Closing the gap between research and practice
Award-winning journalist and principal information and communications officer at the Zambia Environmental Management Agency, Friday Phiri, is well acquainted with the farming challenges of his country. He spoke to us about the importance of providing relevant information to smallholders to safeguard food security.
What was it that initially sparked your interest in agricultural communication? Did you already have specialist knowledge in this area?
I was born and brought up in rural Zambia where agriculture is not just an economic activity but a way of life. For my mother, who raised me on her own, the only income opportunity she had to feed and support me in school, was agriculture. I saw how she toiled the land but earned very little at the end of each season. This pained me as a child but I was powerless, what could I do?
Whilst studying at university, I volunteered with a local community radio station, conducting weekly interviews with farmers on the latest agri-tech and sustainable best practices. During this time, I learnt that the conditions under which I saw my mother toil, including the poor opportunities for market access, had not changed. This increased my desire to become an ‘advocate’ for farmers, and spurred me into making the decision to pursue agricultural communication.
You have written extensively on environmental issues and climate change in Africa. Why do you think it’s so important to keep abreast of these topics and how do you hope to make a difference with your stories?
As an agricultural communicator, keeping up-to-date with topics such as extreme weather and climatic events helps me to provide relevant information to farmers on how to adapt at their small-scale level in order to safeguard food security. It is for this reason that most of my stories focus on the positive developments that are making a difference. And I believe that if agricultural communication is up-scaled, it could easily help close the gap that exists between research and practice, and aid the dwindling extension services in most African countries. Opportunities to deliver targeted and well-articulated messages through ICTs, for example, are abundant, especially with the increasing penetration of mobile phones across the continent.
When did you start working with WRENmedia and what support/training have you received from the company that has been helpful in furthering your career in science communications?
I first came into contact with WREN in 2010 when I saw an online advert calling for applications to a regional training workshop on Better Science Reporting for journalists in Southern Africa. I decided to bite the bullet and out of over 500 applicants, I was one of just eight journalists selected for the week-long intensive training. This was a serious turning point in my journalism career.
At the end of the training, I requested to become a correspondent for Agfax, a monthly radio service run by WRENmedia at the time to provide daily agricultural news from over 80 radio stations in Africa. Through the mentorship I received during the workshop training, I got better at producing my own radio features – such that in 2013, I was nominated for the first African Climate Change and Environmental Reporting Awards organised by PACJA. At the award ceremony in Nairobi in Kenya, I was able to meet most of my WRENmedia colleagues (other Agfax correspondents) from across Africa, which helped to grow my international network of peers for professional development. Following this event, I was linked with the Inter Press Services, which of course further increased my international visibility.
You have had the opportunity to travel to report on a variety of conferences overseas and to meet with other science journalists. What has inspired you/shaped you the most in the development of your career?
I was selected as one the few journalists to report on the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s (UNECA) Climate Change and Development Conference in Morocco in 2014. This was a momentous and inspiring occasion for me, particularly as UNECA wrote to me personally to inform me that I was selected based on my published work. This led to other opportunities with the African Development Bank to report from COP 21 in Paris in 2015, COP 22 in Marrakech, Morocco in 2016, and the Annual Meetings in India in 2017.
While all these have provided inspiration and capacity building, my association with the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists stands out as impacting my career in several ways, including in helping me to form a national guild of agricultural journalists and communicators in Zambia. I believe that a well-developed agricultural communication network will support and enhance agricultural development, and ultimately, people’s lives.
Having won the national Environmental and Climate Change Award three times in a row, and becoming the first journalist to win the Nutrition Media Award in 2018, what is your advice to other young journalists on how to achieve their goals within the environmental reporting sector?
My advice is simple – stay focused. I know the temptation nowadays is to get famous quickly and more often than not, political reporting, which allows for everyday mingling with politicians, becomes the ultimate goal of up and coming journalists. Thus, technical topics such as the environment are not so fashionable. I want to emphasise that it is possible to succeed and gain recognition for reporting in the areas of agriculture and climate change if you keep yourself up-to-date with developments. And there is no substitute for reading and intensive research.