03 November 2006

Re-positioning Ghana's aginfo network

Accra, 3 November. For the past two days, some 35 representatives of Ghana’s agricultural community met near Accra to explore how GAINS - the Ghana Agricultural Information Network System – should be 're-positioned' to best address the agricultural information challenges facing the country.

While GAINS is often regarded as an agricultural information success story, the people in GAINS are open about the challenges and threats that still need to be overcome. One major issue is to effectively activate the 'network' that GAINS aims to be. Too much of GAINS, it seems, is vested in a national coordinating center and the commitment and active engagement of network members is needed so the network can achieve its potential. Second, while some network members have progressed with their own information systems and services, most struggle with inadequate connectivity, weak political support for these efforts, limited staff capacities, and weak information systems. Third, although the network itself was created around research and academic organizations, there is a feeling that it should encompass other organizations in the wider agricultural information, knowledge and communication 'sector.'

After 14 years mainly serving the research and academic communities - working through a network of libraries in 21 institutes involved in agriculture - this 'teenager' needs some further attention and guidance so it grows into a responsible and responsive adult.

The workshop goal was to "identify mechanisms to best address the information needs of all agricultural stakeholders in Ghana." Specifically, participants wanted to develop a clearer vision and strategy for the 'next generation' GAINS. The workshop was supported by the CTA, FAO, and IICD – each of whom was represented and has provided material and intellectual support to GAINS over the past 5 years or so.

The workshop began by considering the agricultural information 'landscape' of Ghana and by looking back to earlier discussions and brainstorming sessions – this particular event was part of a longer-term process of reflection, consultation, and planning. It will certainly be followed by further discussions to dig deeper into the creative ideas – and contentious issues – that were put forward.

During the two days, participants worked hard in groups to come up with a 'dream' scenario for their future GAINS Network. Comparing these dreams with the today's constraints, they then sketched out plans to take the GAINS Network forward. One of the great plus points of the discussions was that participants were not limited to information professionals. As well as some librarians, participants included researchers, extension workers, farmer association representatives, community radio broadcasters, academics, research administrators, and Professors from Faculties of Agriculture. It was a lively and creative mix.

What are some of the key notions that emerged?

First, concerning the overall network architecture, it was agreed that GAINS should indeed be a network (and not a project of some sort). The network should serve all stakeholders; it should comprise a wide range of organizations and institutions; it should be well 'anchored' with key government actors like the Ministry of Food and Agriculture; it should work through its members to build on (and strengthen) their specific expertise and reach diverse stakeholders; it should be more formally organized with clear roles and responsibilities for all involved and enhanced commitment especially in the member organizations; it should encourage members to become 'shareholders' in the network – ie, invest some resources – in return the members will receive 'dividends' in the form of support and services. The network will need a Board that represents this broader constituency and membership.

Second, concerning coordination and management, current national efforts by the coordination center at CSIR/INSTI were strongly commended and it was proposed that the center should continue to take on a variety of national activities and essential national roles – but in a more catalyzing, facilitating, and enabling mode. At the same time, some additional 'decentralized' coordination should be established – to help bring GAINS closer to its end-users. The precise form was not agreed – some advocated a 'zonal' approach in each of Ghana's three agro-ecological zones; others a 'regional' approach in each of the 10 regions. It was also suggested that focal/liaison points be appointed for some specific stakeholder groups – for extension, farmers etc.

Third, concerning the concrete products and services that the network would provide, each member institution will be encouraged and supported to develop and provide a range of information activities. This 'toolkit' or package of services at the member level could include, for instance, institutional repositories (databases) of the organization's knowledge and information products; specialized institutional repositories of, e.g. theses, extension materials, or maps; 'question and answer' services for target stakeholders; re-packaging services to translate information for different media and target audiences; database access services like AGORA, TEEAL, PERI, etc; and more. Through membership in GAINS, each member should be able to better serve its immediate audiences, reach additional stakeholders, and contribute to the national effort (by making its information accessible).

These member-level services would be complemented by vital enabling and connecting services at the national network level. Here it was suggested that the Network would provide, for instance, a national web site/portal to all the information generated locally; referral activities to find experts and institutions; training and capacity development; resource mobilization and advocacy; guidance on network-wide standards and guidelines; organization of network meetings and communication.

If all (or even some) of these actions can be put in place, it should be possible for an agricultural researcher, student, extension worker or even farmer to approach GAINS through any network member – or the web or a radio station, for example – and be efficiently connected to appropriate information sources or expertise in - or beyond – Ghana.

The original dream of John Villars was that GAINS would connect and support research and academia in Ghana; the new dream emerging is that GAINS will become a much more diverse network that is able – through its members - to serve any agricultural stakeholder, anywhere in Ghana. Much will be needed to put this dream into place; the development partners present at the workshop indicated their interest and commitment to support the GAINS Network. Workshop participants set themselves just over a year to prepare the 'next generation' GAINS.

For more information, contact Joel Sam and the GAINS team at INSTI; read a short article on GAINS.

Written by Peter Ballantyne

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