Beneath the Baobabs: Knowledge Brokering in the time of COVID-19

Across Africa, the Baobab tree is a symbolic gathering place. Folklore speaks of a time when kings and elders would gather under the Baobab tree, where the spirits of the tree would guide them in decision-making. In modern times, the tree is commonly used as a venue for community meetings or as classrooms where learning can take place.

Photo: Pieter Bouwer

A critical element of raising NDC ambition, as well as advancing the mobilising of resources for NDC implementation to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, involves the brokering of knowledge across the science-policy interface. There is a particular focus on such knowledge brokering interventions in the context of the global South. Programmes such as the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and the Southern Africa Climate Finance Partnership (SACFP), implemented by SouthSouthNorth (SSN) with funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), seek to bridge the research-policy-practice divide by bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders to deconstruct obstacles and develop solutions to problems through the co-creation and distribution of new knowledge.

On the one hand, COVID-19 has demonstrated that a world in which we scale back on international travel and find new innovative ways of connecting is possible. The experience of SSN during this time has demonstrated that virtual gatherings, in place of traditional in-person knowledge exchange events, have the potential for reaching larger numbers of participants as budgets stretch further and circles of inclusivity are made wider.

The flexibility presented by the move to virtual gatherings has also resulted in the ability to capitalise on “last-minute” opportunities to set up meetings with busy individuals in government or the private sector when gaps in schedules open up. Consequently, in some aspects, there has been a welcome level of agility introduced into the knowledge brokering arena. However, the virtual environment has its limitations, and the kind of deeply-focused, collaborative engagement achieved in immersive, multi-day workshops, such as the SACFP Learning Journey events, is simply not possible to recreate meaningfully in the digital world.

In sharing their experiences of the multi-day Learning Journey event in February 2020, SACFP stakeholders highlighted the value of informal conversations around the dinner table and tea-time chats as being vectors for the emergence of innovative ideas and networking opportunities. Consequently, it has taken longer to move through step-wise processes, with multiple shorter engagements required to build out understanding and gain consensus, thus slowing down the speed of implementation. Gathering together “beneath the Baobab” remains the most effective way to reach consensus, and opens the door to many possibilities not attainable online. 

SACFP Learning Journey 2020

Yet, there are important lessons to be taken away from the experiences of knowledge brokering under COVID-19 restrictions. In the context of southern Africa, it appears that Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in urban centres has reached a level of maturity and stability such that government and the private sector stakeholders have been able to adapt easily to the new digital meeting environment. Knowledge brokers should be strategic in the planning of interventions that can capitalise on this where the intended outcomes align well with the format of virtual meetings. 

This article was written by Michael Gerhard, Project Manager for SACFP

Feature Photo: Yasmine Arfaoui