By Charles Dhewa
In much of the world including developing countries, COVID19 has repositioned communication as the key driver in project implementation. Before the pandemic, many organizations were reluctant to increase the communication budget. Working from home and restrictions in the movement have seen ICT channels and tools moving to the centre of most communication efforts.
The pandemic has also shaped information and knowledge seeking behaviors of many people. For instance, compared to the pre-COVID era, when farmers call the market, they now ask for more information beyond just price. Inquiries include – how is the market performing? Are more buyers coming? Where do I get cheap transport?
Software as a conference venue
For organisations previously fond of workshops, Zoom has totally replaced face to face physical conferences and workshops. Hotels and other conference venues had become unintended beneficiaries of donor money at the expense of poor communities. For farmers, fisher-folk and pastoralists WhatsApp has become the main platform to stay connected with peers and the market.
Zoom and other online conferencing channels eliminate unintended participates who used to gate-crash conferences or workshops just for lunch or per diem. This time those who really care about an issue under discussion are the ones who participate. Zoom has also got rid of unnecessary air travel that has had a negative environmental footprint. There is no longer need to fly more than 300 participants from around the world to Munyonyo Resort in Uganda or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, wasting resources in the form of air tickets purchases, hotel accommodation, meal, fuel and other logistical costs including calling.
De-rolling through virtual conferences
Virtual conferences have got rid of physical conferences that were characterised by protocol processes where a high table was set up for dignitaries who would in most cases come late to open the conference and disrupt proceedings. Zoom does not have space for such unnecessary expression of power. When you are late to the virtual conference you join in quietly and follow proceedings irrespective of your title. Such de-rolling enhances knowledge sharing by making everyone equal and doing away with hierarchy.
By insisting on protocol government information services lack dialogue as it is only one-way communication, more of announcements. While the ministry of information can be responsible for communicating COVID-19 issues to the nation, there is no room for anyone to either agree, add more value, offer constructive criticism or expand on what has been presented as part of flavouring it with context. Such methods of communication are hopelessly inadequate during shocks and creates vacuums that are often filled by social media which end up becoming the default mouth-piece for policy messages.
Obviously software cannot solve every challenge
There is no doubt that online software like Zoom has demonstrated the power of ICTs in breaking through communication barriers and removing the stigma associated with working from home. However, there are circumstances where digital technology is far from being a panacea. For instance, in African mass markets physical commodities have to exchange hands.
That process cannot be completed virtually. More importantly, African agriculture and mass markets have many moving parts, with multiple elements that must be addressed together to meet the needs of all value chain actors ranging from farmers to consumers. Digital communication may not meet the needs of all actors.
Communication platforms are as important as dams, roads and livestock pastures
The importance of communication in building local agricultural ecosystems and markets has never been so important. Where previously farmers would easily take commodities to markets in big cities, that can no longer happen due to lockdowns, forcing people to cultivate local markets through talking to each other, gathering local statistics, and working collaboratively.
That is why governments and development partners should reserve budgets for information and knowledge sharing platforms because these have a bearing on the quality of information shared. Such budgets can be used to bridge information and knowledge gaps between those who can afford to participate in WhatsApp groups, calling or sending short message services and vulnerable groups who are not able to do so.
It has been proven beyond doubt that accurate information and knowledge enhance farmers’ enterprises. For example, where farmers are being supported with seed and other inputs, they would certainly need information from the market before they start thinking of harvesting. Generic information is less useful in the current era prone to pandemics and climate change-induced shocks.