Saskia Harmsen discusses a number of topics that were covered in her sessions of capacity strengthening, including the importance of grassroots engagement and farmer organisations.
Your article for the pre-conference issue of ICT Update asks how ICTs can strengthen people’s capacity to improve their position in the agricultural sector. Did your stream on capacity strengthening manage to address this problem?
Yes, my stream hosted a session to see what ICTs can do for grassroots engagement. The session really confirmed that ICTs can empower individuals. It was nice to analyse with some of the presenters the insights that they gained in terms of what makes that difference. I’m thinking, for example, of the presentation by Catherine Molua Mojoko, president of the grassroots organisation Walana Wa Makwasi in Cameroon. She spoke about her work with women, youth groups and mobile phones.
The training Catherine’s organisation gives is relatively simple and helps women to start using mobile phones at least to receive messages. It turns out they learn the technology quite easily. Some of the women are illiterate, in which case it’s important to group them together with other women – not just so they can sell their produce collectively, but because it creates support mechanisms for capacities that aren’t there. Children and other women in the group help the illiterate to read and send messages on their mobile phones.
There were a couple of other things that came out of the session about what is needed for people to be empowered by ICTs. One issue that was mentioned over and over was trust. To take Catherine as an example again: she was an extension worker for 25 years and worked in the communities that she is still serving today. These communities know her, trust her. She has the agricultural knowledge, and her organisation is trusted because of that long-standing relationship.
Participation was discussed in your session. Talk a bit about that.
One thing that was really stressed during the grassroots session is that you really have to know the needs of the farmers. I know it sounds obvious, but ask yourself: when do people really know the needs of the farmers? Not when they go in and do a feasibility study and come out again to create some kind of a solution. It’s really important that you become part of the communities – visit the people on their plots, build one-on-one relationships with them – and stop seeing them as a focus group with whom you will assess needs. It takes much more than that for farmers and the ecosystem around them to be a part of the change process that you want to introduce.
Someone at the conference actually suggested devoting an entire day to farmers. What do you think of that idea?
Actually I’m very interested in the level just above, the farmer organisations. Those are the people organising farmers. I was hoping that the session about experiences in implementing ICT solutions in farmer organisations would have focused more on these organisations as a key unit for transformation. But everyone kept going back down to the farmer level – which is encouraging, but it’s not just the individual farmer that we’re trying to serve. We’re trying to reinforce the sector’s different levels, including the farmer of course, but also the organisations that represent the farmer’s interests.
Another important point someone made is that farmer organisations don’t only work to improve the commercial interests of farmers. Farmers’ needs are much more holistic than that. In that respect, I would have liked to hear a little more about experiences using ICTs to reinforce the broader aspects of what farmer organisations do. The focus always seems to go back to the tools we use to economically represent the farmers’ interests, but in addition to generating income, people working in rural farming are also fathers, mothers, and members of their wider communities. Farmer organisations link their members and help to articulate rural communities’ concerns and interests vis-à-vis policy makers. ICTs have tremendous potential to support such work as well, so it would be good for us all to pay more attention to such issues and experiences.
One of the session leaders asked us to write onto a card what really ‘wowed’ us at the conference. Did anything wow you?
I feel like it did. I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t sound like a promotional statement. I’ve been working for IICD for 11 years now, and I’ve always believed in our approach. It focuses on strengthening the capacity of local organisations within a sector to use ICTs on their own terms. It’s demand led, lets the people we work with figure things out themselves, and it brings together different stakeholders and technologists, with the agricultural organisations in the lead. Capacity building has always been a key element of this approach – through training, coaching, mentoring and knowledge sharing. It’s so ingrained in me that I wanted to come here and find out whether other people see things differently. Is our approach the right one, or do I just believe in it because it’s what I know best? But the capacity strengthening stream has really reinforced my appreciation for the way IICD sees things, also in these times of reduced funding when there’s pressure on us to let go of some of these holistic and comprehensive processes that we believe in.
What we can take away from this conference is that capacity building implies supporting change processes – be it of individuals, communities, organisations or institutional relationships. Capacity building is more than training, and technology does not come first. Yes, we need innovation, but innovation in the form of social innovation supported by technology, innovation within organisations and sectors – the processes and systems that they employ – and not within the technology itself. All the streams really confirmed these ideas for me. That was the wow for me.
The title of this issue of ICT Update is ‘Making it happen’. Are you confident that participants of this conference will take home what they’ve learned here and actually make things happen?
We’re already trying to make things happen. We are willing to do more in terms of providing evidence that good processes lead to good outcomes. That’s what is great about the organisations that were at the conference, and those that co-organised the conference. Take the example of the call for ‘scaling good process’ rather than ‘scaling ICTs’ – organisations such as FarmRadio International, ILRI and others that subscribe to this call – they’re already doing it, and together we think that we can stand stronger in advocating what we know from practice is right. And when shortcutting ‘good process’ leads to failure in some way, we need to publish those findings too to inform funders and budget-holders that investing in ICTs as part of participatory development processes is the sensible thing to do.
Another point is that we need to make our experience in facilitating such processes available to the technologists. If they had a good idea but are finding that their technology is not being picked up, then we need to join forces with them and make the efforts more process-minded, if possible. This point was stressed on several occasions, so I think that is another thing that people will make happen.
Is there something you would like to add?
Yes, one more main point that came out of the stream is the recognition that the introduction of ICTs and the training of youth in ICTs helps them to stay in farming and in rural areas. IICD has just launched a publication based on the experiences of Gerisholm Boiyo from ACK-WRCCS and his colleagues in western Kenya. His work really substantiates that claim. It begins to answer many important questions. What drives and motivates the youth? What do they think about, and what direction will they go in after having been trained in ICTs? How does that differ if you’re a young male or a young female in rural western Kenya? That was another wow for me, by the way, in terms of the synchronicity of essential ingredients for making ICT4Ag work.
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