Undeterred by COVID-19: How Africa RISING is adapting operations for continuity in research and delivery
‘This is the “new normal” and we have to adapt,’ notes Mohammed Ibrahim, researcher with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and Africa RISING’s site coordinator in Tigray, Ethiopia, as he reflects on all the important operational adjustments, he and colleagues have had to make in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The immediate effect of the pandemic to the Africa RISING Program has been its near-paralytic impact on the implementation of pre-planned project activities. Franklin Avornyo of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), an Africa RISING implementing partner in Ghana, notes that when the restrictions and lockdowns began in Ghana, there was a scare, and partners could no longer visit project sites.
‘First, it affected the quality of our deliverables. Second, it delayed processes in general because offices were closed and the national postal service, for example, was also no longer efficient. Activities that we would hitherto accomplish within a month, now took between 2–3 months,’ adds Avornyo.
But even in these dreary times, Africa RISING staff and partners have found various ways of ‘keeping things moving’ and ensuring that improved agricultural technologies still reach smallholder farmers.
Staying engaged — even when everyone’s working from home
Working from home is the new normal for a majority of Africa RISING staff and partners since early March 2020. This new modus operandi was enforced first by the governments of the six countries where Africa RISING activities are implemented and soon after adopted as policy by the CGIAR centres leading Africa RISING – ILRI, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Understandably, this affected many of the program’s planned field activities in East and Southern Africa (Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia), the Ethiopian highlands and West Africa (Ghana and Mali).
To stay engaged, many of the Africa RISING staff are teleworking full-time, for the first time. While some staff and partners are conversant with the online collaboration tools, others have had to ‘learn by doing’. However, despite the steep learning curve, a majority of program staff are now comfortable with the tools and can chat, host video calls and share documents. Many staff are checking in through virtual meetings to maintain a sense of normalcy and continue sharing ideas. The value of seeing each other’s smiling faces and other familiar facial expressions can never be underestimated!
‘Staff in our field offices in Ethiopia have started to use Telegram for frequent research data sharing,’ says Ibrahim. ‘This sharing of data and information is key for us at this stage because we have just commenced activities linked to starter inputs distribution and planting. We provide mobile data allowances to facilitate our partners’ internet access,’ he adds.
Leaning on existing communication and technology infrastructure to collect data and measure impact
Francis Muthoni (IITA), a GIS specialist for Africa RISING in Eastern and Southern Africa, is now relying more on the use of satellites to conduct remote surveys and collect data. He is currently engrossed in analysing spatial data that will help to delineate suitable geographical domains where various improved agricultural technologies validated by Africa RISING’s biophysical scientists can be scaled.
‘Those of us who work with remote sensing data have an advantage because satellites are still collecting data despite the pandemic. Because of this, my work can continue. I am implementing some of the activities as planned unlike colleagues whose sole source of data is from the field,’ notes Muthoni.
‘But after analysing the data I have collected, I need to work with my colleagues in the field to validate it. At that point, I anticipate that I will have challenges, but I am now working on a plan to reschedule some of those kinds of activities,’ he says.
Shifting focus to analysing data and writing publications
While speaking at a planning meeting for Ghana partners on 24–25 June, the Africa RISING West Africa Project Chief Scientist, Fred Kizito (IITA), urged partners who could no longer implement field activities/surveys due to COVID-19 restrictions to focus on data analysis and writing publications. This view is shared by the partners in various countries and locations who now find that they have more time in their hands due to limited travels.
Africa RISING Project Coordinator in Mali, Brihanu Zemadim, of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), says it is regrettable that some of the planned program field activities have been postponed. ‘But on the other hand the travel restrictions and teleworking offers us time to focus on data analysis and report writing in a better way than before.’ He expects that more project publications will be produced in this and the coming year.
Pivot activities continue through partnerships with communities
In Ethiopia, Africa RISING is involved as a key stakeholder in a collaborative inter-institutional initiative to reduce the negative impact of COVID-19 on some of the hard-hit Ethiopian farming communities. Through a joint effort by ILRI, the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and Tegulet Union, farmers in some of the Africa RISING activity sites are being provided with the much-needed agricultural starter inputs such as crop and forage seeds to give them a head-start in the primary 2020/21 planting season. So far, inputs have been distributed in four regions where Africa RISING works — Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’.
‘We know that shocks such as those brought on by the pandemic can have a drastic effect on food security, especially for smallholder farmers. By providing farmers with high-quality seed now, in time for the planting season, we will help them to get through this difficult period and provide for the overall food security needs of the people,’ says Fantaye Dejene, a seed expert with Tegulet Union.
‘In this moment, strong partnership linkages with all stakeholders – more so with the farming communities is crucial,’ notes Inviolate Mosha of WorldVeg, an Africa RISING partner that is implementing activities focused on integrating vegetables into the cereal-legume based food systems in Tanzania.
‘Sometimes you are lucky and you take the chance that comes,’ she adds in reference to how she and her team managed to ‘squeeze in’ one last activity before the travel restrictions came into force.
‘In early March I was in the field with the technical team from the Islands of Peace (Ile de Pax) and Kilimo Endelevu training farmers on establishing keyhole gardens for tomato, Ethiopian mustard and the African nightshade. That was when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Tanzania. The restrictions were not yet in place and because we were already in the field, we took the opportunity to re-purpose our meetings into training-for-trainers sessions. The farmers we trained are now trainers within their communities in eight villages in Karatu District of Manyara Region. These farmers have continued to train more farmers. I stay in touch with them and check their progress via WhatsApp,’ notes Mosha.
The Africa RISING Program will continue to make significant efforts to adapt its activities, strategies and approaches as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out globally. All these will be done while keeping our partners, farming communities and staff safe until the global health crisis is tamed. This experience has come with lessons and learnings that we believe will make and build Africa RISING into a stronger program. Our immense gratitude goes out to our funders the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Resilience and Food Security. We are undeterred!