Originally written on Monday, 2 December 2013
The ICT4Ag conference held in Rwanda in November 2013 was unique in that it brought together a highly representative body of delegates from the ICT and agricultural sectors.
The CTA-sponsored ICT4ag conference held on 4–8 November 2013 in Kigali, Rwanda had several objectives, but the conference heading – the digital springboard for inclusive agriculture – succinctly summarises the main objective. At this conference, a range of ICT innovations would present new opportunities available to all groups in the agricultural sector in ACP countries and beyond. In that respect, the conference was an great success as more than 500 delegates from 63 countries attended who, as director of CTA, Michael Hailu remarked, ‘often don’t come together in the same forum’.
Inclusion is an apt word to describe the success of the ICT4Ag conference. One of the initial drivers for CTA in designing this conference was the fact that initiatives involving ICTs and agriculture were few and mostly fragmented and scattered. So the strategy from the outset was to employ a multi-stakeholder approach.
One aim, for example, was to have a farmer and farmer organisation representation of 10% at the conference (a figure that was nearly achieved) and a much higher representation of women than is normally the case at ICT or agriculture conferences (25% of participants were women). The youth, ‘an incredibly valuable asset,’ in the words of Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, would be abundantly present (43% of the participants were between 18–35 years old) and also leave its energetic and positive mark on the conference. And it did not end there: people from many other groups were represented as well (see ‘participants’ box).
Something else that defined the conference – and which became a kind of conference slogan as the week progressed – is the phrase ‘Making it happen’, which is also the title of this issue of ICT Update. ‘Making it happen’ was a key motivator for the organisers of this conference, who were determined to stage a different conference – one designed to eschew conference fatigue by being more interactive.
Not only did the organisers want to avoid burdening delegates with long speeches or PowerPoint presentations, but they also wanted to motivate delegates to go home energised after a week. So the aim was always to engage as many people as possible to actively participate in sessions, and have them return eager to act on what they learned. In the end, that would be the true measure of this conference’s success.
So the question remains, what did the conference delegates take home with them, and will they act on it?
Designed for action
The conference was designed so that this very question would be a priority in everyone’s minds. The three days of sessions in the different streams – on emerging innovations, capacity strengthening and enabling environments – were designed to lead to actions: after the speakers were given time to for a short presentation, the sessions immediately switched into interactive mode and the final session became a market place to take ideas forward.
To get the most out of this interactive mode, CTA appointed facilitators to lead the sessions. They not only helped encourage interaction with their enthusiasm, but they steered the sessions towards interaction by dividing the participants into groups and giving them tasks. This facilitators were assisted by a team of local young student facilitators trained the day before the conference start. They also ensured that each group worked towards solutions so each individual participant could take away something concrete. And this interactive way of structuring the sessions was deliberately re-enacted on the final conference day in order to identify in front of the entire group of delegates post-conference actions.
The delegates were seated in a large circle of chairs in the main conference room. Behind them were cluster sheets containing the main findings from each of the week’s sessions (see ‘main findings’ box). One of the facilitators – communications consultant Nancy White – invited people to leave their chairs, which the delegates slowly but surely did. They were then asked to walk around the room and select what they considered the most important theme on a cluster sheet.
This exercise naturally divided the delegates into groups again, as had been happening all week. For half an hour each group discussed the theme on their cluster sheet. Each group appointed a spokesperson to describe what it was that made their particular theme so important, and what would need to be done next.
These main findings from the streams have been merged into action points as a vision for collaboration among partners in the future (full details available on the ICT4Ag website). They illustrate the complexity of ICT4Ag issues and also give a flavour of the discussions and dialogues that took place during the sessions.
Some of these key statements from the enabling environment stream include: involve all stakeholders, bridge illiteracy, focus on farmers and farmer organisations, develop sustainable extension services, ensure access to ICTs in rural areas as well, standardise platforms for sharing data, provide valid and understandable data and empower farmers through financial education.
Key statements from the capacity strengthening stream include: involve developers from the beginning, involve women in decision making and capacity building, focus on the household as a central unit, encourage local participation across the board, enable locals with better ICT knowledge, and facilitate information and knowledge sharing.
And from the emerging innovations stream, emphasize real-time data via multiple channels, use trusted organisations to lead information sharing effort, create a public information platform to reduce data duplication, develop apps to support value-chain operators, take local context into account when designing apps, provide security with innovations to create trust, emphasise importance of data visualisation, develop diversified business models and provide them in local languages.
The conference organisers, and indeed the delegates too, are well aware that there is not one cure-all answer to such a wide range of issues. But by discussing, collaborating and pooling their knowledge, and by forging new alliances and networks, the delegates have learned a great deal from people outside their particular fields and are therefore in a better position to take more effective action in the future.
The true extent of this conference’s success can only be measured once it is clear how much positive change delegates will have managed to bring about as a result of the conference take-aways. Although it may be too early for a definitive verdict, there were already encouraging signs of delegates taking action during the conference – innovators and investors sitting together at a table and discussing future plans, for example. Indeed, the general feeling at the conference was that it was the right conference, on the right topic, at the right moment, in a country which is at the forefront of ICT innovation in Africa. These statements suggest that many of the conference delegates are already coming up with answers to the question ‘what next?’