e-Dialogues spark debate on the dynamics of agricultural commercialisation

Written by Susanna Cartmell

In early 2022, as the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) was coming to an end, an e-Dialogue series, Towards an Equitable and Sustainable Transformation of Food Systems, was held in partnership with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Foresight4Food. These virtual events were designed to replace an international conference that was part of APRA’s original end-of-programme plan before the COVID-19 crisis prevented large, physical gatherings. APRA ICE Insight 4 looks at their impact, what worked well, and what could have been improved.

The e-Dialogue series consisted of three online Zoom sessions led by APRA over January–March 2022: 1) ‘Emerging Challenges and Regional Realities’; 2) ‘COVID-19 and its Effects on Local Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods’; and 3) ‘Transition Pathways and Strategies for Supporting More Equitable and Resilient Food Systems in Africa’. The three e-Dialogues brought together APRA researchers and expert commentators from across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a wider audience, including members of the media. The objective of these dialogues was to examine evidence and lessons from APRA’s six-year collaborative research programme (2016–2022) analysing the dynamics of agricultural commercialisation processes, agrarian change and rural transformation in the region.

Ahead of each of the e-Dialogue events, the Impact, Communication and Engagement (ICE) team provided APRA researchers with guidelines for what to include in their five-minute PowerPoint presentations, including the number and design of slides and key research areas to highlight. The PowerPoints were reviewed by ICE for editing and to raise comments where the text was not clear or concise enough.

Practise presentation sessions were also organised to give the researchers an opportunity to test their internet connectivity, ensure they were speaking to time, and to develop their presentation style for optimum audience engagement and interest. The practise sessions predominantly focused on the presentation content i.e., encouraging speakers to ‘tell a story’ by including personal reflections/examples of people they had met during field work, and to focus on their research key findings and implications rather than study design. This preparatory work and presentation training sessions proved worthwhile, with general appreciation received from the APRA teams: ‘The internal discussion and feedback prior to the final presentation was important to sharpen points and arguments to suit the audience,’ said Aida Isinika, APRA Tanzania country lead.  

The feedback

The topics selected and content of discussions was appreciated by the general audience – as shown in responses to an external feedback survey: ‘I found all the interventions interesting because the speakers highlighted the positive and negative aspects for different areas of Africa, giving a broad picture of the situation dealt with,’ revealed one e-Dialogue survey respondent.

During the sessions, attendees were encouraged to add their comments/queries to the Zoom ‘chat box’, and to the comments box on Facebook, and the facilitators would then select the most pertinent to put to the speakers. Feedback from the teams – as well as the e-Dialogue participants responding to a short survey – indicated a wish for questions to come directly from participants. ‘I think the online events can be more interactive by inviting verbal comments from participants,’an e-Dialogue survey respondent stated.

Other insights from the researchers and ICE team on the lessons learnt for running e-Dialogues include: 1) Having sufficient time to organise virtual events is essential to allow for a well-thought-out agenda to be prepared and for speakers, commentators and moderators to be approached and well briefed. Adequate time to advertise the event and solicit sufficient numbers of registrants from a diverse range of stakeholders is also necessary; 2) Providing a brief of the event and clear guidelines to speakers on the topic and expectations (including time of presentations/commentary) is highly recommended to ensure that everyone is clear on the theme and direction for discussions; 3) Having even a short presentation training session of 30-45 minutes proved extremely helpful to researchers and is a valuable investment to ensure that key messages are highlighted and honed.