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012 demby

  1. 1. Building a Continental Online Platform for Agricultural Information and Knowledge Sharing in Africa Dady Demby, RAILS Program Officer, FARAi1. IntroductionIn Africa, information about agricultural science and technology generated by research institutions oftenexists only in the form of ‘grey literature’ and rarely gets disseminated through conventional channelssuch as scholarly and academic publications or journals. On the other hand, the culture of documentingagricultural research processes and findings is not widely practiced in many organisations. Often, when ascientist leaves an institution, most of his/her work cannot be tracked, thus causing a significant loss tothe concerned institution. When this happens, the visibility, availability and access to research resultsbecome serious challenges. The key challenge is therefore how to make sure that research scientists and other stakeholders –decision/policy makers, faculty, farmers, international donor agencies, NGOs – can access this vitalinformation.This paper explains FARA’s intervention through its continental RAILS programme, and highlights howstakeholders (people) are being mobilised to use ICTs and are being involved in relevant processes forcontent development and information and knowledge sharing. It also highlights the challenges faced,lessons learnt and future prospects.2. BackgroundSeveral initiatives have been launched by various organisations at different levels to tackle thischallenge. At the global level, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) hasinitiated the AGRIS initiative with the aim: Promote free access to information on science and technologyin agriculture and related subjects. Other organisations such as CABI and CTA have also developedsimilar initiatives or projects with similar objectives. Examples are:  CAB Abstracts, which provides access to a wide range of journal articles, conference papers and reports  CTA’s Information-Products-Dissemination program, the key strategy for which is ‘to involve more ACP authors and publishers in the Programme, disseminate information through a variety of channels and decentralise our information services to ACP regions where feasible’ 1
  2. 2.  The Sahelian Scientific and Technological Information and Documentation Network (RESADOC), which was initiated by the Sahel Institute with the aim to ‘plan and establish a database; disseminate information in the Sahel countries’The RESADOC organisational chartAt the sub-regional research organisation (SRO) level, the Regional Agricultural Information Network(RAIN) was implemented by the Association of Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern andCentral Africa (ASARECA) under European Union (EU) funding. RAIN’s mission is to promote sustainablemanagement of client-oriented agricultural information throughout the 10 countries in the sub-region.More recently, the SADC Agricultural Information Management System (AIMS) was established toprovide planners and policy makers easy access to information for revitalising agricultural and naturalresources growth, enhancing food security, and promoting rural development. Under this project,support was provided to southern African countries to develop ICM policies and strategies.Drawing lessons from these initiatives and sometimes capitalising on their achievements, the RAILSobjective is to enhance access, retrieval and use of agricultural information and technologies by Africanagricultural research for development (ARD) stakeholders in the global knowledge exchange arena. Ithas four specific objectives.  Undertake advocacy to encourage increased investment in agricultural information systems (AIS) by African governments and institutions.  Improve access to information and the ability of African stakeholders to contribute to global agricultural knowledge.  Facilitate synergies by linking African information conduits to global providers of agricultural information.  Develop an African platform for agricultural information and learning systems.The RAILS strategy in building a continental online platform for agricultural information and knowledgesharing in Africa is based on four strong, interlinked pillars: People, ICTs, Process and Content. 2
  3. 3. 3. Bringing people togetherOne of the key challenges faced by many actors and institutions working in the ARD area in Africa is thepoor collaboration that results from isolation. Few African countries have effective networks of peoplewho regularly share information and knowledge about ARD. Duplication of effort and waste of scarceresources are inevitable when knowledge is not shared. Responding to this challenge, andacknowledging the importance of human capital, FARA has promoted the establishment of RAILSlearning teams in each country. The learning teams gather people from various backgrounds, disciplinesand institutions – researchers, farmers, extensionists, media specialists, businesspeople, NGOprofessionals, IT specialists and others – who work together as information intermediaries. Membersmeet both face to face and online to discuss and share information. The online interactions arefacilitated through the use of the discussion group (Dgroup) platform. Learning teams have beenestablished in 30 countries while national Dgroups have been established in 19 countries.Members of these national Dgroups are gathered (a) at sub-regional level through their respective SROs;and (b) at continental level through the RAILS Dgroup, which also includes diverse actors and partners atthe global level. The RAILS Dgroup is currently comprised of 983 members from 69 countries worldwide.The table below shows the national Dgroups created and their contribution level.ASARECA CORAF SADCBurundi** Burkina Zambia****DRC** CameroonKenya Congo Brazzaville***Sudan* Côte dlvoire**Tanzania** Gambia**Uganda*** Ghana Guinea* Liberia Senegal* Togo* Mali* Mauritania Table 1: Level of contribution* Low: ≤ 50** Medium: ≥100*** High: ≥ 200**** Very high: >250Zambia provides an interesting example of a successful effort to promote collaboration among NARSstakeholders. FARA and FAO teamed up to support Zambia for improving information management andopening access to agricultural information. This joint effort resulted in the establishment of the ZambiaAgriculture for Development Information Network (ZAR4DIN) 3
  4. 4. 4. Promoting effective use of ICTsThe continuous and exponential development of ICTs offers many opportunities to make the outputs ofARD visible. Nonetheless, the use of ICTs in ARD organisations across Africa remains limited. Some of theconstraints faced include lack of well-established information and communication managementstrategies and policies, low awareness of the opportunities presented by modern ICTs (particularly Web2.0 tools), insufficient access to the internet, and low bandwidth.FARA has contributed in strengthening the capacities of institutions through provision of local areanetwork, internet connectivity and computers and servers, including netbooks for mobile connectivity.Thirty four (34) countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are being supported in this respect. In addition to thissupport, several training workshops have been organised to improve awareness of NARS stakeholdersabout the various opportunities of ICTs and to strengthen their capacities in the use of these tools.5. Facilitating a participatory and dynamic processFARA gathers a diversity of stakeholders with different expectations and capacities. Collaborating andworking together requires intensive and regular consultation. Using the Dgroups platform, RAILSorganises consultations among stakeholders to discuss issues of common interest. At the continentallevel, the RAILS working group, which is composed of SRO representatives as well as selected NARS andinternational partners, meet regularly.Skype, another important ICT tool, is used for online chats/meetings to consult with stakeholders andpartners.This process was followed to develop the eRAILS continental portal, which started by assessingstakeholders’ needs and expectations concerning a continental portal. Once this assessment had beencompleted, the stakeholders moved ahead by identifying the technical requirements for such a portal aswell as a managerial structure, starting from the national level, through the sub-regional level, andultimately to the continental level.Gathering the stakeholders’ expectations at the grassroots level – and fine tuning at a higher level – resultedin the launching of a co-developed continental portal. 4
  5. 5. 6. Promoting the use of relevant ICTsAfter an iterative process, the development of a prototype portal, the review and fine tuning of theprototype, the final eRAILS continental portal (www.erails.net) was launched in July 2009 in Accra,Ghana (Figure 1). The launching meeting was chaired by FARA Executive Director Professor Monty Jonesin the presence of FARA stakeholders (far right picture above). The aim of this portal is to support thecollection and dissemination of African-generated information by various actors involved in ARDactivities. The eRAILS facility allows institutional or individual actors to request accounts and create theirown websites on the portal. The eRAILS facility has proven very easy to use and since its launching:  43 countries have activated their country portals  367 accounts have been opened  575 websites have been created  2408 web pages have been generatedFigure 1: Homepage of the eRAILS continental portalThanks to its simplicity, which makes it possible to create a website within 5-10 minutes, the platform isalso being used to capture outputs of various workshops and events organised by FARA and its partnersand stakeholders. eRAILS makes it easy not only to create a new website, but also to link an existingwebsite, therefore increasing the access rate to the website. Here are some examples. 5
  6. 6. The significant number of websites created (an average of 191 per year) and the tremendous increase inthe number of visitors since eRAILS was launched is a good indicator of how badly such a platform wasneeded. Figure 2 shows the visits and the pages viewed statistics from July 2009 to December 2011. Visitors Pages viewsFigure 2: eRAILS visits and the pages viewed statistics, July 2009 to December 2011Figure 3 shows the top 10 most visited websites on eRAILS during the period. It is interesting to notethat two Botswanan newspapers are among the top 10 most visited websites. The average access timeon these pages is 2 minutes. 6
  7. 7. Madagascar 3100 3251 8266 Botswana Botswana/News 4173 Kenya 4480 7814 Cote dIvoire DR Congo 4774 Botswana/News/Actualités 7640 Uganda 5782 Madagascar/Divers 6580 GhanaFigure 3: Top 10 most visited websites in 2011Looking closer, it also appears that the Botswana eRAILS portal was used to provide a link to differentnewspapers’ websites from Mauritius and Madagascar (Figure 4).Figure 4: The Botswana eRAILS portal serving as an entry point to various newspaper websites 7
  8. 8. 7. Developing contentsAs stated in the introduction, content development, organisation and sharing by African ARDorganisations and stakeholders is one of the key constraints to facilitation of access to agriculturalresearch outputs. eRAILS was specifically developed with this challenge in mind.However, after 3 years of existence, despite the impressive number of websites created and theexponential increase in the number of visitors, quality content development remains a big challenge.While a number of quite interesting websites with interesting content exist, many websites have verylimited content. The main causes of this problem are limited internet connectivity and lack of technicalskills. In most cases, people who receive training lose their skills after a certain amount time if theirtraining not put into practice. Other causes cited include the lack of strong incentives and the lack ofculture for documenting information and knowledge.Based on these considerations, a strategy is being co-developed with stakeholders to improve thequality content development on the eRAILS portal. In addition, a second phase of eRAILS portaldevelopment has been initiated with the aim of improving on content development through theprovision of services to farmers. Through this exercise, researchers are learning to respond to concreteproblems faced by farmers in their fields. Provision of this service to farmers is facilitated by acommunity team as part of the RAILS learning teams within each country. This team is composed of anational facilitator, a field agent, a knowledge management agent, a local data entry agent, a marketarchive manager and the RAILS national focal person. A website describing this project is accessible athttp://www.erails.net/FARA/erails2/erails2/Home/ (Figure 5). This is based on the experience gainedfrom the RUN system which has been successfully implemented in Uganda and some other Africancountries over a 10-year period.Figure 5: eRAILS2 project home page on the eRAILS continental portal 8
  9. 9. 8. Challenges facedThe key challenges faced during the development of the eRAILS continental portal are:  Insufficient internet connectivity and bandwidth  Weak writing skills  Lack of a culture for documenting stories (information is scattered and difficult to manage)  Lack of clearly established information and communication management policies and strategies  Low awareness of the opportunities offered by the ICT (particularly Web 2.0 tools)  Weak human capacity to effectively manage and disseminate informationIt is also to be noted that despite the importance of information and knowledge, only few organisationsdedicate enough financial resources for information and communication management needs.9. Conclusion and way forwardThe development of the eRAILS continental portal has been an interesting learning process. Thediversity of stakeholders and partners involved at different levels – national, sub-regional, continentaland international – is both challenging and enriching through the co-development and co-learningprocess.The learning team concept developed by FARA and jointly implemented by stakeholders, particularly atnational level, has been a strong catalyst in mobilising actors and building national networks forinformation and knowledge sharing.The eRAILS continental portal is becoming more and more used by various stakeholders both withinAfrica and elsewhere.The main challenge remains content. It is expected that the content development strategy currentlyunder development, as well as the launching of Phase 2 of eRAILS, will generate improved content in thecoming years.The scaling out and strengthening of national Dgroups will remain the backbone of these developments,while also strengthening the ownership and sustainability of the achievements. 9
  10. 10. References  ASARECA Secretariat. 2010. Taking Stock of RAIN: 2003–2007. Booklet.  SADC/FANR Secretariat, Proceedings of the First Regional Agricultural Information Management System Technical Committee Meeting, 10-12 March, 2010, Johannesburg, South Africa (Volume II: Full Report), Gaborone, Botswana  ZARI, Zambia Agriculture Research for Development Information Network (ZAR4DIN) Project: Phase 1, December 2009-October 2010, Report, Lusaka, Zambia  FARA Secretariat, 2009. Building RAILS Learning Teams, Guide, Accra, Ghana  FARA Secretariat. Minutes of the RAILS Planning Meeting held on 23-24 February 2009. Entebbe, Uganda.  CORAF Secretariat, 2008. Workshop for the launching of RAILS activities in the CORAF/WECARD Zone, Cotonou, Benin, 23rd -24th January 2008  FARA Secretariat. 2007. RAILS implementation workshop, workshop report, Accra, Ghana.  FAO. 1983. Evaluation du projet de démarrage du réseau sahélien d’information et de documentation scientifique et technique. Rapport technique, RP/1981-1983/5/10.1/08.Web resourceshttp://www.asareca.org/rain/index.php?Itemid=1&lang=enghttp://www.sadc.int/fanr/aims/index.phphttp://zar4din.blogspot.com/http://www.erails.net/http://www.erails.net/MZ/event/pstad-workshop/workshop-docs/i The ideas shared in this paper are the result of a team work performed by RAILS stakeholders at national, sub-regional andFARA Secretariat levels. 10