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The Information Training & Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA) is a capacity building organisation for librarians, information specialists, scientists, researchers and students of sub-Saharan Africa. Better said, it assists them in mastering information and communication technology (ICT). Established in February 1999, ITOCA’s main thrust is to support the research and academic communities take advantage of electronic resources that deliver up-to-date affordable access to published scientific literature by helping them develop the skills to use them in their research and teaching.
APCNews talked to Gracian Chimwaza, executive director of ITOCA, about the organisation’s latest project aimed at groups working on ‘soil health’. The goal? Help them locate and access information cost-effectively. The degree to which this involves newer ICTs will, of course, depend on upcoming surveys that will determine what kind of communications technologies they have access to.
Many researchers and practitioners simply do not know where to look for and how to access free and low-cost material related to their own work. “The goal of the project is to support African agriculture research and extension by helping individuals, networks, and communities of practice to locate, access and share the most relevant and up-to date information resources related to soil health more efficiently,” says Chiwaza to kick start the discussion.
APCNews: But what is soil health exactly?
Gracian Chimwaza: Soil health emphasizes the integration of biological with chemical and physical measures of soil quality that affect farmers’ profits and the environment. This relatively new concept of looking at total soil “health” as opposed to chemical status is an important contribution toward ensuring agricultural sustainability and avoiding long term environmental degradation. Soil health, for our purposes includes information on soil fertility, cover crops/green manures, organic inputs, tillage and conservation agriculture.
APCNews: Will your soil health project make a real difference in the sub-Saharan context?
Gracian Chimwaza: Yes, that’s quite straightforward. It will ultimately help researchers to find information about soil health (and agriculture). By better understanding where researchers – and later practitioners – are currently getting research information we will be able to identify what’s missing in the picture at this point. Researching in parallel worlds is not conducive to advancing knowledge about agriculture as fast as Africa needs it.
If we understand where soil health researchers and practitioners are currently getting information and how they interact with their networks, we can design a better system to deliver updates about where specific agricultural information is, and how to access it at the lowest cost.
APCNews: In what way does this represent a value-added over traditional ways of networking?
Gracian Chimwaza: Our project combines new and traditional communication techniques based on current and projected access to ICTs and most common methods currently used. We are presently looking at our survey results and something tells me that will go with a combination of websites (including web 2.0 features) and e-mail, along with hard copy newsletters and network/association face-to-face meetings.
The value-added is in our designing pathways to navigate through the sea of ICTs in order to find the exact soils information that users need. How to gain access to new technologies is not the core of our project. Our project is more about learning who has access to which ICTs, how researchers are currently finding information, what they would most like to affordably access, and where we might best place “information on soil health” in the places they are most likely to find it! If the networks (including virtual networks) that researchers belong to (or could belong to) can be used to more systematically share information that users want, then the project will most likely encourage networking!
APCNews: Tell me if I’m wrong, but the work you engage with could also well be done by the government or a company. What’s so different about how you go about it?
Gracian Chimwaza: Governments are more concerned with what is going on in their own countries. Our project is for all of sub-Saharan Africa and it is topic-specific. We are currently looking into partnering with one or more of the existing regional networks, however, Africa’s soil health researchers collaborate with scientists working around the world, so it makes sense to take a more international approach. The private sector would probably not do the project since there is not much profit in helping African researchers access free and low-cost soil health research information.
APCNews: You attended a workshop on network coordination hosted by the Harambee small grants programme. Did you learn anything there?
Gracian Chimwaza: YES, the meeting in Kampala was quite useful in highlighting ideas, particularly for the network coordinator. It provided us with tips on how to keep the network alive and focused on the main objectives and the use of social networking tools such as wikis, blogs and [voice over internet protocol software] Skype.
Whether or not we decide to focus on these features will depend on what we find in our surveys. If we find that our target groups do not have good connectivity, blogs and wikis will not be primary tools. Skype has a good possibility to encourage project collaboration between different researchers in Africa because of its cost-effectiveness and the wikis and blogs will encourage and make it easier for group members to discuss and carry forward network objectives.
APCNews: What limitations or challenges are you facing in trying to roll out your soil health networking project?
Gracian Chimwaza: We struggle with low connectivity to the internet. The question of access will probably emerge as the number one issue. This is also a problem in carrying out our project because just getting the survey to users with little or no access to even e-mail is difficult and adds a lot to the response time. Poor connectivity may lead us to miss out on the needs and opinions of many of those we are trying work with. Number two, is the ability of agricultural researchers to locate and pay for research information, especially in peer-reviewed journals and grey literature . Locating sources of information as well as figuring out ways for people to access them could prove an uphill battle.
1 Grey literature refers to publications issued by government, academia, business, and industry, in both print and electronic formats, but not controlled by commercial publishing interests, and where publishing is not the primary business activity of the organization. Scientific grey literature comprises newsletters, reports, working papers, theses, government documents, bulletins, fact sheets, conference proceedings and other publications distributed free, available by subscription, or for sale.
APCNews: What are planning to use the Harambee grant money for?
Gracian Chimwaza: We will use the grant money to understand how soil health researchers (and later practitioners) currently locate and access soil health research information. Then, we will allocate some of it to develop the best pathways (using traditional and online communication techniques) to let them know about new free or low-cost sources of agricultural information of use to them. The money will be spent on surveys, travel to soil association meeting, communications, staff time, project participant meeting, and student assistance.
APCNews: What are the sustainable outcomes of your project? In five years’ time, what will remain?
Gracian Chimwaza: After developing the so-called pathways, ITOCA and the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) – which is our partner organisation for this project, will make sure that information updates regularly find their way into the system we design.
By the end of the project we should be working with several of the existing networks that our target group belong to. The system will most like not be just a single vehicle such as a website. It may involve placing information in websites or listserves frequented by users, passing information through networks already in contact with researchers, better use of the librarians at universities/institutes as well as sending updates to offline newsletters, if they are a current source of information for users. Again, we will have to await the survey findings.
As already mentioned, in order to ensure relevance and sustainability, we hope to partner with several soil-related networks and associations who regularly communicate with their members.
APCNews: When is the project due to start? How many people are involved?
While our project really began with my trip to the AAAS meetings in Ghana (January 2007) to gain some preliminary information, the bulk of the survey work began in April. Originally the project was to include both researchers and practitioners. However, we soon realised that we could only complete the section on researchers within the timeline and budget of the current project. Hopefully, we will continue with “part II” in 2008. If all goes well, we will present our principal findings at a soils network meeting in Tanzania in August 2007.
The project involves ITOCA staff, two African students at universities in southern Africa (not yet hired) and the USA, and several staff from CIIFAD and Mann Library at Cornell University.
Photo: Gracian Chimwaza
Photo taken by IOCA staff.