From an agricultural researcher to the Head of Communications at the AWARD programme
Ms Dorine Odongo is the Head of Communications at African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) and a former 2012 TCC Africa trainee. Dorine’s interests are in leveraging the power of evidence to drive social change and inclusive growth. A development communications leader with more than 14 years of experience, she started her career as an agricultural researcher designing and implementing research projects investigating farmers’ adoption of technologies. Dorine later studied the trends and status of research uptake and commercialization in Kenya and the place of open science in Kenyan knowledge systems. Dorine’s experience spans across more than 23 African countries. She has led development initiatives targeting partnership development, public policy, integrated communication, resource mobilization, and thought leadership in various development fields across Africa, including pastoralists’ resilience, the dairy value chain, natural resource management, gender-responsive agriculture. A Kenyan, Dorine holds a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences and a Master’s degree in Agricultural Information and Communication Management from The University of Nairobi.
TCC Africa : Tell me about yourself and research career.
Thank you for having me. I’ve had quite an unconventional career path. I currently serve as the head of communication at African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). AWARD is an organization hosted by the World Agroforestry and we’re about 14 years old. We were founded as a career development programme focusing on building the capacity of African women and agricultural researchers on the continent but with time our mandate evolved and we grew and are now working on gender-responsive agricultural innovation systems across the African continent. My career spans about 15 years in communication, research and development but I actually started as a research scientist. I studied biological sciences for my undergraduate degree and started working as a research officer for then Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) which is now Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO). At the time I was working on cotton research and adoption of various higher yielding varieties as during that period, the government was set on revitalizing the cotton industry whose production had been really frustrated and there was the general shutdown of the textile industries. I was passionate about and researching on agronomic practices that would maximize farmers productivity so that farmers would not spend a lot on the maintenance of the crop which is usually labor and cash intensive and still get good yield that would be of profit to them. My interest in technology transfer sparked then because aside from cotton I was also working on adoption of different technologies on different crop varieties. At the time we, had just developed and released a new variety of maize, that was tolerant to a certain weed known as striga which was a real menace especially in Western Kenya, so we were promoting the varieties to farmers while also working on adoption of indigenous vegetables, as well as NERICA rice (New rice for Africa). We would go to farmers because with government investments on revitalizing agriculture for the country, there was a lot of emphasis on farmer-oriented research where we would be required to set up experimental plots on actual farmers’ fields. This was in an effort to bring on board farmers in the selection of varieties and have them understand why we are promoting them and the difference between the new varieties and the ones that they are accustomed to. However, there was a disconnect at some point as we found out that there were farmers who did not know of the existence of these new varieties and were still struggling with the weeds. So here we were, researchers working to develop these varieties aimed to aid in crop production but the end user who is the farmer does not even know that the technology exists despite even the government putting some measures in place. There was a position known as RELO (Research Extension Liaison Officer), a position meant to serve as a bridge between both the Ministry of Agriculture, Research institution and farmers but it did not really work out. So that is where my interest in technology transfer grew, and I went ahead and pursued a Master’s degree in Agricultural Information and Communication and ended up transitioning from research into science communication.
TCC Africa : So, you saw the problem in the disconnect between the different bodies and identified a need in regards to the farmers who are the end users.
What was the aha moment when you started connecting your work, your field experience and what you’re learning about agriculture communication?
For me, its not just that the technology or information is available but rather, is it accessible to the people who need it? Is it in the right format for them to be able to comprehend or use? Because at that time, for one to grow in their career as a researcher, you would only promoted on either the basis of the number of publications you have, proposals that you have written that have been funded or if you get additional educational qualification. So, a researcher works hard to conduct their research and publish but then it ends there. The Ministry of Agricultural at that time was paying a lot of emphasis on what they were calling pluralistic extension and advisory services, where they were emphasizing on multiple partners’ investment in offering extension services. During my master’s degree, I studied the extension landscape in Kenya and was looking at the different models of the extension services. That’s when we began to see the entry of private companies, particularly the seed companies like Syngenta coming in and offering as part of their package advisory services for the farmers. So, it’s not enough for me to work as a researcher and produce, this technology, Is it being actually adopted and used for the purpose that I intended? That was what was fascinating.
TCC Africa : It was during that period that you came for the TCC training on science communication in 2012. What made you apply for the course?
When I came for the TCC training, I in the process of writing up my thesis. So, when I came across the call, I thought this is exactly what I needed. I had not yet experienced the communications world, per se, I was just trying to navigate and to get into that field. Therefore, I was really interested because there I was, a technical person, a biological scientist and going through my master’s programme. I’ve been to the field, collected the data while engaging with farmers, because my research approach to data collection was triangulation. I went to the field, spoke to the farmers, had focused discussions with them, interviewed them, observed what they were doing. So, I had a lot of data and also read a lot on what was happening. When I saw your call, and I remember, one of the things that I was asked to do was to submit a manuscript as part of my application for the TCC Course. For the training, I would say I had no prior knowledge about communication and communicating with non-technical audiences because the master’s degree that I was pursuing at that time, wasn’t really training us on how to communicate with non-technical audiences. How do we foster research uptake? How do we foster technology transfer, from the research shelves to the communities? These were my interests. I think my participation in the TCC course was just like the cake to crown it all. It was really helpful in tying the loose ends that I still had, even as I was writing my thesis, and a must say that it was really timely. I particularly remember a session on developing mind maps so that you’re able to organize your thought process and communicate your idea, how to connect the different dots and the different things that you want to communicate to your audience. I think it was very helpful, because soon after is when I got an entry into research communication. Now, with the knowledge that I’ve gained, I remember successfully submitting a proposal to present at a conference in the US, which was then accepted that that’s when I would say, I started building my career in research communication. I was starting to appreciate the need to engage different audiences, why I need to understand the audience and their information needs. Because mainstream communication and a lot of common communication practitioners who have pursued Public Relations and Communication and may not really be able to bring out a researcher’s perspective what I was bringing was my knowledge as a scientist, what I had learnt during my master’s and the TCC course came helped me tie the loose ends.
TCC Africa : It is different, isn’t it? You know, especially when you’ve come from a researcher’s perspective, and you get into the communications bit. Sometimes I do acknowledge and appreciate the public relations degrees and communication degrees that exist, but most researchers will struggle trying to connect the dots because it’s a totally different field. It Is one of the reasons why we felt that having a training on scholarly communication and science communication from a researcher’s perspective was extremely important, because it also empowers the researcher.
What I found was really helpful was that because I had a research background, it was easier for me to, synthesize technical content for non-technical audiences and one of the things that I got when I went for the training was the need to understand the different audiences that I’m engaging and what their knowledge gaps are. The way I’m going to communicate with my fellow scientists is very different from the way I would be communicating with non-researchers. A lot of researchers might feel like their research has been watered down for the message being passed on to a particular audience but this was a start to making myself visible and as a result able to pursue my path as a communicator and researcher. I wasn’t really seeing myself as the face of an organization that would help the organization communicate but with time, over the years, I’ve really become excited about the possibility of pushing the boundaries about how an organization communicates its research, or the way an organization communicates and engages with its audiences. I made my research communications debut at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which I joined with no experience as a research communications practitioner. I found myself referring a lot to my notes from your TCC course because I would say that that’s the only knowledge I had and it was really helpful.
TCC Africa : That’s good to know. That is why also we always tell our participants that these notes are literally handbooks that one can refer to in whichever topic that they’ve been trained on. I’m glad that was of help.
How did your journey and career shift change your attitude towards research communication to the point that you found yourself being the head of communications at the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD)?
As much as this has been a whirlwind, the way I look at it is that I play a very critical role in the agricultural knowledge systems which is where I have experience and interest in. Knowledge systems in agricultural research are very complex. It’s not a straight line but rather nuanced and with various actors in it. There are development partners, donors, the government, researchers, input producers, private sector, knowledge institutions, that’s the universities other higher learning institutions. It’s a very complex system, which for me, I see my role as being able to engage the different actors in that knowledge system in such a way that I put myself in their shoes to understand what is it that they would want to know, and more importantly, engaging with them to find out, what do they know? what don’t they know? what do they require? what are the information gaps? where are their pain points? and working with AWARD gave me that platform being an organization that focuses on building the capacities of individuals and institutions. Getting to understand, how these different actors come together and the role they play to shape the narratives of development on the continent, for example, I’m really excited about that. I also really like just working with an organization that allows me to push the boundaries of how we engage the different audiences and how we position ourselves and how we portray development on the African continent. There’s a lot of good research that goes on this continent, it’s just a matter of how it is packaged, presented and the narrative spinning around it and so that’s what I’m doing right now that is really exciting.
TCC Africa : You are right about what we emphasize on in Science Communication, , which, is understanding your audience, the various actors, understanding their needs, when to and how to engage them, so this is quite interesting. Do you feel like you’ve gone full circle?
Oh, sometimes I feel like I want to wear my research hat. One of the things that I keep struggling with is do I want to pursue advanced degree, maybe a PhD, in research governance or something? or should I just pursue, leadership and strategy, which I do very well? So, I don’t know if I’ve gone full circle, but for sure, I know that I am in a very interesting space and would like to stay there longer, particularly because of the different interactions among the different actors, in the development space.
TCC Africa : Having gone through the TCC training and effectively and successfully applied it in your career, what are your parting shots for anyone who wants to get into research communication?
I think that communication is really the core. It’s everything. I still remember the icebreaker at the TCC Africa communication training ten years ago, a question you asked us was “If a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear it?”. I think for me, I would say that anybody who wants to get into communications must be aware that communication is about illuminating how our actions or inactions or our service or outputs etc. are affecting people’s lives. Yeah, so ultimately, when we are conducting research, whether it’s basic research in the lab, or it’s applied research in the fields, understanding the social dimensions of a certain technology or research, ultimately is about people’s lives. Are you developing a new variety? are you developing new agronomic packages? are you improving soils? Or whatever you are doing as a researcher consider how you are using that knowledge to impact people’s lives or transforming forgotten communities into revitalized ones. There’s a lot of good things that are happening on this continent. The question is how are we telling these stories right now? Lately, I’ve been really interested in storytelling, and how the narratives we are spinning are shaping public opinion or perception on how a certain country or institution is portrayed or viewed. I would say that you really need to be aware that ultimately, it’s about people’s lives. How is your action or inaction touching people’s lives and I think if you understand that, and are passionate about people’s lives, you would have a fantastic time in in in research communication.
TCC Africa : That is a nice way to wind up. Thank you so much for your time and we are proud of your journey.