Blended and online training approaches can support African agri-food entrepreneurs and emerging farmers to launch and develop their businesses.
Our SIANI Expert Group supports young entrepreneurs to gain business skills and develop plans to launch new agri-businesses and develop already existing enterprises. During 2021 and in the context of Covid-19, this was done through focusing on two approaches for online training:
- An established ‘Entrepreneurship in Agribusiness’ course was hosted online and supported by in-person support via Universities in East Africa.
- A pilot ‘Business Readiness’ online webinar-based course supported by an interactive WhatsApp group targeting emerging farmers across Free State, South Africa.
Read more below about the lessons learned from these approaches and how online training can be used to further support emerging African agri-food entrepreneurs and farmers.
Online learning offers great potential to engage with a large number of participants, and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, information and communication technology (ICT) has become a potent force in transforming the educational landscape across the world. However, different regions of the globe have different experiences in accessing ICT and internet-based learning. Africa, for example, faces substantial challenges in this regard.
Access to the world wide web and the types of services and information that are available can be summarised in four types of barriers:
- Lack of ‘mental access’, a lack of elementary digital experience,
- lack of ‘material access’, a lack of possession of computers and network connections,
- lack of ‘skill access’, a lack of digital skills, and
- the lack of ‘usage access’, the lack of meaningful usage opportunities.
Exploring this matter further, pre- and post-surveys of the Agripreneurship Alliance Business Readiness course showed that 60% of the participants had never previously participated in an online webinar. 60% also accessed the course using smartphones rather than a computer. These answers substantively changed our learning methodology, leading to minimalistic presentation decks and tools that can be shared easily and used on smartphones. We also put a lot of effort into supporting participants to access the webinars and materials, often through WhatsApp rather than email, as this proved the easiest link to the course.
When designing online learning, it is important that the host adopts flexible approaches to challenges that may arise and that meet students’ needs.
For participants to learn remotely and online, they must have access to resources, such as a smartphone with internet data or access to a Wi-Fi signal. Therefore, it can be a great commitment for a participant to join an online learning course, which in turn requires that the course is credible.
The Entrepreneurship in Agribusiness course, hosted as an online course that is supplemented by in-person teaching at host universities, provides an Afrocentric learning experience based around a local, but fictional, ‘fish farm’. The Business Readiness course, although taught by European members of the Agripreneurship Alliance, included weekly inputs from young African entrepreneurs to whom course participants could relate, engage with, and be inspired by. Both courses provided participants with resources and materials specific to the African agri-food sector, ensuring that participants could see the direct relevance and connection with their own circumstances.
Connectivity across Africa is low: Only 30% of the population use the internet, 37% have mobile broadband subscriptions, and no more than 1% have fixed (wired) broadband subscriptions. There are, however, substantive differences between African countries. For example, more than 75% of the population in Uganda and Kenya have no internet access. These factors demonstrate why most participants in our courses access online learning through 3G wireless services and use smartphones as their main device.
There is also the challenge of electricity supply and its impact on telecommunications. For example, South Africa is currently experiencing an electricity crisis: To reduce the pressure on primary energy sources, the electricity supply to geographical areas are curtailed in planned operations. As the wireless communication is restricted together with the electricity supply, it becomes impossible for people living in these areas to participate in online learning events during these periods.
Organisers of online learning must have the patience to address the above issues. Additionally, all resources and recordings of sessions need to be made available for participants to review at a later stage. This can be achieved through a data repository, for example an online course platform, or documents being shared through WhatsApp.
Patience, problem-solving, and enthusiasm are the virtues that need to be embedded in online training and demonstrated by both facilitators and participants. These traits, along with relevant course materials, will strongly impact the commitment of participants to complete an online course.
We in the Agripreneurship Alliance are delighted, and think it is a major success, that 45% of the participants in the Business Readiness course and 27% of the Entrepreneurship in Agribusiness course participants followed the remote learning all the way to the end. This is in the context of Covid-19, with ensuing lockdowns that have diminished in-person support and increased isolation.
Approaches to remote and online learning within the African context are an area that deserves further exploration and improvement, in order to further inform and develop practises used. Facilitators of such learning must consider participants’ needs and challenges for accessing the training, for example lack of internet access. However, we know that practical, transferable, and relevant online learning events are possible and that they can support emerging farmers and agri-food entrepreneurs to develop and grow businesses that. As we shall see, will contribute not only to their own lives and communities, but also to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
This article was written by Steven Carr, CEO for the Agripreneurship Alliance. The Agripreneurship Alliance is a Swiss based non-profit organisation working with partners across the continent of Africa to support and encourage entrepreneurs across the agri-food sector. Contact them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org