I am in awe of what we can achieve as a collective in Africa. EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE is just one example of many great things happening in our beautiful continent. The Africa Evidence Network (AEN) hosted a biennial gathering called EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE on 23-25 September 2020. This was a working meeting held to advance three work streams: 1) advancing the art and science of evidence-use in Africa; 2) enhancing evidence capacities; 3) making connections and building collaborations. The objectives of the event were to advance the use of evidence in Africa, through enhanced capacities, collaboration, and understanding of evidence-use to engender interest, engagement, commitment, and a plan of action for future steps by AEN members. The in-person EVIDENCE 2020 would have taken place in Uganda, but due to the global outbreak of COVID-19 the planned event was changed to a fully virtual one.
EVIDENCE is Africa's largest and most innovative evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) event welcoming more than 700 participants from 44 countries from all over the world. It featured a great mixture of 36 sessions (inspirational, networking, working, and collective reflections) that generated content before and during the event. Twelve exhibitors had an opportunity to showcase their organisations and engage in one-on-one sessions with attendees. The speakers, panellists, facilitators, working group members, and note-takers all made wonderful contributions. And all the feedback received for the event shows it was an outstanding success.
“We are very happy to be part of this beautiful network, it provides the perfect opportunity for us to be creative and to express freely. We look forward for other such events”, said Dr Patrick Okwen, leader of Effective Basic Services Africa (eBASE-Africa). Another participant, Mr Wiseman Ndlela of the South African Department for Science, Technology and Innovation, described the event as having been “a great success and the interaction with other members. We are happy that we continued with an online platform under the circumstances of COVID-19. At the end it became a huge success for all of us”.
What our audience wanted and got was to engage with each other, and together to advance tangible outputs on building successful collaborations, on approaches to capacity development, and on the successful art and science of evidence-use in Africa. Participants also learned about the power of storytelling in EIDM.
It was also a steep learning curve for us all as an ambitious online event at the time when the global pandemic made living and working a challenge for so many of us. I was able to learn, reflect, and receive immense value from the happenings of the event and would like to share the following with you. If I reflect more generally on the event, a couple of the themes come to mind:
What can we work on doing differently in future?
Timing of sessions The flow of the sessions was unexpectedly fast, though in a strange way this contributed to the excitement during the event. More time was needed between sessions that were back-to-back and those that needed some reflection and reorientation before getting to the next one.
Improved technological platform The online platform was quite problematic at times. Moving from the platform to Zoom was not impressive. In terms of the platform, several issues excluded participants from joining. For the next event, it's crucial to ensure that the platform allows everyone to connect easily. Provision of technical support within sessions to the facilitators was very limited. Audio challenges were experienced in some sessions. We will prepare the platform in advance.
Better orientation Lack of orientation on how the platform works and multimedia functionality needs to be improved on. It was difficult to find content such as videos on the platform. The platform did not guide attendees to upcoming live sessions, and only showed the minutes remaining until the next activity. Daily emails with a simplified graphic of the programme for each day were not shared and this made it difficult for the participants to know what to expect and get excited about each day. We will hold training and orientation for the team and participants for a better experience.
What should we do again?
Being responsive to challenges Capacity enhancement offered by Reboot to programme officers (POs), facilitators, and note-takers prepared them for the event. Catering to the French-speaking participants during some sessions was well-received. The event was free to all participants to attend.
Diverse and engaging programme Mixed synchronistic and asynchronistic sessions and structure of sessions into different work stream flowed well and the discussions were participatory. Exhibition space partners were allowed to showcase their work to participants. Music was a great scene-setter during the event.
Member-driven organisation AEN members ‘owning’ the event, leading through working groups, session leadership and more. Work put in by the working groups to ensure access to draft working documents enabled participants to contribute and shape the content. While it was a lot of work and pressure for the POs, working groups, and internal advisors the webinars, blogs, collection of stories, development of videos in advance assisted with content development.
Getting ready for EVIDENCE 2022
Every time we host an EVIDENCE event, our departure point for planning the next event is the feedback from participants of the one before. Given the responses from members who attended EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE, as the AEN secretariat we’re committed to continuing to overcome technical issues and improve our users’ experiences. Doing this will ensure we select a user-friendly platform that all participants can engage with, and that we develop better orientation material to guide attendees through the programme. Also, it seems a good idea to upload the session content in real-time so that participants who missed online sessions during the day can catch up with the programme material in their own time. Another way to enhance the functionality of the platform would be to allow tweeting and sharing out of the platform with a running Twitter feed.
Over the years, we’ve learnt to reflect on who took part as well as those who didn’t and focus on ways of ensuring wider engagement and inclusion of broader voices in the event. A massive gain towards better inclusion would be for us to explore providing French translations at every session. And as always, allowing for more networking sessions to allow participants to engage more and collaborate with one another.
Ultimately, we know that whatever the future brings, we are ready and able to bring amazing EVIDENCE events to our membership. Mostly because, we do it as a collective.
About the author
Ms. Siziwe Ngcwabe works in the field of management, social entrepreneur, and evidence networks with a focus on promotion and showcasing EIDM across sectors in Africa. Ms. Ngcwabe is the Senior Manager: Operations for Africa Evidence Network at Africa Centre for Evidence.
The author(s) is solely responsible for the content of this article, including all errors or omissions; acknowledgments do not imply endorsement of the content. The author is grateful to Ruth Stewart and Carina Van Rooyen for guidance in the preparation and finalization of this article. The author would also like to thank Natalie Tannous for her editorial support.
The views expressed in published blog posts, as well as any errors or omissions, are the sole responsibility of the author/s and do not represent the views of the Africa Evidence Network, its secretariat, advisory or reference groups, or its funders; nor does it imply endorsement by the aforementioned parties.