Knowledge and Information blog News

ILRI emerging career researchers learn to use ‘paperless’ data collection techniques

Story by Joyce Maru

Emerging career researchers (ECRs) at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) were recently trained to better collect, organize and manage the data they generate during their day-to-day research activities, starting from data collection in the lab or field through to publishing of research results and archiving.

One of the tools introduced in the training was the Open Data Kit (ODK) which is an open-source suite of tools that helps organizations to author, field, and manage mobile data collection solutions. ILRI’s research activities are moving from paper-based data-collection methods to mobile-based options like ODK; therefore there’s a need to ensure that the emerging researchers who support ILRI scientists in the field are up-to-date with these new methodologies.
Using the Open Data Kit at ILRI Ethiopia

The combination of affordable, powerful, mobile devices (e.g. phones, tablets) and easy-to-use readily-available (open-source) software has significantly lowered the barriers to electronic-based data-collection. ODK tools are fairly easy to develop & use and help to speed up the processing for getting data ready for analysis. Furthermore these tools have the potential to decrease research costs, particularly in the long run, by using standard tools and databases and reduced cleaning time if pre-validation quality assurance has been included in the tool design.

This is the stuff that takes data collection to a new level, aids in collecting and accessing data, thus moves the cleaning work faster.
Jesse Owino, PhD fellow

The ECRs were also introduced to ILRI’s biorepository popularly known as Azizi which is a Swahili word meaning ‘precious’. ILRI biorepository is a research service unit at ILRI tasked with ensuring safe, secure and efficient storage of biological materials and their related data. The aim is to develop a collaborative network of partners who share their samples and data, by encouraging the use of common protocols and systems, creating a virtual, distributed resource for probing the diversity of African livestock. The unit currently preserves a wide range of biological materials and has over 84,000 materials which are open source and can be widely used by the research community.

Thanks to CapDev and RMG for closing the tech gap between social and physical science through this training. I feel very equipped and ready to develop my first ODK data tool!
Violet Barasa, research assistant

The training was conducted by ILRI’s Research Methods Group (RMG) working closely with ILRI’s Capacity Development Unit (CapDev) and the People and Organizational Development Unit (POD) units. Twenty two participants, including PhD and MSc fellows and early career researchers (research assistants and technicians) attended the workshop.

The course was part of an initiative to provide learning opportunities to graduate fellows and staff that include a blend of a series of “bite-size” modular courses in cross-cutting skills areas, e-learning opportunities, effective mentorship support, evidence and assessment to further enrich the their learning experience at ILRI.

Promoting agricultural research – which services do your scientists use?

Image credit: Swansea University

Here at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), we have set up lots of platforms to help our research results travel – an open access repository, blogs announcing results, a portal for our data, email alerts and RSS feeds, twitter and more.

Increasingly we see that scientists themselves are using different platforms and services to increase the visibility of their research – also collaborating and getting metrics and impact scores for their work.

With no claims to originality, here are 4 services we want ILRI scientists to use – are there other services like this you consider essential (please add a comment below)?

  1. ORCID ( A unique digital identifier for scientists, ORCID  helps scientists claim their publications. See for example Alan Duncan:
  1. Google Scholar Citations ( As well as helping scientists list their publications, it provides their ‘h-index’. See for example Steve Staal:
  1. Mendeley ( This is more focused on collaboration and networking but also helps researchers track, share and find publications, creating groups where teams can collectively build knowledge bases. See for example Tezira Lore:
  1. ResearchGate ( Similar to Mendeley, this helps researcher share and find research. See for example Zelalem Lema: Important for ILRI is that people select the correct institution – in our case using ‘Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’ and the ‘department’ called ‘International Livestock Research Institute’.

And of course there’s Yammer – the CGIAR’s facebook, linkedin, facebook, twitter and many more … This post explains why these tools are much less daunting than they appear to be!

Just as we want all ILRI staff to be on these platforms, it may help the collective CGIAR presence and identity if  CGIAR staff in other centres and programs pursued similar approaches and services (some already do I know: For instance, IFPRI is big on Mendeley and ORCID; CIFOR and I think IWMI are  implementing ORCID in their repositories; ICRAF has used Google Citations to look at staff impact factors … ).


Fear of the blank box: why and how to post updates on Yammer, LinkedIn etc.?

Writers fear the blank page.

Bloggers fear the blank screen.

Many of us also seem to fear the ‘blank box’. What should we write in that Yammer, Twitter or LinkedIn text box that invites us to share a status or update.

It’s somewhat strange since many of us have no problem posting updates in the Facebook blank box for friends and relatives. And there’s lots to share.

The catch is that Yammer, LinkedIn and Twitter are more for work. This seems to freeze our creative juices, curtail our writing appetite.

I’m trying to comprehend. And I think I do.

Why do people freeze? 

  • They may too busy to share ‘stuff’ on professional social networks;
  • They may not see the value of investing time in these networks;
  • What they see there is of no direct, immediate value to them;
  • They get frustrated at all the notifications they receive from these networks so they’re put off by it;
  • If they are interested in making use of these networks they may not know exactly what is expected of them;
  • …or what kind of ‘stuff’ they should write;
  • They may have technical limitations with this too…

Well, here are some answers for your questions:

You don’t have time? Perhaps reconsider from the long term perspective?

Do we really have no time to look at possible improvements? (image credit: unknown)

Do we really have no time to look at possible improvements? (image credit: unknown)

We are all busy. All super busy. And our attention is divided by many signals, to-do’s, emails and a variety of strange attractors. But the point is: sharing some information on social media sometimes helps others gain time. And you would appreciate that time gain also. Various people have written about the time gains obtained through social media when used professionally. The main reason is: social media and networks are information filters. And this idea is not new (see the presentation below), it is a reality.

So think twice before saying you don’t have time to save time and be smart(er).

Why invest in social media when they are full of irrelevant, fluffy-bunny ‘stuff’?

This is one of the most common misconceptions about social media.

Yes, it is true that some people talk about their favourite brand of clothes, or share what they just ate on Twitter and the like.

Yes one can waste a lot of time spending time on social networks.

And yes a lot of that ‘noise’ is totally irrelevant to you.

But that is only if:

  • People use social networks for personal purposes, not professional purposes.
  • And the bottom line is thus to know who to follow on these social media. Follow quality, you get quality. Follow garbage, you get garbage.
  • Most importantly, social networks bring value on an ‘on-demand’ basis. You’re the one who calls the shots. Don’t let your flow of information being ‘polluted’ by noise. Take control over your inbox and your RSS feeds.

If you do that, social media provide a lot of very relevant value to your work. Very established organizations (covered by very respected media) have demonstrated that a lot of value can come from social media engagement.

You can’t deal with these eternal ‘notifications’ jumping at you – so you’ve given up on social networks

There is nothing as irritating as receiving endless messages from the same source, to the extent that you don’t even bother checking them any longer.

And yet there is nothing so simple as this kind of problems to fix. Nowadays pretty much every social network (be it Yammer, LinkedIn, wikis etc.). Don’t let this frustration take over your experience with social media. And if you’re not exactly sure how to set your notifications, ask your communication and knowledge management (CKM) colleague(s) for help. We are there to do this, among others!

You are ok to use these social networks but don’t really know what to do with them?

ILRI has a lot of different websites, platforms and channels for communication. It’s confusing.

But then you don’t need to use most of them. Only the ones that matter to your specific team / program (e.g. a website and a wiki). And corporate ‘engagement’ channels: Yammer and LinkedIn. You may only need to go to specialized sites for specialized content (e.g. presentations on Slideshare, photos on FlickR) and usually the comms specialist of your team or unit takes care of this.

Here is what to remember:

  • Use Yammer for ILRI/CGIAR-internal updates. There are however external Yammer networks set up for specific programs etc.
  • Use our LinkedIn group if you want to engage with a broader group of people working on livestock research/development issues.
  • Use wikis to collaborate over time around a specific issue, theme, project, document, with your team members. If it’s for a specific document for a limited period of time.

And we are sure you have your own social networks (e.g. Researchgate etc.) – we would love to hear which ones you use and why…

You don’t mind using professional social networks but you don’t really know what to share / write

That is the real ‘blank box’ syndrome. And it is a real issue: are you supposed to talk about your publications? Your questions? Your challenges? Your team’s work? Your upcoming projects? Your funding opportunities?

Actually, all of this and more, if you want to.

It all boils down to ‘working out loud‘ – the idea that you:

  • document your work to better understand how it works and how you can improve;
  • narrate and share this work with a broader public as it might help others facing similar challenges etc.;
  • lead in this with generosity, showing the way to others, so they become similarly useful;
  • build a social network – which can become your ‘personal learning network’ (see the presentation below about this);
  • make it all purposeful so that you don’t just document everything all the time (well, it’s your right) but focus on the resources and networks that make sense in your current personal and organizational objectives.

So what are some examples of useful things to share on Yammer, LinkedIn etc.?

Your latest publication, your questions, your answers to other peoples’ questions, your interesting (professional) reads, the events you are organizing or participating to, calls for action/proposals etc. that come your way, ground-breaking news that affect your work and probably others too. And the latter point is the key: Whatever you found useful and think others might find useful to is worth sharing. As Yammer’s Steve Nguyen’s said once:

“if what you are working on is not worth sharing, why are you working on it?

You have technical limitations or issues that prevent you from using these social networks

This is again a no-brainer: ask your comms specialist – and in their absence ask Tsehay Gashaw (t.gashaw [at] to support you or direct you to other competent people to help you overcome technical limitations.

Some final reflections…

We know that a lot of people are not active on Yammer, LinkedIn, wikis etc. But they are listening. And that is great. It’s a prerequisite of engagement on social networks. Take your time and best believe there is nothing negative about being an empowered listener.

Social media are all about trying and exploring, playing around and reflecting. It’s time well worth investing in, but do assess, after talking with people who are in favour and against any particular social network, whether it’s something for you or not.

 Keith Davenport)

Overcome the blank box fear by sharing YOUR work (Credit: Keith Davenport)

What is considered ‘Good practice’ is also a matter of collective conventions. So discuss these things with your colleagues, partners, and agree together on what constitutes good practices. But sharing, in itself, is not a bad way forward.

We all know that social media have their flaws and even bear the inherent risk of turning us in not all to social people, but the alternative to sharing your work online is face-to-face, and that remains always powerful, yes, but also limited: to the people who are present there and then.

Now, time to experiment and get back to that dreaded blank box. The next thing you write there might just be the first stepping stone of a very long and successful engagement, learning and improvement process, for you and for others.

Is that not worth a try?

Ripples of change and winning people over with engagement: Lessons from Africa RISING

 IITA/Gloriana Ndibalema) Working with the same group of people to support their events and processes clearly presents many opportunities. One of them is that through regular engagement it becomes possible to shift the attitude and ideas of the group and the course of their events and processes.

The Communications and Knowledge Management (CKM) team of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has benefited from three years of engagement with the Africa RISING program teams in East and Southern Africa, the Ethiopian highlands and West Africa. The CKM team has contributed to a series of review and planning meetings and other events by providing design, logistical organization, facilitation and documentation support. This role started with the project launch meetings in early 2012 when the Africa RISING program leaders and the funding partner (the United States Agency for International Development, USAID) recognized the importance of communication and process facilitation in their activities.

 IITA/Jonathan Odhong’)Since then the CKM team has been involved in every project review and planning meeting and various program meetings, giving the team and all involved many opportunities to learn, share and help the group to do their best thinking in terms of achieving the objectives in the best possible way.

Every step and every event of this engagement journey has been a stepping stone for the next event, progressively transforming the mindset of the organizing team. Bringing in (good) facilitation usually leads to changing the attitude and behavior of participants from potential resistance to cooperation; from possible conflict to increased mutual understanding; and from discussions to result-oriented action. For organizers, involving good facilitators may also imply that they shift from thinking of an event as a PowerPoint recital into organizing more engaging events where group conversations, interactions and co-creation become central.

This is the journey that Africa RISING project teams went through with every review and planning meeting. As West Africa chief scientist Asamoah Larbi summed up at the end of the last review and planning meeting for West Africa, “This was very good”, and that meeting was probably the most experimental review and planning meeting in terms of moving away from the typical PowerPoint recital mentioned above.

What are the results and lessons of this event support?

As a result we were able to generate extensive outputs

  • Most of the documents and group discussions have been documented on the Africa RISING wiki (work space);
  • 162 presentations have been published on the Africa RISING Slideshare, many of which directly collected from these events;
  • Nearly all events have had their dedicated collection of pictures published on the Africa RISING FlickR;
  • Interviews, stories and other insights have been captured on the Africa RISING website;
  • All final outputs of public consumption generated by these events have been captured on the program repository collection on CGSpace.

These results complement the efforts that Africa RISING communication officers are putting into collecting success stories, challenges and research results as published on the website, harvesting 290 publications (working papers, publications, briefs, etc.) on CGSpace, and documenting activities through video and photo films.

What are some of the lessons?

At the end of every event, to review what happened or what may happen in the next event, the CKM team and organizers run an ‘after action review’ (AAR) to better understand the gaps, learn and plan for improved next meetings. Here are some of these reflections.

  • It has become easier, over time, to recognize whether the review and planning meetings, according to their organizers, actually aim at sharing information, collecting feedback or moving towards taking collective decisions. It has also become easier to influence the course of the events towards the more collective end of that spectrum – recognizing that co-creation is key to long-term collaboration in a program of this kind.
  • As has been the case in many different programs in the experience of ILRI, events have been a great way to introduce a wider palette of communication support (such as social reporting, harvesting and curating outputs etc.) to the benefit of the project teams;
  • Being involved in the program for many years also means the facilitators have vastly increased their understanding of what it is trying to achieve, to an extent that no other facilitator could easily match, and scientists seem to appreciate this;
  • The facilitation team has been able to progressively propose more innovative, engaging and collaborative methods to help the groups engage and learn better. These different ways have helped challenge the participants, kept them motivated and helped them bond with each other;
  • Participants generally appreciated the value of facilitation and event organizers have involved CKM facilitators at increasingly early stages of the event design, when key decisions are made;
  • As a result, efforts put into preparing group work appropriately (for review and planning meetings when teams have to generate comprehensive plans for the next year) have borne fruit and led to more coordination by the teams ahead of the event and much more time made available for integrating activities and thinking about typically abandoned cross-cutting issues such as gender, capacity development and communication;
  • The program learning events have been useful opportunities to showcase what an interactive event looks like, and to generate ideas for the more business-as-usual review and planning meetings;
  • At the same time, the focus on things other than strictly ‘science’ has created a thirst, among Africa RISING scientists, for a science symposium, which is planned for the last quarter of 2015;
  • Although this is not part of facilitation support, ensuring strong logistical coordination among organizers and with the facilitation team has ensured participants are not distracted by challenging logistical circumstances;
  • The facilitation team should focus on finding ways to draw out shy participants and encourage a space where genuinely all voices can be heard.

Being involved from the beginning until now has helped the CKM team create an interactive and engaging space for participants to do their best thinking and generate better results. One can safely assume that through this progressive engagement supported by CKM, event participants are now more focused and engaged; this work has created stronger linkages across the program teams working in different regions; internal communication, sharing ideas and learning from each other has improved and led to better documentation and a more complete harvest of outputs.

Africa RISING has another year and a half to go and this means more opportunities to strengthen these events. This is not a luxury given that the project coordination teams themselves have realized the need for more coordination and inter-linkages across regions. Facilitated collaboration has never been more popular.

If you would like to get CKM team support for your events (find out all the options that this covers), please contact:

Ewen Le Borgne, Team leader, knowledge, engagement and collaboration, ILRI, Addis Ababa.

Tsehay Gashaw, Knowledge sharing and web communications officer, ILRI, Addis Ababa.

Muthoni Njiru, Knowledge sharing and engagement officer, ILRI, Nairobi.

By Tsehay Gashaw and Ewen Le Borgne

AgKnowledge innovation process share fair: Processing the process of all processes

 @DulceRuby)Development, research, communication, knowledge management, partnership development, innovation and extension are indeed all processes and all are deeper and more than the sum of the parts.

An AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair recently took place (25-26 May 2015) at the Addis Ababa campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to discuss this central message. From its design to the various parallel sessions it featured, all the way to the conversations and results it stirred up, the fair focused on what too many people tend to forget often: the process (of innovation) and the need for process literacy.

Why focus on process? Because it is what connects the dots, the conversations, energies, interests and the purpose behind bringing people together. In development, the process is probably what gets innovations to efficiency, effectiveness, scale, and impact…

But a process needs serious and detailed crafting.

Designing a process

 ILRI/Apollo Habtamu)

Share fair process facilitators preparing (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu)

What started off as an idea by Nancy White – who was to be one of the facilitators at the annual eLearning Africa conference in Addis Ababa the preceding week, though it never came true – became a ‘process of all processes’. No less than eight ‘process coaches’ were called upon to design this share fair.

Over three months, the process coaches slowly put together a process to unpack the goals of the share fair, which meant:

  • Identifying what its focus would be (eventually all participatory processes that matter in agricultural and rural development).
  • Identifying possible session topics and interesting conveners (or additional topics).
  • Organizing the design and facilitation principles (spelled out in the event web page) to emphasize must-do’s and must-not-do’s such as using conventional structures like PowerPoint recitals and open discussions, or failing forward (embracing ‘practice-on-the-moment’).
  • Identifying possible ‘stances’ that participants could take, more informal than appointed roles: ethnographers, timekeepers, documenters etc.
  • Developing a separate ‘e-strand’ (documented by Euforic Services here) involving various shades (or processes) of online participation;
  • Organizing the documentation and social reporting of the fair.
  • Setting up logistics for the smooth running of the event.

Running a process

Process '101' at the ‘AgKnowledge Innovation' Process Share FairThe process coaches decided to organize the entire fair around a relatively recent collaboration and facilitation approach known as ‘Liberating Structures‘. Three of the process coaches had intimate knowledge of the approach while others had partly used some of its structures.

Once the fair started, all kinds of processes were unleashed and used, in nearly 20 parallel sessions, all focused on ensuring participation, sharing of expertise and adapting along the way (failing forward). Process coaches, then worked with volunteer facilitators to review the next day’s agenda and adapted ideas for all the plenary sessions, culminating in a synthesis and capitalization session that reviewed how these process lessons could be used in the working context of the participants. The fair then concluded and a participants feedback was collected.

Benefiting from a process

In the final exercise at the fair, participants gave an indication of their appreciation of the event and processes used by raising one to five fingers of their hand, five being the highest rating.

The vast majority showed four fingers and a couple even all five, while one participant raised two fingers and a few others three.

Among the less satisfied ones, some cautioned on the danger of putting process above content and of ‘over-processing’ everything. Others said the event was focused on agricultural development processes (many CGIAR staff  attended), which would not be useful for those working outside the agricultural sector.

Overall, though, feedback from the share fair was quite positive, as illustrated by these tweets…

#sfaddis agKnowledge share fair was a super cool event:innovators,communicators & dancers @genevrenard@Zerihun_S@ewenlb@peterballantyne

— Ewa Hermanowicz (@miscelanousmind) May 27, 2015


I was lucky enough to remotely attend one of the sessions; you need to check this out! #sfaddis

— V. Protonotarios (@vprot) May 29, 2015

But positive reactions do not undermine the need to question what we learned from this process.

Learning from the process

Different process are used for different purposes. Placing process as the ultimate value in innovation can be as unhelpful as overly focusing on content. Both process and content should be mixed as context dictates. Focusing too much on ‘process’ could give the impression of play-driven rather than purpose driven engagements. The combination with purpose is really key.

But choosing and using various processes takes time. In this share fair, process coaches were left nearly exhausted at the end of the day. It takes weeks of preparation and careful participatory process facilitation to make sure all voices are heard when they need to be, and factored in appropriately in such meetings.

Effective use of process requires focus. Having many ‘process coaches’ versed in group and process facilitation is great and allows for a truly different type of event and experience, but it does not mean that that group itself does not need to facilitate its own preparatory or reflective sessions to operate well.

Process takes multiple forms, all with their own dynamics. Face-to-face processes are increasingly complemented with online processes, which tend to suffer from a relative deficit of attention, preparation and facilitation. Yet there is much to gain from working in virtual teams and in participating meaningfully in virtual conversations.

Process has a cost. Using facilitation processes such as Liberating Structures has the advantage of keeping a high pace and high energy, without necessarily requiring a lot of expertise in facilitation. However, it also means putting a lot of pressure on the blended/online sessions making use of them. Read more lessons about the blended online-offline sessions through the Euforic Services blog.

Process requires the ‘political acceptance’ of its proponents. It takes senior managers, researchers, top people that have some degree of power to make the process more acceptable, process thinking the norm and process literacy more visible. But power structures are not organized around participatory, empowering processes, so there is a political dimension to the process crusade.

Process calls for collective thinking. And thinking is a process. Learning is integral to ‘process literacy’ and it is difficult to carve the time out to reflect on all the grand and little things that make a process successful. And yet that is what is required for global development (research) work to be ultimately successful. “It takes a village” is a good epitomy of the process literacy voyage we are suggesting to embark on. on with process(es)

Was the share fair a waste of time and resources? Definitely not!

Would ILRI and the process coaches run another ‘AgProcess share fair’? Probably not.

Will participants remember ‘the process’ and develop their ‘process literacy’. Probably.

Have we learned much in this process? Definitely!

Will we see important developments as a result from this share fair in the work of ILRI and other institutions, networks and individuals involved? It may be early to tell… change takes time and it can be exhausting, fun, painful and confusing. And the AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair was all of that bundled in one intensive event. All we know is: with increasing complexity in our activities and in our professional relationships, process is here to stay, and this ‘process of all processes’ might be just a passing star or a precursor to change.

Read everything about the fair and results from individual sessions

See pictures of the share fair

See the visual report of the share fair on Storify

Find more resources online around the hash tags #AgProcess and #SFAddis.

James Stapleton joins ILRI Communications and Knowledge Management group as managing editor

James StapletonOn 1 June 2015, James Stapleton joined the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) Communications and Knowledge Management group as the managing editor.

Before his appointment, Stapleton spent more than 15 years working for various international and national NGOs in policy and communications roles. Between 2004 and 2015, he oversaw the strategic development of communications at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). In addition to managing relations with the media and taking a hands-on approach to the development, design, editing, translation and publication of electronic content on the JRS multilingual websites and social media platforms,

Stapleton also taught human rights at the Rome Campus of the Loyola University Chicago and was actively involved in advocacy networks on child soldiers, migrant detention and landmines. He also worked for the Irish Refugee Council as the policy officer for three years until 2003, where he was responsible for the development of policy and research papers, and relations with the media.

During the 1990s Stapleton worked for the African development NGO Environnement Développement Action dans le Tiers Monde, Amnesty International and the Institute of International and European Affairs. He has a bachelors degree in economics and mathematics, a masters in social policy from the National University of Ireland Maynooth and a certificate in managing non-profit organizations. He is an Irish citizen and is fluent in French, Italian and Spanish.

ILRI CKM supports ‘gamification for social good’ hackathon

I had the pleasure of attending my very first Gamification Hackathon, ‘Gamify it!’, organized by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in partnership with iceaddis and eLearning Africa to support the event through documentation, shooting videos and capturing photos. The four-day event (17 and 20 May) took place at iceaddis and African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This event has brought more than 30 young and talented individuals from all over Africa working in various fields including programmers, designers, problem solvers, and subject matter experts covering issues in sustainable development.

The objective of this Hackathon is to develop applications that can change Africa by the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game contexts, in this case to trigger sustainable changes in social systems.

Gamification for Social Good Hackathon participants

Before we proceed, let me take a moment to explain some of the peculiar words:

Gamification – Is the use of games to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. Through this people can learn new skills or concepts in a fun and interactive way.

Hackathon – Is a gathering where programmers collaboratively write an application in an extreme manner over a short period of time while working on a particular project.

What happened in iceaddis?

On the first day of the Hackathon, participants were grouped into 5 teams, during the course of the day, they worked on identifying the problem they were going to address, how they would tackle this problem as well as assigning roles to the different team members.

Day two of the hackathon was time for the groundwork exercise done on day one to be turned into usable applications. Presentations on the agile development strategy were presented before the teams where then dispatched to start building their ideas that will be presented to a panel of judges—the presentations were held at the Africa Union building on day three as this was also the opening day of the eLearning Africa Conference.

Facilitators of the Hackathon

What I’ve learned

Among all the applications developed, the innovation that got my attention was ‘AfriOne’. The objective of the project is to ‘fight Tribalism’—it aims in fighting tribalism by providing a platform where people can learn about different cultures as well as share about their own cultures using a gamified virtual 3D avatar in a real-world environment.

Software used: Unity – Game engine, tools and multiplatform

Unity is a cross-platform game engine developed by Unity Technologies and used to develop video games for PC, consoles, mobile devices and websites.

Unity3D: It helps us create our own 3D games for the iPhone, iPad, and PC using the powerful Unity Game Engine.

JavaScript to build their website: is a dynamic programming language. It is most commonly used as part of web browsers, whose implementations allow client-side scripts to interact with the user, control the browser, communicate asynchronously, and alter the document content that is displayed.

Appsgeyser to build mobile app for Android: is free web platform that allows converting any web content into an Android App in 2 easy steps. Built to help people to transfer their ideas into apps.

Hardware used:

Cardboard for 3D display: Is a simple Google gadget made out of a few pieces cardboard and a couple of lenses. You slide a smartphone in, and just like that, you have a virtual reality headset. With Cardboard Expeditions, things get much more interesting.

Android Phones: Smartphones and tablet computers with an Android mobile operating system (OS).

Liya Dejene at the Hackathon

I’ve learned that Hackathon is a very effective way to kick-start development, it should not necessarily be a one-time event. I believe, there are advantages to conducting follow-on hackathons to continue the development process from basic design to actual code, creation of media, dealing with change management issues, and internal or external marketing of the resulting instructional products.

All things considered, the hackathon was a success. I loved most of the applications that the participants came up with–such as Build Better Citizen (Zega) in Amharic, Apply Design Thinking (Be the Boss) and Top Bird (Coach Young Entrepreneurs). There were also several other great designs from some very intelligent and talented young people, and the positive and collaborative spirit of the event made for a fun time.

The benefits also exceeded my expectations. In addition to interesting augmented realty apps, I connected with African technology community, made promising new contacts, learned some interesting facilitation techniques and even drew my attention to Gamification. I appreciated their teamwork, enthusiasm, collaboration and engagement which makes me think that I have to practice more back at the office. I also had a lot of fun!

Role of ‘critical research friends’ in mentoring emerging researchers: Reflections from a mentorship workshop

 Introduction to research

ILRI staff at a Capacity Development training (photo credit: ILRI/Samuel Mungai).

By Joyce Maru

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)/CGIAR graduate fellowship program provides practical, hands-on mentorship support in well-resourced ILRI research laboratories and facilities in Kenya, Ethiopia and in other countries where ILRI operates.

This hands-on mentoring, usually in periods ranging from six months to three years, is an important component in developing the capacity of emerging developing-world leaders in agricultural research (at MSc, PhDs and postdoc levels). It also supports production of high-quality of research outputs from ILRI.

A key consideration in the graduate fellowship program is the need to understand and respond to the career and capacity needs of research fellows so that the mentoring supports them appropriately in designing and carrying out their work in developing-country contexts.

One of the ways in which ILRI is helping fellows is by giving them access to groups of ‘critical research friends’ made up of various mentoring supervisors. According to Costa and Kallick (1993) a critical friend is ‘a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique of a person’s work as a friend.’ The term is mostly applied in critical pedagogy and in contexts of mentoring and coaching to refer to support provided to individuals and groups undertaking a certain project. In ILRI’s context, graduate fellows or early-career researchers could, therefore, refer to their mentoring supervisors as their critical research friends.

I recently attended a training of trainers (ToT) workshop on mentorship in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was conducted by Vitae UK and organized through the CIRCLE fellowship program. In this blog post, I reflect on the key learnings I derived from the workshop and how I think they can be used to enhance ILRI’s approach to mentorship.

As a starting point, it is vital to clarify the different terminologies that are loosely and interchangeably used to refer to ‘mentorship support’ in research. For example, it is important to clarify whether when using that term, we mean ‘graduate fellow supervisors, mentoring supervisors, supervisors, line managers or coaches.

I prefer the term ‘critical research friend’ or ‘mentoring supervisor’ because, for example in ILRI’s case, graduate fellow supervisors often assume a hybrid role of mentoring graduate fellows although other informal mentoring relationships may emerge stemming from friendships with work colleagues.

Irrespective of approach used, however, the important question is what makes a good mentor? Is it correct to assume that line management relationships automatically become mentoring relationships? And moreover, how can we encourage line manages to take a mentoring approach to supervision?

Qualities of a good mentor

During group discussions at the Johannesburg workshop, a mentor was portrayed as one with an ideal personality and demonstrating a long wish list of qualities, behaviour and competencies, but the top five qualities that I think a critical research friend should demonstrate include:

  • Generosity of spirit – mentoring is ingrained in their value system and they are always willing to share skills, knowledge and expertise with their mentees i.e. they are available as a resource and a sounding board;
  • They always encourage and inspire their mentees to learn, improve and conduct cutting-edge research with integrity;
  • Self-reflective and values ongoing learning and growth in the field;
  • Helps the mentees to set and meet ongoing personal and professional development Mentors continuously help their mentees to develop by highlighting, through constructive feedback, the areas that need improvement and by objectively focusing on the mentee’s behaviour and not their character;
  • Well respected and admired by colleagues and employees in all levels of the organization.

Making ILRI a centre of excellence in mentoring emerging/early career researchers

If we aspire to become a centre of excellent in mentoring and supporting emerging career researchers, some important considerations and reflections could include:

  • How does the mentorship scheme align with the strategic direction of the organization?
  • How do we identify and support those who have the values and qualities to become mentors?
  • Is there a strategic plan, leadership and champions for mentoring?
  • Is there a clear, formal policy and guidelines on mentorship? (Defined roles of mentor/mentee, implementation plan, mentoring support, evaluation and feedback mechanism);
  • Is it sustainable?
  • Is it a coordinated approach? Who leads the initiative?
  • How do we continue to develop mentoring skills and capabilities?
  • Can we demonstrate output and impact?
  • How do we reward and incentivize best practice?
  • How do we institutionally support good mentors with integrity and without exploitation?
  • How do we set boundaries for the institution, the mentor and the mentees?
  • How do we create a critical mass of mentors?
  • What alternative models can we create for a mentoring experience when resources are scarce?
  • Is it inclusive? (Gender sensitive, interdisciplinary, diversity);

Here a question can be posed on the extent of the need to have, in place, a unified/formalized mentoring system that allows equality of access and is quality assured. I think that quality assurance underpins effective mentoring relationships and, therefore, there is need for more systematic and constructive support and mentoring for emerging research leaders.

Joyce Maru is a capacity development officer at ILRI.

Communications, knowledge and innovation process share fair at ILRI Addis Ababa

At the 2010 share fairThis week, communicators, knowledge sharers, process facilitators and learners in agriculture meet up in Addis Ababa in a share fair.

The event is driven by the desire to make agricultural research and innovation more impactful; by recognizing and paying attention to the power of good processes that attend to people, partnerships and participation. How we work is often as important as what we do.

The insights and connections will help individual participants and the organisations they work for cultivate much stronger capabilities to design and deliver truly effective ‘process’ improvements that lead to applied innovation, social learning and value for money. These improvements should help us:

  • tackle tough issues through collective actions
  • collaborate across teams
  • forge and sustain partnerships for impact
  • take interventions to scale
  • engage effectively with local expertise
  • empower different actors
  • develop capacities for innovation and learning

The two day event (25 and 26 May) takes place on the ILRI campus in Addis Ababa (see e-connecting possibilities). It comprises a series of plenary and parallel sessions designed to help participants engage, share and learn – about innovations that work, about processes that work, using processes that work.

See the full agenda

Around the share fair, a group of CGIAR communications and knowledge management professionals are meeting to better focus and direct their efforts to meet the needs of CGIAR research programs that increasingly demand different, innovative and integrated approaches, tools and platforms.

Connect online to the ‘AgKnowledge Innovation’ process share fair

Documenting our 2010 share fair

On 25 and 26 May, the ILRI communications and KM group in Addis Ababa hs joining with several partners to host a ‘share fair‘ event. The focus is on the design and delivery of truly effective ‘process’ improvements that lead to applied innovation, social learning and value for money (in agriculture).

As well as the face to face, we want to use the event to pool and crystallise what we’re learning about working along the continuum from f2f to hybrid to online processes and events – and how best to weave those channels together. We’re looking for some online collaborators.

As background, we know we’re using more and more online channels to complement or replace face to face meetings and events. And we are learning lots as facilitators – of processes and events – about how to ensure participants are able to engage, follow threads, collaborate and discuss themes throughout the chain of different formats and activities.

So we will open up four of the sessions to people outside Addis (maybe more!). We want to explore, improvise and learn, and use those experiments to help us learn together.

And to enrich it even more we’re going to be experimenting with how to enliven online or hybrid meetings with methods collected and developed by the Liberating Structures (LS) founders, led by Fisher Qua.

To help us organise we’ve set up Eventbrite pages for the four sessions currently open, so please register here (all times East Africa Addis Ababa/Nairobi):

  1. Mon 25 May, 10.30: (Introduction to) Liberating Structures (Fisher Qua)
  2. Mon 25 May, 13:50: Social Reporting (Pier Andrea Pirani)
  3. Mon 25 May, 15.50: Working with Virtual Teams (Nancy White and Ewen Le Borgne)
  4. Tue 26 May, 11.00: Liberating Structures (Ewen Le Borgne and Pete Cranston)

We’re experimenting with different types of online engagement, including:

  • a simple webcast of a Liberating Structures workshop session, with a chat facility for online participants to engage with those in the room, and each other, through a moderator
  • more interactive formats, with presenters both online and in the room, and participants able to interact equally with those physically and remotely in the room
  • experiments in using Liberating Structures for meetings involving remote and physically present participants

Depending on connectivity, and tech, we may play with some more options – especially if people suggest fun options we can learn from!

After each session we will invite participants to reflect on what their experience tells us about how to facilitate participative processes that intertwine online and face to face components.

Open access and open data policies at ILRI

In recent years, ILRI has worked on ways to make its information products more accessible

This week, ILRI’s Board of Trustees approved two policies to guide our future efforts:

  • ILRI policy on open access
  • ILRI policy on research data management and sharing

You can find more information on our open access and open data policies, guidelines, platforms and support online:

Need support for meetings? How ILRI’s engagement and collaboration team can assist

“We spend millions on IT systems to capture, store and disseminate ‘stuff’. We endlessly attempt to codify “what we know” into different forms of media for those who might benefit from it, so they can completely ignore it. We set up communities of practice to connect the unconnected and link our structural silos. We endlessly promote the virtues of Web 2.0 and social media as the panacea of all our knowledge ills. We do all sorts of things in the name of knowledge management it seems – except tackle potentially the most productive and lowest hanging of all our fruits, our meetings.” (Cognitive Edge)

This quote reminds us that while we often organize and attend meetings, we often do not put enough effort into how to make them really efficient and more importantly effective.

An ideal meeting or event?

Depending on its precise focus, a great meeting features all or most of these characteristics: It…

E&C / CKM team member facilitating the ILRI Annual Planning Meeting 2013 (Photo credit: ILRI  / J. Cadilhon)

Facilitating ILRI Annual Planning Meeting 2013 (Photo: ILRI / J. Cadilhon)

  • Has very clear objectives which it achieves or modifies in the interest of the whole group;
  • Brings together a variety of participants that are energized by the agenda;
  • Has a well balanced agenda mixing the sharing of information and the way participants are digesting it and adding their own experience;
  • Invites, gathers and values perspectives of everyone in the room;
  • Leads to concrete actionable insights or  recommendations that are co-created by the group;
  • Offers a variety of work forms (inside, outside, individual/group/plenary etc.) to achieve the micro-objectives of each session and keep the energy of participants high;
  • Generates strong relationships among participants through joint conversations and activities;
  • Is connected with the wider world through social media engagement and social reporting and extends the conversation beyond the meeting room;
  • Is documented properly, during and quickly after the event, involving various formats and channels for different purposes and audiences;
  • Invites everyone in the room to play a role;
  • Has an inspiring venue, strong logistical support, and perhaps even music.
The reality?

Often, not always, the events we attend don’t match these aspirations. They are frequently:

A conference with high-level objectives, un-facilitated, chaired by ‘experts’ that use all their talking time – and usually more – to show how much they know. Then a series of presentations (three, five, ten) follow each other, often poorly-timed and delaying the entire program. Any question and answer session is monopolized by two or three vocal (often senior) participants allowing no time for group discussion and reflection.

It becomes difficult for participants to remain awake through these strings of presentations. So the coffee break buzz is really welcome – it is really the only moment in the day when participants are full of energy as they get a chance to talk.

Sometime, for a change, a panel discussion is organized, frequently all men and ‘usual suspects’ and the discussion does not electrify the audience. The meeting continues and closes with some rather vague conclusions. Since there was little time for group work, these have often been developed by an organizing committee and have not really been validated by the participants.

Meanwhile, no one really paid attention to capturing the few conversations that took place, and the presentations are all scattered on individual presenters’ personal computers and USB sticks.

Finally, participants depart, glad the event is over, not entirely sure what they gained or what it was really about. But they enjoyed the few informal networking moments where they could share their frustrations on the short coffee breaks, delayed sessions and missed opportunities to meet the colleague they always wanted to talk to. They do have some new business cards to follow up by email when they get back to their hotel room.

Sounds familiar? Of course this is a caricature, but we believe there are lots of recognizable features.


Even without expert advice, anyone organizing a meeting can tackle some of this. For ILRI staff and partners however, the engagement and collaboration team of the ILRI communication and knowledge management (CKM) unit can help turn meetings into more successful, productive, and long-lasting milestones.

 ILRI / A. Habtamu)

Drawing a river of life session (Photo credit: ILRI / A. Habtamu)

Here’s how we help – as a full package or on a ‘pick-and-choose’ basis:

  • Co-design for results: We help you think through your objectives, expected learning, outputs and outcomes to maximize the results of the meeting taking into account the amount and profile of participants, duration of the meeting, objectives of each session etc. Our co-design – every step is discussed and agreed with you – ensures that the event is made to measure.
  • Facilitate engagement: We can ensure that all participants are engaged in interactive ways to ensure maximum energy, learning, ownership, commitment and results. More on the role of facilitators.
  • Document for follow-up: We help document conversations from plenary and group sessions so the dispersed knowledge and insights are captured, can be shared and participants can see where their contributions feed into the results and decisions.
  • Harvest, store and re-use: We help participants and organizers create, harvest and curate (archive, format and tag properly) all materials generated during the meeting: pictures, presentations, audio recordings, videos. These can be the basis for rapid dissemination of messages and and they serve as a multimedia record. As well as livening up an event report, ILRI’s communications and KM teams ensure they are properly published and archived for future use.
  • Spread the word: As desired, social reporting during and after the event helps your event connect with the wider world through, for example, Twitter, Yammer, LinkedIn, Facebook (or any social network). This ‘push’ is matched by online event pages that ‘pull’ in other viewers so they can follow and sometime contribute to the conversations. If you want to more actively engage virtual audiences, that’s also possible. Finally, we can hep generate attention by writing web stories, conducting interviews, and bringing in media. All accessible in one place. Nice and neat.
  • Rapporteuring: Depending on the issue or topic, we can also draft a timely ‘report’ of the event, in Word, PowerPoint, Prezi or Storify.
  • Co-organize: Occasionally we can also help with logistics to ensure a total support. This is usually available only in Addis Ababa or Nairobi.
Keys to success?  ILRI / Z. Sewunet)

Livestock and Fish eEhiopia value chain sharefair (Photo credit: ILRI / Z. Sewunet)

Often we are contacted after an event is conceptualized and someone feels a ‘facilitator’ would be helpful. This is always better than nothing. The real game changer is to involve us from the start. Before the agenda of the meeting is set. Before participants are invited for inputs. And certainly before presenters have been promised 30-minute slots.

Contact us when you have an idea about organizing a meeting or an event, and let’s work together to better achieve your objectives.


We have supported a number of ILRI and partners’ events and workshops. Click here to see this comprehensive list.

These are but a few testimonies that we received in the past about our event support services…

You are both skilled facilitators (i.e. great herders of cats!) and this ability was integral to the success of the conference. (Mike Nunn, ACIAR, about the Conference on Policies for competitive smallholder livestock production in March 2015)

Hello la Dream Team,  Félicitations à tous les trois pour l’organisation du séminaire ! C’était très riche, très professionnel, très convivial, et très participatif. Bref, un séminaire qui donne du tonus et des idées pour l’avenir ! (Guillaume Duteurtre, CIRAD, about the African Dairy Value Chain Seminar in September 2014)

Having observed your work and skills during the Africa RISING workshop meetings over the years, I really was of the opinion that you are the best person for our forthcoming MIRA launch country meetings. (Joseph Rusike, AGRA, about Africa RISING review and planning meetings in 2014)

Thanks for the great job that you did, Ewen and Peter, with the facilitation. Speaking with the “left-over” people here this weekend, I found unanimous enthusiasm about the way you handled the workshop and created spaces for so much enriching interaction. Also the living keynote idea shows a lot of possibilities in generating a product out of all the discussions and gaining group ownership of the product. (Ann Waters-Bayer, PROLINNOVA, about the AISA conference in May 2013)

Contact us now!

For further information please contact us (before you start designing the event or committing people):

Ewen Le Borgne
Team leader, knowledge, engagement and collaboration, ILRI Addis Ababa

Muthoni Njiru
Knowledge sharing and engagement officer, ILRI Nairobi

Tsehay Gashaw
Knowledge sharing and web communications officer, ILRI Addis Ababa

Dead beat meetings danger zone: Bring facilitation to the rescue!

The plague…

Photo credit:

How many meeting have you been to this week? Month? Year? How many of them left you feeling drained and under utilized?

These questions may have crossed your mind once or twice. Sadly no one ever takes the time to answer them, less so does someone do something about the answers.

Today is your lucky day! Some answers and ideas are coming to you!

Everybody talks about engagement, from employee engagement to donor engagement and partner engagement, within CGIAR and beyond. But the engagement arena is getting more and more complex: everyone has to engage everywhere, all the time, with everyone. More and more actors are involved in multi-stakeholder processes where they are (supposedly) striving to come and learn together.

The reason is simple: involving other people in formulating, implementing, and evaluating activities not only significantly improves the outcome of initiatives, but it also develops critical trust in peoples’ relationships and creates a hotbed for longer term innovation. The only hiccup is that engagement is not an easy game.

(Group) facilitation can strongly contribute to quality and successful engagement!

Group facilitation encourages participants to do their best thinking, to work closely together, to listen intently to each other, and to develop collaborative solutions together. Of course, that facilitation can be left in the hands of the group itself. But there are many (more) advantages to bringing a dedicated facilitator to ensure this group engagement happens in the best possible way.

The player… added value of a facilitator

Why bring in a facilitator?

A facilitator works closely with the organizers of an event to develop an event agenda and process that are best suited to achieve their objectives. In doing so they also focus on making sure everyone’s contribution is equally valued and there is maximum participation and engagement to drive results that everyone in the room feels committed to. They also follow the process throughout, keeping abreast of the participants’ feelings and ideas, shaping up the agenda following the energy where it is, while keeping the objectives in sight at all times.

With the help of a facilitator, nurturing conversations has participants leave the meeting feeling validated and energized by the insights gathered and the decisions made. They feel committed, they bring the best of themselves. The results of facilitated events are: more equal participation, more ideas collected, more collective and sustainable solutions, more likelihood of strong follow up after the event, and more trust created among people that may use this to build other solid activities together in the future.

Role of the facilitator – What a facilitator is not

A lot of people mistake facilitators for people that (just):

  • Chair a session by introducing the speakers;
  • Animate a question-and-answer (Q&A)  session after a presentation;
  • Organize ‘icebreakers’ and ‘energizers’ to keep the crowd on their toes;
  • Bring in a few instructions for (usually minimal) group work after presentations;
  • Summarize the conversations at the end of the day or the beginning of the next day;

Of course, these might be some of the functions that a facilitator does, but they are not their main function – and the examples above are probably the least important of all their functions. If only one of these roles is attributed to a facilitator, there is arguably no need for a facilitator…

Role of the facilitator – What a facilitator is and does

There are two general types of facilitators: process facilitators and content facilitators. An innovative organization needs leaders who are creative and focused to work towards a set of core values that are consistent with the concepts of collaboration, learning and partnership,  empowerment and commitment. This type of facilitator uses core values and principles to drive their role as a “facilitative leader.” A process facilitator and a content facilitator will have the same core values, but apply them differently according to their roles. Most facilitative leaders are people leading teams or directing and managing their own units. Hence, they have more authority to make decisions for their group while serving as facilitator during meetings or planning sessions.

Role of Facilitator

So what does a facilitator do (or can do) effectively?


  • Designs an event that pays careful attention to set objectives and maximizes interactions, engagement, learning and collective responsibility towards solutions. This design will typically involve various other work forms than the typical presentation, open discussion (e.g. Q&A session) and panel discussion. This variety of work forms stimulates better engagement and manages the energy of participants much more effectively.
  • Provides a set of principles to get participants to appreciate their own thoughts, those of others and those of the whole group; develop respect for each other; share their ideas, feelings, suggestions, constructive criticism; contribute to collective decisions that the whole group can ascribe to.
  • Pays attention to the way participation evolves throughout the agenda; adapts the latter according to emerging issues, constraints and opportunities and energy levels; and reflects with the organizers how to adjust the agenda along the way against set or evolving objectives.
  • Creates an engaging and constructive atmosphere where participants are more likely to feel confident talking, sharing, learning together and develop more solid relationships and trust.

In doing so, (process) facilitators act as reliable, objective and impartial voices. They play a variety of roles: architect, pilot, guide. The following video summarizes some of these ideas.

The other benefit of facilitators is that they liberate all the participants – and organizers – from the burden of having to think ‘how to proceed forward’ and they can concentrate on the issues at hand.

Where a team of facilitators is needed, this can generate more energy, an even better handling of the group as a whole and more consistent and solid documentation of the conversations and information shared.

The pledge…

When should you think of involving a facilitator?

Several factors make it really compelling to bring in a facilitator:

  • When the event or meeting does not just aim at sharing information or receiving feedback but actually wants to involve the participants in brain-storming or decision making;
  • When the issue(s) to deal with are complex;
  • When lots of participants are coming;
  • When the meeting is high level and needs to be of high quality;
  • When clearly defined outputs or outcomes are expected out of the meeting;
  • When the relations between participants are potentially tense or conflictual;
  • When the time given for the event is limited and needs to be used very effectively;
  • When the organizers are not exactly sure how to run an event;
  • When organizers want to focus on the content, not on the process;

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has trained some of its communications and knowledge management staff to provide facilitation services. If you are interested in receiving such support or learning more about facilitation services at ILRI please get in touch.

Click here to see a list of events we have supported. Aside from the expertise we offer, the main benefit of involving us is that we know ILRI, livestock and ILRI’s partners. And we are also usually less expensive!

For further information please contact us (before you start designing the event or committing people):

Ewen Le Borgne
Team leader, knowledge, engagement and collaboration, ILRI Addis Ababa

Muthoni Njiru
Knowledge sharing and engagement officer, ILRI Nairobi

Tsehay Gashaw
Knowledge sharing and web communications officer, ILRI Addis Ababa

Extending the use of social and multimedia in Somaliland’s IGAD Sheikh Technical and Veterinary School

ISTVS logoEarlier this month, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)’s Communications and Knowledge Management (CKM) team led a five-day Communications and Knowledge Sharing training workshop with research and teaching staff at the IGAD Sheikh Technical Veterinary School and Reference Centre (ISTVS) in Somaliland.

The workshop was organized as part of a project on ‘reducing the vulnerability of Somali communities by raising the capacity of indigenous systems and enhancing market access and consumer welfare’ supported by Danida and implemented by ILRI and Terra Nuova. The project has a strong component on enhancing research methods and indigenous knowledge through collaboration with ISTVS and other partners. Read more about the project.

The training grew out of an earlier visit in late 2014 where it emerged that ISTVS needs to communicate its work and science beyond reports and journals, and in ways that reinforce the school’s own visibility. This workshop aimed to raise awareness among staff of the wider range of multimedia and other social media tools and products they can use to capture and communicate their work.

Communications and social media training

The aim of the workshop was to widen participants’ awareness, provide hands-on training on different social media and multimedia tools and produce several prototype final products combining different tools with their actual research interests.

Participants of ISTVS Communications and Knowledge Sharing workshop

Workshop participants

The 20 workshop participants were veterinarians, communication specialists, scientists, interns and tutors working for ISTVS. It was facilitated by Peter Ballantyne, Apollo Habtamu and Liya Dejene from ILRI Addis CKM team and Nicholas Ndiwa from the ILRI–ICRAF Research Methods Group (RMG) in Nairobi.

Social media, multimedia and enhanced data analysis and visualization have the potential to really enable project innovations and new techniques for knowledge sharing and advocacy. This learning opportunity enabled the participants to socialize, network, collaborate, communicate and share knowledge among themselves and for their institute.

ISTVS communications

The training began with introductions from ISTVS principal, Fred Wesonga, Peter Ballantyne and introductions from each trainee. In the ‘ice-breaker’, participants listed some of their current communications skills and listed social media tools they use.  They also reflected together on what they think the opportunities are for ISTVS in terms of communication and knowledge sharing. These could be grouped as follows:

ISTVS as a knowledge and reference centre:

  • It is a regional institution for people to come and share knowledge
  • It has knowledge, customers and means of communications
  • It has information and potential to collect that information/knowledge
  • It has enough research, it just has to be published
  • It has knowledge and skills which can be brought to the community
  • It is a repository of indigenous knowledge
  • It has a strong ‘knowledge base’ and resource centre
  • It links with different institutions, stakeholders, research centers, extension workers and ministries for collaboration.

ISTVS has connections and reach

  • It uses radio to engage pastoralists
  • It has different community platforms
  • It has good internet connection
  • It has linkage with funding institutions like EU
  • It has a lot of graduates (alumni)

ISTVS has a strong identity

  • It has a name to sell
  • It has skilled staff
  • It trains trainers
  • It offers practical experience and learning
  • It offers a multi-cultural environment
  • It has excellent facilities and research environment
Multimedia products

On day two, participants got busy with hands-on sessions working with different multimedia products –they were producing and critiquing basic pictures, videos, audios, photofilms and blogposts by the end of the day.

On the third day, a field trip to Somaliland’s largest livestock market in nearby Burao town brought opportunities for participants to interact with value chain actors to generate different communication products including photos, photofilms, video, stories and audio recordings.

Burao livestock market, Somaliland

Burao livestock market

The team split into five groups generating stories on the following topics:

  • Feed availability and accessibility
  • Indigenous knowledge on animal diseases
  • Livestock grading criteria of buyers and sellers
  • Market price information
  • Value chain actors in the marketplace

The first four linked with ongoing research by participants so ideas generated could be linked to ongoing work. The final assignment aimed to capture the full diversity of actors in photographs.

The next day, participants worked on their materials to produce different products, collecting them in a series of initial blogposts.


By the end of this short training, participants could:

  • take photos, videos (interview and documentary) and audios.
  • produce a photofilm, posters and videos based on the products they gathered.
  • customize some of their research data into graphs, tables and other formats.
  • use some social media platforms (WordPress, Slideshare and Flickr) to distribute their messages.

Some outputs from the training are online, examples include:

Visit some of ISTVS social media sites:

According to ISTVS Principal Fred Wesonga, ‘the staff found it very useful and it came at a very opportune time when ISTVS is working on its visibility plan. We already have a team to carry on and put in practice the knowledge gained during the workshop.’

ILRI’s story

In line with practical focus of the course, Apollo and Liya from ILRI also produced a short report from the training:


See also this compilation of materials from the project (click on the image):

Storify screen shot

Story by Liya Dejene, Peter Ballantyne and Apollo Habtamu

Overcoming the dangers of PowerPoint recitals

In the ILRI communications and knowledge management (CKM) team, we love supporting events. Through our support, we hope the events illustrate all that the CKM team stands for: awareness and advocacy, curation and publishing, and engagement and collaboration. As much as possible.

We have been invited to facilitate events where everything about the event had already been agreed, committed and designed. Preconceived design plans that entail more than 30 PowerPoint (PPT) presentations over two days is not ideal nor recommended for any facilitation team to step into. Facilitation is not about chairing an event, it is about helping design and plan the event’s agenda to ensure that everyone does their best thinking.

One such scenario happened recently around a conference on Policies for competitive smallholder livestock production (Gaborone, Botswana, 4-6 March). The organizers invited us to support it – which was great – but had already made all preparations for the event before engaging with us. With a line up  of 34 presentations over the two days we had an uphill task adding full value to this event.

 hikingartist / FlickR)

Death by presentation is a real, common threat (Image credit: hikingartist / FlickR)

Here is how we turned what was going to be at PowerPoint recital into a festival of powerful points.

Know the strengths and weaknesses of your tools

Firstly, PowerPoint is not the enemy. There are wonderful examples of PowerPoint presentations. But the use and abuse of PowerPoint can be a real problem.

The basic problems with having a PPT recital are:

  • PowerPoint should only be an aid but it has generally become the central element of a presentation in the minds of many. Why?  To what extent do people actually listen to the speaker when they have slide after slide to read? Where is the human storytelling dimension?
  • Not everyone is a good public speaker and reading slides word for word is not helping. Speakers need to know the content they are presenting. Practice in front a mirror if need be, preparation is paramount. A well versed presenter is memorable, a lengthy text-filled presentations is not
  • Not everyone prepares good presentations. Mixing it up with images, graphs and even video can captivate the audience. Use these as alternatives to text so that audience need to pay attention to the presenter to understand them. Text-filled slides make it difficult for the audience to read and listen at the same time
  • Once a recital starts, subconsciously people enter a ‘PPT mode’ whereby they passively consume information and easily start drifting into other thoughts. Reigniting their brains is then quite hard
  • A succession of PPTs makes it probable that each speaker goes over the set time, reducing time for interaction, and this negative spiral likely accelerates as the agenda unfolds – sometimes drastically cutting down on group discussion time
  • Bringing people together to go through a lot of presentations is a missed opportunity: presentations can be shared online. The conversation, decision-making and communion of minds, on the other hand, cannot (at least much less easily). Logorrhea is always a missed opportunity
  • Most fundamentally: no one has the capacity to absorb so 30+ presentations in two days. There is even a notion that the brain switches off after 10 minutes. Information needs to be digested slowly and with the inputs of the audience (through conversations) in order to be owned and used for change.

Now that the premises are set, what did we do to control damage in our event?

Take some precautions…

Some of it boils down to the basics of facilitation:

  • Insist that each speaker takes no longer than 7 minutes for their presentations. This may not be suitable for a scientific conference but it is hugely advisable for policy-focused events. And that’s where the powerful points emerge: everyone skips the lengthy research method details to clarify important highlights and policy implications. And if people take a bit more than 7 minutes your schedule is still rather safe.
  • Brief the speakers about your instructions beforehand. Let them know the rationale of your instructions regarding the presentation length, style etc. ahead of time so they can rehearse and feel comfortable with the presentation, given the constraints.
  • Prepare your visual aids to manage time effectively. We made use of a ‘2-minute’ and a ‘stop’ sign to visually remind speakers about the time they had and whether they should not proceed with the most important part of their presentation. This helped them get their argument right and helped us go through the program with overall a rather tight time management approach.
  • Expand the coffee breaks – people need time to refresh themselves, chat, tend to their emails etc. We expanded breaks from 15 to 30 minute.
  • Carve as much time out as possible for group interactions. After a series of presentations, when groups convene, they allow participants to a) digest the information, and b) draw on their own experience to build a collective picture that is stronger than the collection of the individual perspectives. It is at that moment that the magic can really happen in an event. We made sure we pushed the time to make this a reality. It was not always easy, and we always ended up with too little time (20 to 30 minutes). And at the end of the event, we also cushioned some time to have some more collective reflection.

Participants brain storming

And take some risks…

And in the type of scenarios we faced, some of it relates to gambles you take, that either fly or not. Here are some we tried:

  • Remove or adapt the role of chair(wo)men. We asked our chairs – who very graciously played the game – to only introduce the session and ensure there was a process in place to synthesize their specific theme/session. We reduced their protocol and amplified their contribution to raise awareness about the importance of each theme.
  • Step away from the tradition of plenary questions and answers (Q&A). What we do a lot these days is to have a batch of presentations for about 20-30 minutes and then put the speakers at all corners of the room to do the Q&A session in parallel. This way they have more time to answer more questions. Speakers and the audience are happy. And you can even ask the presenters to share very briefly the key points they discussed in their interaction with participants.
  • Let the speakers feedback on their Q&A time and paraphrase them. Paraphrasing (reformulating one’s points) can be a powerful way to clarify thoughts and bring everyone on the same page.
  • Invite participants to not use PowerPoint. In the AgriFood chain workshop from September 2013 (and to a lesser extent in the Dairy seminar organized in September 2014), we convinced participants to share their information in other ways. In this Botswana event, we allowed participants to choose that option and quite a few took a chance, which resulted in some really interesting and successful stories.
  • Empower and train participants to play a more active role in writing flipcharts and reporting back in plenary.

Looking back and learning forward

We spent every evening, and at the end of the event, to review what had happened (or what should happen the next day). This ‘after action review (AAR)’ ritual is an essential feature of event organization and facilitation. Here are some of our reflections about the event.

The Competitive policies could have featured more interaction for participants to have more time to learn from each other, know each other and work the network a bit – which is an essential part of any event. While each little process detail we brought did not account for much o its own, the collection of small changes led to a much more vivid overall picture.

For facilitators, this event was an opportunity to stretch our imagination in a rigid environment (to start with) and to come up with alternative ways of organizing PowerPoint-heavy conferences. We also found a few other tricks and tips to improve the process flow of the event.

For the organizers who had designed the initial steps, this was also a learning journey to think about how an event can be made even more effective. The whole event was a learning experience for both the organizers and facilitation team with more appreciation for what facilitating and supporting an event can really mean.

We thank the organizers for giving us the opportunity to learn together and generating a fresher take on the ubiquitous PowerPoint recital.

Setting up a joint CGIAR exhibition booth at ‘Celebrating FARA’ in South Africa

CGIAR at FARA@15, South Africa

ILRI’s Iddo Dror and Muthoni U Njiru at the CGIAR booth in ‘Celebrating FARA’ event in South Africa, Nov 2014 (photo credit: CIP).

These are highlights and lessons learnt from participating at an event of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) known as ‘Celebrating FARA’ which was held 26-28 November 2014 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

At the event, CGIAR centres’ came together to develop a joint exhibition booth to showcase CGIAR’s commitment in working with partners to contribute to Africa’s agricultural research agenda. The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) was represented by Jimmy Smith, the director general, Ewen LeBorge, Iddor Dror and Muthoni U Njiru.

This article concentrates on the collaborative effort of putting together a joint booth for the CGIAR at the event. You can read two informative articles about the event on the FARA website and CGIAR website.

In general, the joint developing and hosting of the CGIAR booth was successful. In terms of logistics, the generous and timely local support from Nicole Lefore and Thokozani Dhlamini of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Pretoria, ensured that all printed materials were produced, collected, cleared at customs (for materials shipped) and eventually delivered to the events premises at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Johannesburg, in time.

Additionally, CGIAR staff attending the event helped with setting up, manning and setting down of the booth during the three-day event. The process of pulling together print materials (showing CGIAR work in Africa) from the 15 CGIAR centres spread across the world, was not easy but was successfully jointly coordinated by the Consortium office and centre communications teams.

CGIAR at FARA@15, South Africa

CGIAR communications staff attended and facilitated side events to encourage engagement and collaboration with partners attending the FARA event. Communication support provided included contributing to teamwork, remotely producing publications and posters for side-event sessions and the booth, attending end-of-day briefing sessions to share day’s achievements and handing out invitations, at the booth, for different side events.

Despite the successes, we identified areas for future improvement including:

  • exploring possibility of producing a CGIAR poster template highlighting the objectives, donors, partners, outcomes and websites of CGIAR research programs,
  • giving a one-face ‘human’ image at exhibits for visual connectivity within CGIAR,
  • formulating an exhibit pack to provide a universally recognizable feel of CGIAR,
  • reducing the number of printed publications sent to exhibits, regardless of location, and instead using poster presentations, talks and short videos on specific ‘happenings’ (we received feedback on how overwhelming all the publications were),
  • double-checking lists on what is and is not covered (by the organizer) under ‘exhibit costs’ before arrival and set up,
  • organizing pre-visits with the event coordinator to finalize on all items to be supplied for an exhibition. This will improve preparedness and keep exhibit organizers from being overwhelmed at the start of events, and
  • encouraging use of ‘intentional’ promotional materials such as flash drives with information about CGIAR.

CGIAR at FARA@15, South Africa

The importance of preselecting booth space was also an important lesson in this event. The team chose the front outdoor space, which exposed some of the materials to bad weather, where indoor booths would have served us best. There is also need confirm the use of pins for pinning up posters to avoid damage charges.

Other highlights of communication support included encouraging participation and creating awareness about CGIAR, responding to participant interest in freebies such as T-shirts, flash drives, pens and organizing pre-packed media packs for the press to maximize information dissemination to journalists attending media briefings.

The coordination of the booth’s planning and organizing was led by Michael Victor from IWMI with the support of Muthoni Njiru from ILRI who organized virtual planning meetings via skype and bluejeans in the lead up to the event. Document management was supported by Google docs to enable co-creation and sharing of information.

In future, we hope to build on these lessons and other co-creating skills needed to produce interesting, informative and interactive exhibitions.

See pictures from the event.

Feel free to share other lessons from working on joint CGIAR exhibitions in the comments section below.

What ILRI’s visitors are reading and viewing in 2014

The time when research institutions only produced scientific papers and reports is long gone, though these products remain at the heart of what many CGIAR scientists produce.

Like our sister CGIAR centres, ILRI’s research publishing is now very diverse, spanning images, video, posters, podcasts, blogposts, tweets, extension leaflets and much more.

What are the most-read or viewed in the past year? We are lucky that all the channels we use provide metrics and stats of various sorts.

Our reports and publications are on CGspace; the top 20 in terms of downloads in 2014 were:

Item title File downloads Item views Sum 1. Worm control for small ruminants in tropical Asia 17,027 160 17,187 2. Towards priority actions for market development for African farmers 11,157 626 11,783 3. Writing convincing research proposals and effective scientific reports. Part A: writing a convincing proposal 7,541 749 8,290 4. The role of livestock in developing communities: Enhancing multifunctionality 7,514 493 8,007 5. Concepts and practices in agricultural extension in developing countries: a source book 6,882 849 7,731 6. Feeding dairy cattle: a manual for smallholder dairy farmers and extension workers in East Africa 6,280 2,054 8,334 7. Market access and value chain analysis of dairy industry in Ethiopia: The case of Wolaita Zone 6,115 653 6,768 8. Sustainable utilization of agro-industrial wastes through integration of bio-energy and mushroom production 5,665 205 5,870 9. Sheep and goat production and marketing systems in Ethiopia: characteristics and strategies for improvement 5,558 999 6,557 10. Smallholder dairy production and marketing systems in Ethiopia: IPMS experiences and opportunities for market-oriented development 5,495 681 6,176 11. Study of the Ethiopian live cattle and beef value chain 5,171 490 5,661 12. The dairy value chain in Kenya 4,849 343 5,192 13. Impacts of climate change on the agricultural and aquatic systems and natural resources within the CGIAR’s mandate 4,655 1,646 6,301 14. Smallholder dairy production and marketing—Opportunities and constraints 4,097 150 4,247 15. An assessment on the role of women in agriculture in Southern Nation Nationality People’s Region: The case of Halaba Special Woreda, Ethiopia 3,715 273 3,988 16. Analysis of fruit and vegetable market chains in Alamata, Southern Zone of Tigray: the case of onion, tomato and papaya 3,680 346 4,026 17. Cattle milk and meat production and marketing systems and opportunities for market-orientation in Fogera woreda, Amhara region, Ethiopia 3,673 353 4,026 18. Climate variability and climate change and their impacts on Kenya’s agricultural sector 3,650 286 3,936 19. IPMS project implementation plan, March 2005 3,491 155 3,646 20. Analysis of poultry market chain: The case of Dale and Alaba ‘Special’ Woredas of SNNPRS, Ethiopia 3,349 320 3,669


Our posters and presentations are on slideshare; the top 20 in terms of views in 2014 were:

Poster or presentation Views 1. Quantifying Salmonella spp. in pig slaughterhouses and pork markets associated with human health in Hung Yen, Vietnam 5,517 2. Poultry production in Ethiopia: An overview 4,391 3. Livestock research for food security and poverty reduction: ILRI strategy 2013–2022 3,836 4. Introduction to agricultural value chains and supply chain management 2,264 5. ILRI in the CGIAR Research Programs 2,031 6. Innovations in agricultural extension: What can Ethiopia learn from global experiences? 1,910 7. Pig and pork zoonoses in Uganda 1,824 8. Feasibility assessment of selected sites for the pilot project on the feasibility of generating carbon credit through dairy productivity gains 1,808 9. Rabies in Bali: A chronology and experience made with an EcoHealth approach for a better control of rabies 1,807 10. Feeding the World in 2050: Trade-offs, synergies and tough choices for the livestock sector 1,803 11. Generating carbon credits from the Kenyan dairy industry: A pilot study 1,788 12. Multimedia in research: What is it? Why use it? How to use it? 1,785 13. Q fever in Africa and Asia: A systematic literature review and mapping of disease 1,781 14. Dairy hubs in East Africa: Lessons from the East Africa Dairy Development project 1,752 15. Some gender concepts 1,738 16. Technical mitigation options in dairy 1,700 17. Integrated crop livestock systems: A key to sustainable intensification in Africa 1,698 18. Microbial contaminations in milk and identification of selected pathogenic bacteria along dairy value chain in Tanga region, Tanzania 1,632 19. Agricultural research for crop and livestock value chains development: The IPMS experience 1,577 20. Climate-smart Brachiaria Grasses for Improving Livestock Production in East Africa 1,555


Our videos and films are on Youtube; the top 20 in 2014 by views were:

Title Views 1. Improving African Livestock with Reproductive Technologies and Genomics 10,367 2. Memory’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Girl in Rural Malawi 7,488 3. Pig Keeping in Northeast India 5,896 4. Improving livelihoods through goat rearing and commercialisation in Mozambique 3,696 5. Livestock Under Threat: Managing the Future of Native West African Ruminant Livestock 2,589 6. Ankole Cattle: One of Africa’s Disappearing Livestock Breeds? 2,115 7. ILRI Annual Program Meeting 2013 in pictures 1,993 Small-scale Dairying in Northeast India 1,648 8. The Muchina family: How dairy farming educates Kenya’s children 1,579 9. Introducing the ILRI campus in Ethiopia: The facilities and the people 1,543 10. Smallholder pig farming in Uganda: A day in the life of a research for development project 1,313 11. Improving livelihoods through goat rearing and commercialisation in India 1,238 12. The Story of One Woman’s Struggles in Rural Malawi 1,234 13. L’élevage dans la ceinture de tsé-tsé en Afrique de l’Ouest 1,196 14. Livestock fattening innovation in Ethiopia – the Metema story 1,130 15. Introducing the ILRI campus in Kenya The facilities and the people 1,018 16. Heat, Rain and Livestock: Impacts of Climate Change on Africa’s Livestock Herders 970 17. የመስኖ ሙዝ ልማት በመተማ ወረዳ 852 18. Ethiopian farmers use water harvesting techniques to fight climate change 761 19. Three Endangered African Livestock Breeds 635 20. No bees no honey: Apiculture value chain experiences in Ethiopia 632


Finally, we publish across several different news and project blogs; the most viewed in 2014 were:

Blog title Views 1. ILRI News 99,868 2. ILRI Clippings 46,867 3. Livestock Fish CGIAR program 44,956 4. Africa RISING Program 34,403 5. LIVES project 26,975 6. IBLI project 14,199 7. AgHealth blog 10,734 8. Nile Basin Development Challenge 8,937 9. Livestock Gender and Innovation 7,929 10. BioScience blog 7,443


Note: these numbers were compiled on 24 December 2014; so may already be a bit out of date.

Scaling social learning for climate change and food security up and out, now or never

Go for it now. The future is promised to no one (Wayne Dyer).

Two and half years ago, a group of researchers embarked on an initiative called ‘Climate Change Communication and Social Learning‘ (later dubbed ‘CCSL’). Since then, the group has grown and the initiative has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Anno 2015, social learning for agriculture and food security has to begin scaling up and out to influence real practices and policies, or wane in the department of ‘lost and found development (research) efforts’…

This is one of the main conclusions of the recent CCSL team meeting (15-17 December 2014 in Kenya). It is not the only interesting and important conclusion we came to. Over three days, team members:

  • Reviewed their vision of change by the horizon 2025 and – more realistically – by 2018;
  • Identified a series of concrete activities to undertake in order to see that vision come true;
  • Cleared a number of pending issues such as signing off an Monitoring and Evaluation framework developed after an evidence-gathering workshop by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the development of outcome stories etc.;
  • Started assembling a fund-raising strategy with concrete ideas and inputs for 2015;
  • Discussed the future of the CCSL ‘sandbox’ – a space of reflection and co-creation that has catalyzed efforts of the CCSL group in the past three years.

The CCSL group has been developed thanks to seed funding and ongoing support from the CGIAR Research Program  (CRP) on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS). It has been followed on this space, from the foundational workshop, to team meetings or other meetings, or even the key outputs developed. And it connects very well with various strands of the work done by the International Livestock Research Institute (see presentation below):

However, at the turn of 2014, CCAFS – like other CRPs – has an unclear future and funding. This was the main driver behind our re-imagining the future of this CCSL initiative.

A big, bold future, connecting energies and capacities around principles of action and learning

The vision of the group for 2025 is that: “vulnerable communities draw on collective, transformative learning capacities to respond to the wicked problem of climate change in ways that enhance their resilience and reduce their overall poverty – through the transformation of norms within the research for development community and within national policy environments“.

The vision further hopes that “actors and organizations from research, policy and practice apply learning-based strategies and adaptive management to continuously reflect and improve upon their practice, working in linked-up ways and drawing on knowledge from across scales and contexts“.

The bottom line is that social learning is only a means to a food secure, climate-smart future that transcends individuals who ever adapt and evolve through collective learning and action drawing from various knowledge sources.

The term ‘social learning’, however, may be a barrier to further progress. The brief of the team in 2015 and beyond is therefore to explore what related concepts and terms other organizations and networks are using, use their language to bridge the gap, and explore opportunities to collaborate around the ultimate goals of CCSL and these other ‘communities’. The idea of a manifesto was brushed over, with the ambition to clearly explain what the principles of social learning are, to focus on these rather than the term social learning itself.

Luckily, a number of useful resources (such as the framework and toolkit) have been developed by the CCSL team to move this work forward.

Concrete – and fast – change with concrete partners

This vision of the future for 2025 has to first apply to a number of important development actors by 2018: a couple of funding agencies, some governmental agencies, a couple of large international organizations, a handful of communities on the ground and also specifically a couple of development initiatives (although the case of ‘civic-driven initiatives’ was also questioned. Failing to effect change among these actors would mean that social learning has not delivered on its promises and may be doomed – under this CCSL avatar.

Moving social learning way beyond the original academic group - is it realistic? (Photo credit: ILRI/Z. Sewunet)

Moving social learning way beyond the original academic group – is it realistic? (Photo credit: ILRI/Z. Sewunet)

If CCSL, on the other hand, wants to play a role in bringing together the key actors of the social learning arena (and its ‘happy families’), it will have to be very active on various fronts. Some of the steps that the team specified were:

  • A thorough analysis of the actors, agendas, arenas that connect with social learning;
  • Some research on the drivers and incentives for change among a variety of actors, particularly funding agencies;
  • Continue to document, harvest and assess first-hand evidence of the adoption of social learning and its impact on the various actors;
  • Develop the capacity of critical actors around social learning;
  • Grow the capacity of the CCSL group (in quantity and qualitatively in the skill set that it offers).

Opening the space for learning and change

The main thrust of CCSL work is currently happening through the CCSL sandbox, which consists of a publicly accessible wiki and a closed Yammer network (pending on membership) for interactions among interested parties.

 same function, different platforms and scales? (Photo credit: Le Borgne / ILRI)

The CCSL sandbox in 2015: same function, different platforms and scales? (Photo credit: Le Borgne / ILRI)

The team felt that this special space has to open up and connect other actors quite quickly. The platforms currently used will be reviewed in 2015 and perhaps complemented by a more open platform with greater profiling options (such as a LinkedIn group) to engage more widely and more deeply with all the actors that could find CCSL valuable.

Two other critical steps in this ‘CCSL opening up’ direction that the group identified were to:

  • Open the membership to all kinds of actors that are currently not really inside the sandbox (spanning funding, policy, development implementation etc.)
  • Develop an intellectual hub around social learning to further CCSL work (perhaps through opening a journal, setting up a training course, developing program affiliation etc.)

The year 2015 appears very busy already and promises to be dramatic on the social learning front. In one year from now, as good learning practice, the time of the ‘after action review‘ will tell whether in 2016 CCSL holds or folds.

Read notes from the meeting

See pictures from the meeting

Why technology adoption is nowhere near where it should be and how social learning could help

The recent annual monitoring and evaluation (M&E) meeting of the Africa RISING program featured a very interesting presentation by David Spielman, of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) about ‘Improving evidence on the impact of agricultural research & extension – Reflections on CSISA’s experience‘. This presentation has many relations to the work currently undergoing on social learning as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

What the author stresses in this presentation is that:

  • We may have focused the past 40 years of our agricultural research on technologies, sometimes the right technology for the right context, but we still have not really managed to scale up technologies well enough and successes are still patchy and isolated. Perhaps rather than focus on (just) the technology, we should have focused on learning more about the process of getting farmers adopt technologies in the first place.
  • A lot of constraints are affecting the adoption of technologies by farmers, and some of these constraints are usually overlooked (e.g. risk preferences, present bias, aspirations etc.) as scientists tend to focus on the technology itself. These ‘tangents’ that are not considered carefully enough – typically gender and other social differentiation issues – have a very real effect on technology adoption.
  • So we need to learn much more about the merits of various adoption approaches but also be rigorous about evaluating them so we can better compare them, on a scientifically sound basis, and with good traces (publications) that other specialists can build upon later.
  • One interesting approach that the Cereals Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) has been piloting is around highly targeted ‘individual interventions’. Rather than rely on a baseline survey that takes account of every possible aspect, the CSISA M&E team identifies possible areas for improvements, comes in with diagnostics, a valuation, an evaluation, some consideration for tangents and eventually a variety of ‘scale up’ scenarios.

What the author did not emphasize in the presentation, but mentioned in a personal communication, is the importance of documenting this work so it can affect other people’s work beyond the group of people directly involved – leaving traces with publications …

Learning about technology adoption (and agricultural extension) approaches is close to the work that a collective is undertaking in the Climate Change Social Learning (CCSL) initiative taking place as part of CCAFS.

Here are a few reasons why these two areas of work are similar:

The presentation by David Spielman relates to the merits of various technology adoption methods, some of which are very participatory, in the hope that this will increase the chances for the technology to get adopted. This is very close to the list of 120+ (proto-) social learning methodologies (appendix 5) that consultant Julian Gonsalves extracted from CGIAR’s experience in participatory research for the CCSL group in 2012.

Some of the work that is happening in CCSL relates among others to local decision-making around using specific technologies, for climate change adaptation and/or mitigation. But there is not enough understanding about the drivers of ‘local decision-making’, which is why CCSL is also trying to unpack this complex decision-making process.

Finally, the plea by David Spielman to assess and quantify what extension and technology adoption methodologies work echoes the current work being undertaken in assessing and monitoring social learning (this resource is currently only accessible to CCSL sandbox members but will soon be documented on the CCSL sandbox wiki).

Hopefully some of these efforts will coalesce – or complement each other as there are also some differences between what the Spielman presented and what CCSL is trying to unpack:

 IITA/Jonathan Odhong’)

David Spielman, Tsehay Gashaw and Carlo Azzari (Photo credit: IITA/Jonathan Odhong’)

  • Spielman exhorts us to assess specific adoption methodologies, not to assess specifically ‘social learning’ methodologies
  • The focus of his presentation is about ‘technology adoption’ whereas social learning could be used for many other purposes than technology
  • Arguably one of the most fundamental differences is that ‘technology adoption’ seems to emphasize the technology transfer from one group to the next, whereas social learning is all about joint exploration, co-creating, not knowing early on what e.g. the right technology will be etc.

My take home messages from Spielman for the CCSL community are a) it is important to rigorously assess and quantify approaches to better understand, in a scientifically sound way, how these approaches may help or not, and b) it is important to document this work in peer-reviewed journals, to go beyond just adding to the wealth of experiences that Julian Gonsalves introduced in a workshop in November 2012, towards actually influencing the discourse and practice of people and organizations.

The challenge is to evaluate social learning approaches in practice, face-to-face, and to document it so that this body of work can be adopted by others. With our current efforts to strengthen ways to monitor and evaluate social learning, some first steps are being taken to go beyond islands of success, to the sea of scaling up technologies!


Why publish? ILRI graduate fellows and early career researchers trained in scientific writing and publishing

Introduction to scientific writing and publishing module training

Participants in a scientific writing and publishing module training for ILRI staff on 25-26 November 2014 in Nairobi, Kenya (photo credit: ILRI/Paul Karaimu).

As part of their expected deliverables PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are expected to share knowledge gained in the process of research and to communicate with fellow scientists and wider audiences. This process involves the eventual publishing of research findings in academic and scientific journals. But many first time researchers find the process of getting their research findings published difficult because they lack the relevant skills and awareness of the rules and regulations of scientific writing and publishing.

To address this skills gap, ILRI’s Capacity Development (CapDev) Unit working in collaboration with People & Organizational Development (P&OD) Unit and the Training Centre for Communication (TCC), recently delivered an interactive and practical workshop designed to give ILRI graduate and post-doctoral fellows and early career researchers, an opportunity to understand the process of scientific writing and publishing and to develop skills that would help them maximize the output and impact of their research.

The workshops were organized and held in two sessions on 25-26 November and 2-3 December 2014 at the ILRI Nairobi campus. Key topics of the training sought to address how researchers can contribute effectively to the scientific knowledge bank through publishing their research and the processes, rules and ethical aspects of scientific writing and publishing. Thirty-seven participants including Msc and PhD fellows, postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers (research assistants and technicians) attended the workshops.

‘This training has been very helpful to me,’ said Leonard Marwa, a PhD student at ILRI, ‘I will apply the new knowledge gained in writing scientific papers of high quality that have a higher chance of being accepted for publishing in journals,’ he further commented.

Introduction to scientific writing and publishing module training

Participants in a scientific writing and publishing module training for ILRI staff on 2-3 December 2014 in Nairobi, Kenya (photo credit: ILRI/Samuel Mungai).

Hannah Nyota, a research assistant with the ILRI Policy Trade and Value Chains (PTVC) Program, noted that that interactions at the training workshop helped colleagues exchange information on the research they are doing and that fellow researchers, together with the trainers, provided useful feedback to help them improve their work. ‘We now understand better the need to publish our findings,’ she said.

The course was part of an ILRI’s CapDev/P&OD unit’s initiative to provide learning opportunities to graduate fellows and staff that include a blend of a series of ‘bite-size’ modular courses in cross-cutting skills areas, e-learning opportunities, effective mentorship support, evidence and assessments to further enrich the their learning experience at ILRI.

Through the graduate fellowship program, ILRI provides opportunities for young scientists and graduate fellows from National Agricultural Research Organizations (NARS), universities and other institutions to undertake quality research-for-development (R4D) within ILRI projects. The graduate fellows are able to access ILRI’s cutting edge research facilities, receive mentorship from ILRI scientists while at the same time make a valuable contribution to ILRI’s research agenda.

Written by Joyce Maru, capacity development officer at ILRI.