An experience among digital operators in Africa
CTA is an international organisation established by statute, with headquarters in the Netherlands. Its mission is to advance food security, resilience and inclusive economic growth in ACP countries through innovations in sustainable agriculture. Throughout the last decade, CTA has been at the forefront of identifying cutting-edge technological innovations, promoting digital literacy and skills, and providing training and capacity-building for agricultural stakeholders to innovate and utilise digital agricultural solutions.
In 2018, CTA held an experience capitalisation workshop in Ghana to draw out and capitalise on the lessons of their Eyes in the Sky, Smart Techs on the Ground project. The workshop was attended by 12 African start-ups, the initial project partners. Participants were eager to deploy and upscale the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) services (also known as drone-based solutions) within agriculture and other sectors in Africa. Dr Abdelaziz Lawani, CEO of partner organisation Global Partners SARL in Benin, suggested the idea of establishing a formal entity, which would represent digital operators in Africa. ‘Africa Goes Digital’ was born.
A UAS Community of Practice
Wenger (2002) defines a Community of Practice (CoP) as a group of people who (i) bond on a voluntary basis by exposure to common problems, (ii) share a common sense of purpose, (iii) use common practices and language, (iv) embody themselves a store of knowledge, (v) hold similar beliefs and value systems and (vi) collaborate directly, share knowledge and learn from each other.
Starting with the Ghana workshop, CTA has been incubating the Africa Goes Digital CoP, which now consists of over 40 African start-ups based across 21 African countries. The member companies provide digital services in the sectors of agriculture, energy, surveying, geographical information systems, engineering, construction, oil and gas, disaster risk management, humanitarian research and capacity building in the use of drone technology.
With advisory support provided by Ernst & Young’s Ripples Project and TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's global pro bono legal programme, CTA is in the process of establishing Africa Goes Digital as a separate legal entity. The objective of this is to provide members with: marketing and advisory support, exclusive networking opportunities and cooperation, access to discounted rates on software and hardware, joint capability to support business pursuits and access to a knowledge database. The CoP will not engage in any for-profit activities, although its members will.
Determining the most appropriate exchange platform
When Africa Goes Digital was initiated, a WhatsApp group was established to facilitate interactions between members. The group has become the pulsating heart of the CoP and has continued to grow – consisting now of approximately 60 members from across 20 different African countries.
An online survey carried out in June 2019 among 32 English and French-speaking members of the CoP, each representing a different organisation on the network, revealed that the WhatsApp group was considered the best source of information leading to business opportunities for 59% of respondents. This was followed by ‘own initiative’ (56%) and social media platforms (53%) as shown in Figure 1. Interestingly, those who cited the WhatsApp group as the best source are also the most active members of the group. Those who did not mention the WhatsApp group as a source of business opportunity may not be regular followers of the platform exchanges.
Traditionally, CTA has supported interactions within specific interest groups via dedicated DGroups(email-based discussion lists), but in this particular case, a WhatsApp group was the preferred platform of project beneficiaries. Project members were also invited to join relevant DGroup communities like UAV4Ag or ICT4ag. The UAV4Ag discussion list is specific to drone technology for agriculture in developing countries and hosts more than 1,150 members from 117 countries. However, results of the June 2019 survey indicate that exchanges on then DGroups have been a source of business opportunities for only 34% of respondents.
The table below summarises key differences between the two platforms and may explain the preference for the WhatsApp group.
It is evident that members of the WhatsApp group had the opportunity to develop closer interpersonal relations thanks to the fact that the group is small, confined to one continent, and that the platform offers multiple channels and means for communicating (text, images, voice and video). The group embodies all criteria listed by Wenger (2002) in his definition of a CoP, but in addition to this description, Africa Goes Digital members take joint actions in terms of branding, marketing, social media promotions, participation in calls for tenders and contract implementation.
Communication is and has been at the core of the development and consolidation of the community, with the WhatsApp group playing a key role in the process. Both the WhatsApp and DGroups platforms benefitted from inputs from one or more animators – committed individuals who inject content and stimulate discussion and exchanges. Still, the success of the smaller WhatsApp group has been driven by the trust between members which exists in a greater extent than within the DGroup community. Hence, exchanges are frequently aimed at pooling resources or solving problems and challenges faced by one of more members, and highlighting business opportunities or calls for tenders from development actors. The benefits are immediate, just like the multimedia communication, flowing at ease between members and their mobile devices.
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