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Making ag knowledge travel: Travel tips from the Share Fair

Sometimes I liken my job to being a travel agent“, I shared in my interview in the new Growing Talents: Young Voices in Agriculture series when asked about my work on ‘making ag knowledge travel’. But why the analogy of travel?

The knowledge that exists within various institutions, people and places often stays within the small spheres in which it is generated and is not widely shared, limiting wider learning and the enhancement of practices,” Nadia (I) says. “Some say we need better knowledge sharing, others talk about coherence in information systems, but all we want is for valuable knowledge about agriculture to travel: to move from one person to another, from one place to another, from one institution to another …“.

I think alot about how agricultural knowledge can travel:  Why should knowledge travel? Where does and should it travel- and from which places to which different destinations? And how does and can it travel-by what mechanisms and by what routes? And who is involved in seeing it off and who is receiving it? The analogy of travel works very well when thinking about sharing of agricultural knowledge. It gives it motion, it gives it direction. And it appeals to and is easily understood by people.

So when the AgKnowledge Africa Share Fair was being organised on the ILRI Campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia during 18-21 October 2010, I asked if I could plan and lead a focus group discussion on ‘making ag knowledge travel’. The ‘making ag knowledge travel’ focus group discussion became a reality on Thursday 21st october 2010 and had the lion’s share of the share fair participants come on board to discuss, share, learn and motivate to act on better ways of making our agricultural knowledge travel. With over 60 people in Tent 2 there was hardly a seat left.

And because I was facilitating this session, I wasn’t able to take extensive notes so I am also making use of the many Tweets(#ktravel), blog posts and live streaming (see below) to (re)construct this exciting session to share with you all-this is a long post but an exciting way to (re)live the exciting experience we had!

But of course we make our ag knowledge travel, it is easy, that is what we are showcasing at this very Fair–right? Well, yes alot has and is being done, but we often talk about it more than we take action, and are we doing the right actions and enough? I had decided it was time for a real ‘hard talk’ on this topic! So I challenged the participants to a more open and honest discussion about what we are really doing to share our knowledge…with the session designed around the BBC Hard Talk program style.

To start the discussion I showed a film that we at the ICT-KM program have developed based on the story of a researcher who carried out an exercise of modelling of landslides, and whose results provided predictions of areas where landslides would happen in a large rainfall event. The results were published, as usual, in a scientific journal but little more was done to communicate the data or its implications. The model, unfortunately, was successful and its predictions came true for one area in Uganda in March 2010, resulting in death and destruction. [See the blog post ‘A moving story-Putting the film in context’–which includes the film.]

This data and information did not travel. It did not travel in different ways in order to reach the various people it should have.

What did people think? What were their reactions to this?

I started with a Panel of five guests representing different sectors, including:

Asking Evelyn what her reaction was, she said that she was horrified by this story, but coming from the research field she explained that “we are not taught how to communicate as we do research- scientists need to be empowered“. I asked her if this was really true or if it is just an excuse that researchers give. She said in her work with researchers she has found many of them willing but not well equipped to do sharing of other kinds.

I moved on to Richard Kedemi, also working in a research institute-KARI, but as an information manager. “So if the researchers don’t know how to communicate-what are information managers doing to help this situation?‘ I asked bluntly. His response- “we need to create structures in our institutions, communications and media people need to work together with the researchers“.

One of the panellist’s reaction was that this situation is terrible but “Scientists are really challenged when it comes to publishing information in a non-scientific language, in language that others can understand“. But Anne disagreed that we should just leave it at that, saying “scientists need to be proactive and share their research beyond scientific journals”.

But they don’t have the right incentives–I hear from the crowd. “Scientists need to publish their latest results in peer reviewed papers to secure their career“. We need to get them to make research public, a number of people said. “But in many institutes, researchers are paid to produce papers not to really do any kind of  sharing beyond this“, someone rebutted.  So what is the incentive to researchers to do more?

So I ask “do researchers need more incentives? More than saving lives?”

Yes, they do! This is an extreme case shown in the film but researchers need incentives to share their everyday information, which is also important” says Evelyn who works with researchers in the CGIAR on the  CGIAR Ongoing Research Projects system which seeks to make research information publicly accessible to all CGIAR staff and other key stakeholders, in order to facilitate information sharing, promote partnership opportunities and collective action.

So what works? How do you get people to share information? The carrot or the stick? A question I have been trying to have a discussion on through my post on How to motivate more knowledge sharing in research: using the carrot or the stick?.

But it is easy to play the blame game I point out to the crowd-“the researchers should do a better job“, “why are they not more proactive” ” they are only concerned with their career” are some of the statements I am hearing. But are they the only ones responsible for making ag knowledge travel? What about all of you sitting here-what is your role?

So what are YOU doing to make ag knowledge travel? What can YOU actually happen?- I am tired of people always assuming it is someone else’s job. I am pushing people now to get serious about the solutions possible, about things that they are doing, can do, or have tried. It was time to hear about real pathways to get knowledge to travel through testimonials from participants on what works.

Anne Bruntse talked about how her organisation is using various media to get relevant information to farmers, using:

The Organic Farmer (TOF) an independent and sustainable publication of relevant, reliable and ecologically sound information which is both appropriate and applicable for farmers in East Africa. The magazine is distributed free of charge to interested farmer groups in Kenya. 180’000 farmers already receive concrete guidance and practical tips on securing and increasing their harvests through simple, environmentally friendly means. TOF also produces a Radio Program which gives useful tips on organic farming and answers questions by farmers. TOF Radio is broadcast on KBC Kiswahili Service every Thursday from 8.15 to 8.30 pm. Listen to programs on various farming practices. Radio practitioners can download and use audio clips in their programming. (TOF website)

Others also supported this and put forward  radio and print news as key forms of media to harness as pathways for getting knowledge to travel. A couple of participants then suggested the use of SMS and Mobile technology as well as television as viable and valuable options.

So is media the answer?” I ask.

The use new media such as radio is key to sharing information and knowledge” proposed one participant “but the problem is researchers don’t know about these services! We should create networks to broker between researchers and communications and media specialists“.

A. Koda-Traore from the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) said that “researchers should work with journalists to sensitise them about the research issues!”-to which I quickly queried whether he thought journalists didn’t understand research issues. I asked Susanna Thorp of WrenMedia, which produces the New Agriculturalist magazine, her impressions to which she gave a heartfelt response that “what we just watched is shocking. This video needs to be shown at every posssible occasion – we need to get things to change, and it is the responsibility of all of us to work together”.

What about sharing information with extension and advisory services” prompted Estibalitz Morras Dimas from the Office of Knowledge, Exchange, Research and Extension at FAO- who shared with the group their work with extension agents in Latin America. Another participant supported this suggested pathway saying “Use information agents (extension agents, farmers) to pass information within communities. There is a huge demand for information!” OK so extension agents can be a useful vehicle but how do they get knowledge to travel?

Telecentres are a very useful way of sharing knowledge with people at the grass roots” came another suggestion. But again I pressed on this subject of how do we get information to the telecentres, in what format, aimed at who. We need more precise answers to make this work-come on people!

We should teach children to make knowledge travel! Children in school should be engaged,” suggested an eager participant, to which I queried the group with “Is it a really effective way? Any experience out there in school programs?

Grace Mwaura from the World AgroForesty Centre quickly chimed in with her experiences from the ‘Farmers of the Future’ project which used an innovative education approach for youth and their communities, providing life skills to improve local environmental management while broadening the options for school leavers.

Education for many rural poor is seen as a means for children to escape from the farm, rather than as a means of transforming the local environment. So educational curricula are disconnected from everyday reality, and with the few job prospects for school leavers, many will return to their farms ill-equipped to improve their situations. But if agriculture and natural resource management become a key part of their classroom experience from the start, they will gain a valuable understanding of local and global issues and be better prepared for life on or off the farm. The interdisciplinary approach of integrating natural resource management into the curriculum and the focus on local action encourage partnerships among schools, community groups and natural resource professionals.(Annual report 2006)

But what do the farmers think is the best approach to share knowledge with them? I approached the farmers in the group to find out.

An extremely popular with the African farmers in the group was Farmer Field Schools which are described as:

The Farmer Field School (FFS) is a group-based learning process. During the FFS, farmers carry out experiential learning activities that helped them understand the ecology of their (rice) fields. These activities involve simple experiments, regular field observations and group analysis. The knowledge gained from these activities enables participants to make their own locally-specific decisions about crop management practices (Wikipedia)

Flora Nzambuli from Kenya shared her personal story and feelings: “Just pass information to the people in the villages, they’ll find their own solutions. Farmers have knowledge  but need a way to express themselves. Farmer Field Schools changed my life. They gave me an opportunity to learn, to try, and to make use of my own knowledge too”.

Francis Kiarahu Muraguri, a farmer from Kenya, gave us his testimonial in KiSwahili on his experiences in farmers field schools.

So are these really a good way to make knowledge travel? What do YOU think? We heard YES here at the focus group discussion.

Others promoted demonstration plots, gardens, sites also as similar initiatives for farmers, extension agents, researchers and others to learn on site.

Ok, so we have heard of a number of pathways for getting knowledge to travel to farmers and communities, but what about other groups?

For making knowledge travel to other researchers, National systems, extension agents and others a few people brought up online databases and repositories of data and information as key pathways.

Bruce Kisitu informed the group of the Technologies for Agriculture (TECA) online repository for agricultural technologies and best practices proven with small holder farmers.

TECA is an FAO initiative which has been developed as an information and communication tool for knowledge sharing. TECA provides an opportunity for researchers and end  users to exchange and learn from each other. TECA’s uniqueness is the upload of technologies that have been tested with small holder farmers and therefore can be easily replicated. TECA is currently being piloted in Uganda through the Uganda Exchange Group which brings together extension workers, researchers, NGOs, rural entrepreneurs, public institutions, farmers, students and individuals interested in sharing information, knowledge, experiences and network on the TECA platform.(TECA website)

But some felt that we were too focused on single direction travel, and should be thinking about how to include a variety of stakeholders in a process to share, learn, plan and implement. To address this, participants suggested the use of multi-stakeholder forums and innovation platforms.

But whose knowledge are we talking about? And who is making it travel? is it only about researchers?” was a new issue was raised by Jorge Chavez-Tafur from Ileia– The Centre for Learning on Sustainable Agriculture which promotes the exchange of information about small-scale farming all over the world. “Do you think scientists are the only source of knowledge? How about the famers? Let’s give them a voice!”

So not only people in universities and research institutes are researchers but farmers are too. But how do they make knowledge travel? how do we get information from local levels up to researchers? is the feedback loop complete?  So we also need to find ways to facilitate farmers to talk to farmers–for example get a farmer with 10 years of experience to share his knowledge using community radio, suggested one participant. “We need to enhance domestic knowledge sharing”. “Empower these farmers”, ” Help them share their own technologies“- were cries from the now increasingly excited crowd.

But I feel like there are some important actors we haven’t talked about yet.

What is the role of policy makers in making knowledge travel?-I throw out to the audience. FAO’s Justin Chisenga shared an experience from Ghana where at national level they got involved with policy makers in setting up information services because previously their information was inaccessible. The council for industrial research now shows off their research in Ghana to the media.

And what about the private sector? One participant said the private sector also should be linked with farmers and researchers: “research should be driven by the market, as the market represents demand and research should then be supported by the private sector“.

Some other travel tips…

Participants also pointed out the need to format the information based on who it is going to. We were told that we should identify individual interests in order to target those people in an effective way.

There was also a big call for us to make knowledge travel together: “We should be getting farmers involved in developing solutions together with researchers – not just bringing them ‘THE’ solution!  We need to appreciate and empower farmers to be part of the process”. Furthermore  “grassroots knowledge has to be complemented by research knowledge so we need to think of ways how can we bring the two sources of knowledge together“.

A final point that was made that “there is no silver bullet” which was supported by the suggestion that “one tool, method or pathway cannot necessarily achieve it all or by itself, we should merge technologies such as community radio, social media, and others depending on the situation”.

Approaches we are using…

So at the end of the session I showed the last bit of the film with the researcher where I(yes I am in the film too!) tell him about options, opportunities and systems which are concerned with this issue of making ag knowledge travel.

This includes the CGIAR Triple A framework which is supporting the Centres and researchers to think through and choose which tools, methods and mechanisms can be used to make their data, information and knowledge available, accessible and applicable.

Beyond just the CGIAR is also the global initiative on coherence in information for agricultural research for development (CIARD) which is  a partnership-based initiative which reflects the value of collective action to mobilize and build upon existing resources and activities to create a coherent global approach to information management and knowledge exchange related to agricultural science and technology.

The Coherence in Information for Agricultural Research for Development (CIARD) initiative is working to make agricultural research information publicly available and accessible to all. This means working with organisations that hold information or that create new knowledge – to help them disseminate it more efficiently and make it easier to access. (CIARD website)

CIARD is doing this through learning about, documenting, sharing and promoting appropriate pathways for making ag knowledge travel.

So how will YOU make ag knowledge travel? Tell us your travel trips!

Tweet credits: TVandenbosch, ChangeThruInfo, gaurisalokhe, mdegale, pdavide, tsehay, sharefairs, ictkm, ewenlb, PraveenaSridhar, talkagriculture, GraceMwaura, siphojanuary, rsamii, HumanityNews, maureenagena,

Photo credits:

Blog post Thumbnail- Uploaded by spanishwor at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1190551

Photos in the post by Enrica Porcari, Elene DiPaola, Nadia Manning-Thomas