Connecting Arid Lands Communities With Knowledge
Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN)
Non Governmental Organization (NGO)
ICTs for development
Describe the KM initiative
The ALIN Maarifa (Knowledge) centers initiative involves delivering internet connectivity together with more traditional forms of information to communities living in some of the most remote parts of East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania). A Maarifa center is a space: a room or a modified stand-alone shipping container equipped with at least five computers connected to broadband internet either through a GSM router or VSAT. Information is tailor-made to suit the needs of each community but it is predominantly on best practices in agriculture and livestock, environmental conservation (climate change), gender, HIV/AIDS and other livelihoods concerns. The day-to-day management of each Maarifa center is by a young woman or man field officer employed by ALIN and trained in information retrieval, capture and dissemination. To enhance community involvement in the management of the Maarifa center, ALIN supports the formation of information nodes known as focal groups. These are managed by an advisory group made of infomediaries (mainly extension workers), farmers, ALIN’s field officer (convener) and representatives of young women and men as well as persons with disabilities. Facilitating information access to local communities is aimed at delivering new knowledge on best practices on one hand and capturing and documenting emerging best practices from the field, including indigenous knowledge.
Describe the approaches utilized to measure / assess this KM initiative
To measure the impact of the knowledge management initiative, ALIN uses a combination of methods which involves continuous tracking of knowledge usage and demand patterns specifically, through user logging tools, field visits and focus group discussions. The approach is results-based management where ALIN endeavors to capture change by monitoring the extent to which best practices get adopted in the field by communities and therefore the change their adoption is causing with respect to the improvement of household livelihoods over time. The following specific approaches are used: • Each field officer administers a data capture tool in form of an Excel sheet recording users’ information including: gender, age range, organizational affiliation, type of information requested and whether or not specific user information needs are fulfilled. This provides valuable quantitative information that enables ALIN to monitor trends and respond to changing information needs. • Qualitative impact of the work is assessed through direct observation via field visits and in focused discussions convened by ALIN’s staff. Occasionally, ALIN conducts external evaluations to gauge knowledge management impact. • Both qualitative and quantitative results are analyzed on a quarterly basis. The results of the analyses then inform planning of future phases of the initiative. They constitute valuable information when new Maarifa centers are being set up.
What was the purpose or motivation for assessing this KM initiative?
Since ALIN uses ICTs to deliver knowledge to remote communities, fast-changing technologies demand that this initiative be evaluated to ensure that all in the information delivery chain have competencies to harness the potential of emerging technology. The other aim is to ensure delivery of relevant demand-driven information.
What were the most important lessons learned about the assessment process?
The main lesson from assessing ALIN’s Maarifa centers’ initiative has been that access to timely and relevant information is critical in improving livelihoods of rural communities. ALIN has also learnt that ability to harness new information cuts across all social levels meaning that removal of barriers such as illiteracy, distance and “technophobia” should be a priority for KM practitioners. At the beginning of the initiative, ALIN realized that the use of complex monitoring and data capture tools hindered their utility and compromised the quality of data captured. The implication of this lesson is that it will be important to make data capture tools as simple to use as possible. For the tools to be used optimally, it will be important to involve field officers in developing them in a participatory manner. Once they have been simplified, ALIN will need to provide ongoing support to field officers to integrate monitoring as part of their day to day work to avoid it being seen as an extra “burden” on the field officers’ work. In order to ensure that good quality data is generated by the existing tools, ALIN plans to support field officers through training in data analysis as a way of ensuring that lessons emerging from the initiative inform future programming around it and also the scaling up of the Maarifa centers concept in East Africa.
What would you do differently next time?
In future, ALIN will engage field officers in training and consultative sessions to reinforce the value of measuring the impact of the work of knowledge exchange before their deployment to the field. This will familiarize them with existing monitoring tools and avail opportunities for them to suggest ways of improving the tools and making them more “user friendly”. They will increase their usability and ensure that monitoring becomes a critical part of a field officers’ daily work making them more proactive actors in the achievement of planned outcomes for the initiative.
What advice would you give to others based on your experience?
ALIN would recommend initial consultations with partner communities and host institutions for the centers before they are set up. In the East African rural context, relationships between communities and development organizations need to be managed in order to ensure realistic expectations and clarity of roles between the development organization and communities. Many rural communities in East Africa have experienced situations where projects intended to improve their livelihoods have been implemented without adequate consultation leading to their collapse once the “outsiders” leave. ALIN would therefore encourage prior open consultations between partner communities and agencies wishing to establish community-based information centers.
What do you think are the main unanswered questions or challenges related to this field of work?
One key challenge ALIN has encountered is that of building resource-based partnerships between non-profit actors in the knowledge management field and public and private sector actors. From ALIN’s experience, it is evident that Maarifa centers have played a critical role in catalyzing social and economic development of rural communities. They easily become hubs of other information and ICT-based services such as eGovernment and eBusiness. ALIN would be keen to learn how others have leveraged resources from governments and the private sector to increase numbers of community-based knowledge centers in light of the mutual benefits they bring.