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Sam and Susanna cause a buzz as they touch down in Ghana

In December, WRENmedia attended the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa’s (APRA) annual review workshop in Ghana as part of ongoing communications support to the programme. Sam – WRENmedia’s newest recruit – shares his experiences from the trip.

Sam (second row down and first in from the left) and Susanna (second row down and far right) with the APRA team in Ghana

After seven months working at WRENmedia, I discovered to my dismay that winter comes even to sunny Suffolk – and so, when the opportunity to escape the creeping December chill presented itself, I just had to take it. But far more than a change of climate, opportunity arose in the chance to visit Ghana – an entirely new country to me – along with Susanna, as part of WRENmedia’s communications work with APRA.

APRA is a 5-year research programme coordinated by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, working with researchers in six African countries to examine the different routes to agricultural commercialisation. In particular, the programme seeks to identify the pathways toward commercialised agriculture that are most effective in empowering women, reducing rural poverty and improving food and nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa – with the aim of producing evidence to inform future policy decisions in the region.

As a relative newbie to the world of agricultural development, one of the challenges of my work with the APRA team has been pinning down what ‘agricultural commercialisation’ actually means. And, as I soon found out, much of APRA’s work is itself concerned with getting a firm, working grip on this complex term. The simplest, and broad definition that I’ve encountered so far equates commercialisation with the proportion of production sold to the market, compared to the amount produced for consumption by the producer. However, as the programme’s researchers explained in their presentations at the recent annual workshop, emerging evidence continues to confound such a simple definition. The rise of ‘medium-scale’ farmers in Nigeria, for example, has led to greater competition for many smallholders, which begs the question: who benefits as a result of agricultural commercialisation? Such complications point to the difficulty of measuring commercialisation and its implications for policy.

The workshop

From 3-6 December 2018, APRA researchers working across sub-Saharan Africa gathered in Ghana for the programme’s annual review workshop, which enables APRA teams to share progress and experiences from their research during the preceding year. As well as a research update, the workshop also presents a chance to reflect on the programme’s communications and engagement strategy – examining the different channels through which APRA’s outputs are disseminated, as well as the target audience for that information, and how they are reached.

Arriving at Kotoka airport in Ghana, Susanna and I stepped through the terminal doors to a rock star welcome – a mass of buzzing heads all cramped into the red-carpeted (really) concourse – who, it turned out, were awaiting the arrival of local musician, Shatta Wale. I noticed that the buzz surrounding Shatta Wale presented a perfect parallel with our own work with APRA, which aims to generate a ‘buzz’ around the programme by shaping an engaging and recognisable online presence. My presentation at this year’s annual workshop therefore focused on APRA’s online communications strategy – specifically, its social media channels and weekly blogs.

Generating a buzz

Social media platforms can be integral to the communications strategy of research programmes, providing a space for disparate researchers and institutions to come together and share their work. The ‘like’ and ‘share’ functions on social media offer a kind of informal peer review process, through which researchers can share an idea or study with their own network. This can give research programmes greater exposure to a more general audience, directing visitors to less strictly academic research outputs, such as blogs. The impact of social media as a ‘gateway’ to programme outputs is significant – with 40% of visits to APRA’s ‘Publications’ webpage over the past year coming through Twitter.

The second half of my presentation focused on the APRA blog, which is the most frequently visited section of the APRA website, perhaps demonstrating the importance of ‘new content’. But the blog is not simply an SEO exercise aimed at maximising page views; the blog offers a space for APRA researchers to discuss elements of the programme – whether highlighting an interesting trend thrown up by a recent survey, or exploring an untested hypothesis – away from the confines of academic publication. Many of the blogs have also provided a condensed overview of APRA’s outputs – a recent study in Malawi, for example, or a working paper from Ethiopia. Taken together, these regular updates allow readers to step back and view the broader narrative of the 5-year programme, and this is something that has really helped me to get to grips with APRA’s overall aims and progress.

Inspired by Shatta Wale and his crowd, I felt thoroughly prepared for this year’s APRA annual review workshop where I met, for the first time, many of the researchers I’d been collaborating with over the past year. My presentation ran smoothly (if a little long), and was followed by a fruitful discussion with the group, which will contribute to the APRA communications strategy going into 2019.

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