastating effects of poverty. My parents raised livestock which were sold to pay for our schooling. They also practiced small-scale crop agriculture for subsistence and to supplement family income. The whole family worked very hard on the farm to earn a living, and I spent a significant part of my early childhood herding livestock. I therefore learned the values of hard work, teamwork, compassion (from herding livestock) and sharing of limited resources quite early in life. These values have stayed with me to date, and I hope to bring them to my new role.

Outside of work, what do you like to do in your free time?

I love spending time with my family. I also enjoy early-morning walks, driving in the countryside and serving at my local church.

Strengthening Access to Livestock Health Products by Small scale Producers in Ghana

In rural areas of Ghana where over the majority of small-scale livestock producers rely on small agrovet shops for livestock health inputs, supply is not always guaranteed as agrovet stores routinely ran out of stock leaving farmers struggling to gain access to critical health inputs that could save their livestock from diseases. GALVmed is working with leading last-mile veterinary delivery company, Tribecovet, to bridge current gaps in access and availability of vital livestock health products by small-scale livestock producers.