Venter Mwongera: "I envision partnering with like-minded organisations to digitise agriculture in Africa."
Could you tell us about yourself?
I grew up at the foot of Mt. Kenya (Meru) in an average family set up. My parents were strict disciplinarians who believed in holistic growth and the importance of having a multi-faceted skillset to succeed in life. From a tender age, I had an insatiable thirst for information and an inquisitive mind. My grandparents were mixed-crop and livestock farmers - I was amazed by the complex world of farming which they navigated with ease! I would negotiate with my parents for permission to spend time with them, having spent much of my youth living within the grounds of a missionary hospital where my mum nursed. So, a day with my grandparents in the countryside was a breath of fresh air.
I’m now an integrated communications specialist, passionate about telling African stories through the lens of solutions, inclusivity and dialogue. I believe we can overcome challenges by embracing an open mind-set and listening to each other. I have been a Multi-Media (print, broadcast and digital) storyteller for over 15 years. I have broadcasted news, trained and mentored journalists and implemented complex developmental programmes in fields such as agriculture and gender mainstreaming. I’ve worked with many organisations, including Environmental Research Mapping Information Systems in Africa (ERMIS-Africa) and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT). I also serve at various board member positions in media organisations in Africa.
What was the driving force that led you to the fight against poverty, hunger and social injustice?
Growing up interacting with medics, farmers and business people allowed me to mingle and ask questions. Their answers shaped my world view at the age of 10. Often, I would visit the patients in the hospital to hear their story, especially those who had malnutrition complications and cases of gender-based violence. Sometimes, my parents would send me and my siblings to share foodstuffs to various families, especially, when drought was declared as a national emergency.
After working with various regional and global organisations in African communities, I learnt that most family feuds were a result of insufficient family resources and male land ownership. Women were left to till the land, unpaid labour, whilst their husbands controlled the yields, sold the farm produce and left to spend the money how they wished. The women and children were left at home without access to food, school fees, clothes and other needs. After spending the family money, the man would come home empty-handed and this ignited gender-based violence. A patriarchal society limits holistic family happiness, promotes poverty and breaks families - a fabric that unifies society.
Embracing an environment that embeds equity from family, community and society levels would reduce poverty, hunger and social injustices in Africa. The governments need to provide a separate budget for sustainable agricultural farming methods for the farmers to live a decent life from their agricultural investments. Also, in July 2003, the Maputo declaration committed by the African countries to allocate 10% of their national budget to agriculture need be honoured. Only Morocco and Ethiopia have honoured their commitment.
How did you get into working for DAKOKE (Dissemination of Agricultural Information and Knowledge in Africa)? And what is your role as the Consulting Director of Communications for DAKOKE entail?
I’m a co-founder of DAKOKE. We founded the communications consulting firm to seal the gap in the dissemination of agricultural information existing between the smallholder farmers and the research. We demystify the technical-scientific reports relevant to the smallholder farmers’ farming calendar, make it digestible and develop farmer-to-farmer training videos that explain various agricultural innovations that are easy to adopt. We also offer various communication services, including documenting the impacts of the projects/programmes and advocate for formulation of policies supporting sustainable farming methods. We work with seasonal communications consultants with over 10 years’ hands-on expertise in global agricultural communication.
I implement the communication functions, identify partners and nurture relationships, lead in advocacy activities and fundraising initiatives, train and mentor in science communications in Sub-Saharan Africa.
What is your philosophy towards your work?
These are the times and we are the people to bring the change we want through honest and smart handwork. Embrace the unity of purpose, gender equity, live in the present, espouse the diversity of skills and perspectives to achieve a common goal of abolishing poverty in the African continent.
Can you name 3 of your greatest achievements since working at DAKOKE?
Growing the partnership base to achieve more with fewer resources. For example, partnering with like-minded organisations to advocate formulating agroecology policies in Sub-Saharan African countries.
Developing modules on training and mentorship of science, health, agriculture and environmental communication, contributing to improved ways of communicating simplified but factual science in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Developing proposals with various organisations where DAKOKE’s responsibility is to entirely handle communication, advocacy and the documentation of the projects’/programmes’ activities.
Have you faced much gender discrimination within your work? If so, how have you overcome these encounters?
Sometimes. With scientific communication, especially in leading positions such as Director of Communication and Chief-Editor, which were previously held by the male gender. Mostly, patriarchal societies place women as subordinate to men which becomes complex when a woman is in charge.
With such an understanding, any time I join a new team, I hold meetings to understand their motivations, fears, world views, belief system, their understanding of the job description (JDs) and how our roles are crucial to the organisational goal. Once this is clear, I share my views, various working styles and then we choose a style that works for everyone. I explain my role in the team and how working together will help us succeed as individuals and as a team. We create collegial relationships backed with open communication and empathy.
Can you tell me a bit about your new project, Farm Studio? What were the reasons and inspirations for setting it up?
With over 15 years of hands-on experience in science, agriculture, climate change and environmental communication, I have worked closely with African and Asian smallholder farmers, governments, scientists and all those crucial voices in the agricultural ecosystem. With farming challenges and research reports written in a technical language, providing a platform for these voices enables the discussion of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through knowledge and information empowerment. COVID-19 hindered extension teams in meeting with farmers’ groups for training or responding to their farming challenges. Hence, agriculture was adversely affected.
So, Farm Studio is a digital platform offering smallholder farmers e-resources, responses to their daily farming challenges provided they have a smartphone and internet connection.
What synergies exist with TreeKenya?
There are synergies in ensuring that the benefits and outcomes of the programmes reach the smallholder farmer. Local language and local knowledge are key to broadening the impacts of the programmes. There’s clear communication through lobbying, documentation, developing farmer training radio programmes in local languages and farmer-to-farmer learning videos. Both see the importance of identifying partners, nurturing relationships and building support initiatives on a community or regional level to change mind-sets and implement policies to aggregate farmers.
How do you see technology unlocking the potential of smallholder farmers?
I have done much research for my second MA/PhD in Digital Journalism and my dissertation is in technological communication among the smallholder farmers. Adopting the digital paradigm could unlock farmers’ potential as the e-resources are available for all. The fibre cable provides a vast internet connection, even to most rural areas and affordable smartphones allow farmers to surf the net and access updated agricultural information and knowledge.
Technology enables knowledge sharing and farmers can choose the digital platform which has solutions to their issues. Or, the training team can e-learn on a broad topic relevant to the farmers’ and train them on the subject. It offers expansive and borderless access to agricultural e-resources enabling sustainable farming to feed the current and the future generations. Although movements and large group meetings are regulated due to COVID-19, tech-savvy farmers continue to surf the net to learn about the various sustainable technologies applicable to their farming environments. However, adoption of these technologies is still dismally low. Hence, there’s an opportunity to build the capacity of the smallholders on how to navigate around digital world for their convenience and improve their farm yields sustainably enhanced by digital agricultural solutions.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa?
It has adversely affected the production, processing and distribution of food and further aggravated hunger and malnutrition in a continent already food insecure. Scarcity of workers due to massive lay-offs, sporadic food production shortages, food losses and food price inflations have increased malnutrition. It has hit the very poor hard as 70% of their income goes to food. It’s affected the consumption of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits and animal products, whilst increasing micronutrients deficiencies such as in Ethiopia. Developing countries that depend on food exports have been adversely affected due to COVID-19 since there’s low income and less food availability due to the imposed food export restrictions, increased methane emissions and risks of diseases like salmonella, which increases vulnerabilities to COVID-19.
Are national governments doing much to support your efforts, especially during the pandemic?
COVID-19 is an awakening call to all governments to relook at their priorities. They need to invest in human resource refresher courses, increase budget allocations to the ministries of health, agriculture and education. They must build scenarios for proper planning to mitigate the impact of any unforeseen catastrophic occurrence, improved crisis communication and response preparedness, develop infrastructure and efficient systems, invest in cold storage systems and tarmac roads in the interior regions to reduce food losses during transportation. Governments have an opportunity to look beyond these times of triple crisis - hunger, locust incursion and the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are your goals for the upcoming year?
I envision partnering with like-minded organisations to digitise agriculture in Africa, support efforts to combat COVID-19, continue lobbying African governments to honour their promises made in the 2003 Maputo agreement and support the formulation of agroecology and climate change policies among other policies relevant to agroecology. We need to create an enabling environment for farmers (including creating alternative sources of incomes for the youth and women) to farm sustainably without depleting the natural resources. I want to connect various players in the agricultural ecosystem to make decisions based on relevant data to combat the food crisis in Africa.
If you were head of the UN, where would you put your focus over the next decade?
I would digitise all sectors of governments and find sustainable solutions to the challenges affecting people from the community, to national and global levels. I’d review policy frameworks and align them to emerging challenges, encourage all governments to install functional systems that allow equity, invite all multi-national corporations to mitigate the impacts of climate change and insist on their commitment to reducing global warming. I’d put a stop to irresponsible mining and oil drilling, embrace indigenous knowledge and empower communities to have stocked seedbanks with indigenous seeds that are always accessible to the smallholder farmers. I’d embrace the complementarity between the genders as both perspectives are unique and relevant to the global development agenda.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
To be among the teams changing gradually, with consistency, the African narrative from food insecurity to food sovereignty, whilst promoting the unity of purpose working closely with both young and old for a seamless continuation of generations.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Venter Mwongera, Co-founder, DAKOKE Communications