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Realpolitik–Nairobi ‘Community of Practice’ communicators get real practice impacting policymakers

DevCom CoP: Johanna Lindahl 'pitches' her aflatoxin research to a policymaking panel in a Dragon's Den session

A community of practice for communications staff in research and development organizations (DevComms CoP) based in Nairobi participated in a ‘Science Communications for Policy Impact’ workshop following a conference, ‘Landscapes for People, Food and Nature’, at ICRAF on 3 July (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

A group of communications professionals working in agriculture, research and development in greater Nairobi have been meeting every year or so for the last four years. Communications staff of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have hosted most of these gatherings in the past. This year the gatherings have taken a ‘self-educational’ turn under the leadership of Abby Waldorf, a communications professional based on ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she coordinates work for an Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. In March 2014, Waldorf worked with ILRI staff to organize two communications training workshops (in Addis and Nairobi) on ‘Blogging for Impact’ (see WLE blog article and ILRI blog article, the latter with links to resources recommended).

Waldorf more recently worked with communications staff of ILRI and the World Agroforestry Institute (ICRAF) to organize a  workshop on ‘Science Communications for Policy Impact’. It was held last week (Thu, 3 July 2014, 2–4pm) at ICRAF.

The workshop was a side event at a conference on Landscapes for People, Food and Nature in Africa, also hosted by ICRAF. The conference brought together some 200 African government officials, researchers, civil society leaders and private sector actors to generate an ambitious agenda to advance ‘integrated landscape initiatives’ in Africa. Given the conference’s goal of influencing policy, Waldorf and her communications teams at ILRI and ICRAF saw an opportunity to bring together Nairobi’s science communication professionals and the many policy wonks attending the conference.

The aim of the workshop was to give science communicators an opportunity to hear directly from policymakers about what works—and what doesn’t—about the communications materials and activities they tailor for policymakers. To this end, a Dragon’s Den session was conducted, with four scientists pitching their agricultural research to a panel of professionals engaged in policymaking processes; the latter then critiqued the research pitches, giving pointers on what, and what not, to do when engaging with policymakers.

All four of the brave scientists who volunteered to pitch their research to the policy panelists (and be publicly skewered in the process) were women (ahem). Hats off to them, including Johanna Lindahl, a Swedish post-doctoral scientist in ILRI’s Food Safety and Zoonoses Program. Lindahl pitched innovative ways to reduce levels of toxins poisoning Africa’s food chains. Aflatoxins are a mould that infests groundnuts, maize and other staple food crops as well as milk, which is contaminated when the dairy cows of  smallholder farmers are fed crop wastes contaminated by the mould. Read more about her research here.

DevCom CoP: Johanna Lindahl 'pitches' her aflatoxin research to a policymaking panel in a Dragon's Den session

ILRI post-doc Johanna Lindahl pitches her aflatoxin research to the policy panel (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

The panel members comprised the following (truly ‘illustrious’) members.

DevCom CoP: Policymakers Alex Awiti, East African Institute of the Aga Khan University (Kenya); and CJ Jones, One Acre Fund microinsurance (Kenya)

Policymakers Alex Awiti, director of the East African Institute of Aga Khan University (Kenya); and CJ Jones, CEO of ACRE (Kenya) (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Alex Awiti
Alex Awiti, a Kenyan ecosystems ecologist, is director of the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University, a regional platform for policy-oriented research, public engagement and capacity building, and assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His research focuses on education, conservation, agriculture and food systems, population health, climate change, urbanization and natural resource governance. Awiti maintains an active blog (Advancing Global Sustainability) and Twitter account (@AlexAwiti) and writes regular op-eds for leading East African newspapers. He sits the on the board of the Resilience Alliance and is Africa editor for the Environmental Development journal. Before joining Aga Khan University, Awiti was a postdoctoral fellow at the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a landscape ecologist at ICRAF.

Edmund Barrow
Edmund Barrow, an Irish community-based natural resources and drylands expert with over 40 years of experience in Africa and globally, is director of the Global Ecosystem Management Program of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and is based in Nairobi. This program embraces IUCN’s work on drylands and islands, adaptation and disaster risk reduction, and the evolving IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. Barrow has extensive practical working experience with community-based natural resource and wildlife management and sustainable development (agroforestry, participatory natural resource and forest management) in different ecosystems (dryland and forest ecosystems in particular) and places much effort on capacity building and empowerment. His work has increasingly focused on the links between people’s livelihoods and their natural environments. He places emphasis on participatory approaches to environment and livelihood security and on customary and local knowledge and institutions. He has been collaborating with ICRAF (he told us), since ICRAF was located in Bruce House, in Nairobi’s Central Business District, which was many years ago!

CJ Jones
CJ Jones, from Australia, was until very recently country director and senior regional manager for private sector engagement with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), in Nairobi. She is now CEO of ACRE, a new micro-insurance think tank and product development initiative for smallholder farmers. Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise Ltd. (ACRE) helps reduce the burden of weather and other risks for small farmers. An experienced strategic thinker, business leader and entrepreneur, Jones builds relationships and delivers strategy at executive levels across range of sectors in challenging markets. She has extensive experience in African agricultural and business forums, leading market entry, acquisition, due diligence and business structuring assignments in both the private and development sectors. Follow CJ Jones (@ismicj) on Twitter.

Odigha Odigha
Odigha Odigha, a Nigerian forest activist and educator, leads a campaign against devastating industrial logging in the forests of Cross River State in southeastern Nigeria. These are the last remaining rainforests in Nigeria and are home to 2,400 native forest communities comprising 1.5 million people and the highest primate diversity on the planet. Odigha is part of Cross River State’s Ijagham community. He grew up admiring the richness of the rainforest, only to see the majority of it decimated by the early 1980s. Since 1994, Odigha has focused on the protection of the Cross River Rainforest and on sustainable development for rainforest communities. Despite enormous odds (he was forced to live ‘underground’ in the 1990s), Odigha has forged historic victories in the fight to protect Nigeria’s forest. With a democratic government now in place, Odigha has returned to his public role leading forest protection campaigns. His work has resulted in representation for Nigerian civil society in all forest management policies, including a statewide logging moratorium to protect the country’s remaining rainforests. In 2003, Odigha was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Ayodele Olawumi
Ayodele Olawumi, from Nigeria, is assistant director in charge of monitoring and evaluation for the Great Green Wall Programme and environmental officer in the Federal Ministry of the Environment, in Abuja. Also known as the ‘Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative’, this is a pan-African project to ‘green’ the continent from west to east by planting a wall of trees across Africa at the southern edge of the Sahara desert. It was developed by the African Union to address land degradation and desertification in the Sahel and the Sahara. Aiming to tackle both poverty and soil degradation, it focuses on a strip of land of 15 km (9 mi) wide and 7,100 km (4,400 mi) long, from Dakar to Djibouti.

DevCom CoP: Policymaker Olawumi Ayodele, Great Green Wall Programme (Nigeria)

Policymaker panel member Olawumi Ayodele, of the Great Green Wall Programme (Nigeria) (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Do’s and Don’t’s
What follows is the gist of what the policy wonks had to say about our efforts to ‘pitch’ a bit of research to them.


  • Be clear, crisp, accountable.
  • Put a story behind your facts.
  • Present your solution as doable.
  • Spell out why they should care about it.
  • Know your audience.
  • Do the research you need to do to know who you are speaking to.
  • Find out what they care about.
  • Be perfectly clear about what you are asking for.
  • Make every word count (tweeting is good discipline for scientists).
  • Speak policy, e.g., talk numbers (economic value, annual cost, etc.).
  • Tell them how much your project will cost (and how much not doing it will likely cost).
  • Combine your numbers with your passions.
  • Get personal.
  • Engage your audience.
  • Talk about what they care about.
  • Insert soundbites that perfectly suit (short) election cycles.
  • Think about incremental shifts that politicians can talk about at the next election.
  • Paint the bigger picture first so they see how your project serves big (global) ambitions.
  • Know your audience.
  • Think from your audience.
  • Make sure everyone has the same understanding of the terms (e.g., ‘hunger’) that you use.
  • Engage your audience.
  • Employ ‘soft skills’ (as important as your message).
  • Be patient: you are in the business of building up steam (or chipping away, as in the Berlin Wall).
  • Know whether you are speaking to bureaucrats (who dream up policies) or politicians (who enact them).
  • Connect your ‘ask’ to the bigger picture (e.g., not ‘landscape initiatives’ but ‘jobs creation’).
  • Be prepared to sustain your engagement with policymakers.
  • And—know and engage your audience.


  • Present problems too big for policymakers to solve (not interested in those).
  • Use generalist terms that present unmanageable ‘asks’ (e.g., solving hunger); rather, reduce your ask to bite-size pieces (no one research project is going to solve ‘hunger’).
  • Never, ever, underestimate the power of soft skills (or their lack): how you dress, stand, walk, talk, make eye contact (or don’t), smile (or don’t smile). . .
  • Speak down to your audience (e.g., earnest, pontificating, moral, righteous, ‘you ought to’ kind of talk).
  • Talk to policymakers before you have done your homework on them.

Other policy advice

  • If no one uses your science, it’s as good as nothing.
  • If you can’t explain your science to a policymaker, you aren’t going to do any science that’s going to make any difference to anyone.
  • Make and use maps of champions and influencers in your area.
  • This (research for development) can be a very unkind, unforgiving business: Get used to it (and use it).
  • Science is not going to solve the problems of the world.
  • Make your objectives bite-size rather than aspirational so that policymakers have something they could begin tackling this month.
  • Know where the real policy power lies, as it’s not always (or usually) with the politicians or policy wonks themselves (e.g., you might be better off making your case before ‘the First Lady’ rather than the president).
  • Get rid of your disabling notions about policymakers (and they might just get rid of their disabling notions about scientists).
  • When you talk to a policymaker, don’t assume you’re the only expert in the room (see The Guardian‘s Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making (2 Dec 2013).
  • Annihilate over- and undertones of ‘we smart scientists’ ‘we aid workers saving the world’; they’re demeaning to your audience. (And not true.)

DevCom CoP: Policymaker Panel: Odigha Odigha, environmental activist (Nigeria); Ed Barrow, IUCN Global Ecosystems Program (Kenya); CJ Jones, OneAcre (Kenya)

Four of the five members of the policymaker panel (left to right): Odigha Odigha, award-winning environmental activist (Nigeria); Ed Barrow, director of IUCN’s Global Ecosystems Management Program (Kenya); CJ Jones, CEO of ACRE (Kenya); and Alex Awiti, director of the East African Institute of Aga Khan University (Kenya) (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Other policymaking communications channels
As few of us in the research or development worlds will make statements before panels of eminent policymakers, the next session of the workshop invited inputs as to other channels we can use to reach and influence policymakers. These include:

  • Op-eds and letters to the editor (300 words or less)
  • Community organizations
  • Social media (blogs, tweets, LinkIn news)
  • Short Web-published multimedia products
  • Parliamentary sub-committees
  • Newspapers and magazines (mainstream and specialized)
  • Television and radio
  • Science presentations at conferences and workshops where policy types are present
  • ‘Downtime’ at formal meetings (coffee breaks, bus rides to the hotel, field trips, etc.)
  • Working directly with champions of work in given areas
  • Breakfast/lunch roundtables mixing journalists with politicians, policymakers, technical experts, and clients
  • Field walks (people are moved by what they see/experience)
  • Kind of sexy timely chatter that gets picked up at cocktail parties or goes viral online (e.g., plays World Cup idiom right now)
  • Adverts
  • Advocacy campaigns

If you’re a communications professional in the agricultural, research or development communities in Kenya, we invite you to become part of our vibrant local professional network, which we’ve recently dubbed ‘DevComms’. Please shoot an email to ILRI’s Angie Nekesa (a.nekesa [at] to be included in our mailing list. That will ensure you get an invitation to the next DevComms gathering/event.

For more information about the event itself, contact WLE’s Abby Waldorf (a.waldorg [at], ICRAF’s Daisy Ouya (d.ouya [at] or ILRI’s Muthoni Njiru (m.njiru [at]

Comment please!
If you participated in this DevComms CoP workshop, please add any other advice given in the comment box below. And if you weren’t at the event, please give us your own suggestions there!

One thought on “Realpolitik–Nairobi ‘Community of Practice’ communicators get real practice impacting policymakers

  1. Reblogged this on Culture vs. Nature and commented:
    Communicating science for policy impact is incredibly difficult. As often as policy makers misunderstand the policy process, scientists fail to grasp the policy process, and thus what it takes to actually have influence. Thus, this workshop, at the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature in Africa, is a particularly valuable model for scientific training. It was great to be involved.

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