By David Poulson
Phillip Kamwendo finished explaining to a group of African reporters how he used “friendly bacteria” to improve groundnut seeds.
Then the Malawi researcher turned to a nearby team led by Michigan State University experts, flashed them a wide grin and gave them two thumbs up. It was a highlight for our team that had worked for days with Kamwendo and others at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) to refine how to explain their research.
“When he asked the reporters how many of them understood what an innoculant was, I felt like a proud grandmother,” said Emmanuella Delva, a program officer with USAID, the project’s funder, and who pitched in on the training.
The work in Malawi was the start of a two-continent, three-country training tour that I’m still on. I’m in Rwanda now, working with other scientists – including two MSU alums – at the International Potato Center to help them explain their research story to funders and others. Next week I’m in Lima, Peru, doing the same thing at that center’s South American headquarters.
The work in Malawi was by far the most complex.
First, some context: In addition to my duties as the senior associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, I am the director of translational scholars at MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation. For that group, I started and now manage a multi-media website, The Food Fix, where student journalists report with audio, video and text on international food security.
I also help build the capacity of researchers and of journalists to tell that story.
The multi-year Malawi project started with MSU higher education experts helping about a dozen LUANAR faculty develop innovative research and other academic projects under the Innovative Scholars Program.
After those projects got underway, I came in to help those faculty and others explain their work to journalists. The idea was to build communications capacity among the researchers and to ultimately get the agriculture research before farmers and the general public of Malawi.
Among those accompanying me was Amol Pavangadkar, director of Sandbox Studios and a senior specialist with the Media Information Department at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. We are longtime collaborators on workshops to train journalists. And his team of students produce videos for The Food Fix.
Rounding out the Malawi team:
- Bill Heinrich, director of assessment at MSU’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology and who is among the MSU experts who developed and taught the Innovative Scholars Program.
- Kurt Richter, assistant director of MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and who oversees the overall capacity-building effort.
- Candice Bailey, an editor with The Conversation-Africa, a news service that helps academic researchers report their work for a lay audience in Africa.
- Eric Crawford, director of both MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and the university’s Food Security Group.
- Delva who is USAID’s program manager for our Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.
We worked with LUANAR faculty for two days. Amol showed them how to bring greater attention to their research with basic video skills. I taught them to write and speak simply, concisely and jargon-free – and why they should. We had them write and rewrite their explanations and practice them repeatedly.
They got feedback from our team and from their peers. Some of it was hard. During the practice sessions, I never understood Kamwendo’s research and told him so. His ultimate success was a real score.
Meanwhile, Flora Nankhuni, who works in Malawi with MSU’s Food Security Group, and her colleague Athur Mabiso, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, exposed some Malawi journalists to agricultural challenges and solutions. Amol and I also met with them early in the week. I explained how to turn a scientific study into a news story and I showed them some Malawi-relevant research produced by a Michigan State University scientist and that is ripe for a story in Malawi.
The plan was that once both groups received some training, we’d bring the two programs together on the LUANAR campus for an event modeled after the round of tours used by the Society of Environmental Journalists at its annual conferences. I’m a longtime SEJ member and serve on its board. Knight Center-affiliated faculty have led tours and served on panels at that event for many years.
The 31 journalists rotated in small groups between our now-trained researchers. Each faculty member got at least five times to explain their research. The reporters also visited LUANAR research sites, including an experimental dipping station to kill ticks in goats. There are a lot of goats in Malawi – 8 million – and the technology might also be used on the country’s growing problem with stray dogs. Other stops included a seed sorting and cleaning operation, one of the World Bank’s aquaculture research stations and a field trial of a drip irrigation system.
And LUANAR faculty and journalists observed a lively panel discussion by university officials and journalists about the challenges of reporting university research to the public.
Just like an SEJ event here in the United States, we had to roll with unexpected logistical and other challenges. One researcher diverted two busloads of reporters to an unplanned stop to show them the skeleton of the giraffe – the tallest in Africa, he said – that he had unearthed and reassembled.
Someone forgot to order a lunch. Organizers went hungry to allow more reporters to get fed. There were unique challenges – some reporters struggled to explain aflatoxin because the local language they worked in lacked a word that adequately describes the threat of this fungal disease found in maize.
And in Malawi, agendas appear at best to be mere suggestions. Our strategy: just roll with what happens.
The week ended with a daylong workshop by Amol and myself with just the journalists. We brainstormed story ideas from the week’s events and discussed interesting issues like whether it is ethical for a journalist to report on an innovation before the idea was patented and vulnerable to theft.
The consensus: If innovators are talking about it, we’re reporting it. A news story is unlikely to contain the details needed for intellectual theft and it could well inspire someone else to build upon that idea.
The journalists were thrilled by Amol’s presentation on shooting effective video. The biggest plus: He could demonstrate how to get great results from minimal equipment.
Me? I edited.
Quite often there were three or four reporters watching over my shoulder as I worked on their colleague’s story. As soon as I finished, another would give me a story and say, “Do that to mine.” It was an experience that in terms of satisfaction surpassed even Kamwendo’s thumbs up to our team.
I asked the journalists to send me links to their work – most of them are radio journalists so I hope to get their audio files. We’ll post them on The Food Fix as they allow.
It was an exhausting week that ended just in time for me to move on alone to the next challenge here in Rwanda.
But the logistics are easier here. I’m just working with scientists now. And two of them – Kirimi Sindi and Julius Juma – have doctorates from MSU. Sindi is the senior scientist and country manager of the potato group’s Rwanda operations. Juma, an impact assessment specialists, has fond memories of being in the Izzone.
It’s kind of nice to be so far from home and yet feel like I’m in a bit of Spartan country.
Next stop: Peru, for more work with the potato experts.
Meanwhile, I just heard from a radio reporter in Malawi. She sent me the audio files of three stories for a radio station claiming 4 million listeners. She said we can use them on The Food Fix.
She adds: “And by the way, would (you) also entertain further stories with a touch of Nutrition, Agriculture and food security on your news website? Please let me know.”
David Poulson is the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.