Trust, professionalism, education: huge challenges facing IFAJ Africa members

By Owen Roberts

IFAJ President

To me, IFAJ is all about making connections, developing a deeper understanding of our colleagues wherever they are in our 45-member country guilds and beyond, and perhaps most importantly, actually doing something to support them.

To that end, the IFAJ annual congress in South Africa offered an unprecedented opportunity to host a forum for IFAJ’s newest members – those belonging to guilds already established, or currently establishing, in Africa – to bring to light the big challenges they face trying to communicate with farmers, and the opportunities they see ahead.

Indeed, if the world is focussed on Africa as a food source and food destination, it’s helpful to know our colleagues there and network with them to enhance our own appreciation of the continent, and help determine our way forward on matters such as youth development and professional development.      

The forum featured three panelists: Jean de Dieu Ininahazwe from Burundi, Inoussa Maïga from Burkino Faso, and Friday Phiri of Zambia. They gave their perspectives for 15 minutes each, following which five simultaneous round-table discussions took place with the presenters and the forum’s 50 participants from a wide cross-section of IFAJ.  

The panel of agricultural journalists speaking at the IFAJ Africa Forum in Pretoria (l to r): Friday Phiri of Zambia; Inoussa Maïga from Burkino Faso; Owen Roberts, IFAJ President; Jean de Dieu Ininahazwe from Burundi. Photo credit: Johnnie Belinda Cluff

The forum led off with perspectives from industry, with Theo de Jager, a farmer and president of the Pan-African Farmers’ Organization who addressed the lack of government support for agricultural growth; Kinyua M’Mbijjewe from Syngenta addressing the question of communicating with smallholder farmers on the safe use of pesticides; and Scott Angle from the International Fertilizer Development Centre talking about the challenges and opportunities for journalists to advance information transfer to farmers.

Over 50 participants in the IFAJ Africa Forum broke out into groups to discuss the issues and questions raised by the panelists and speakers. The reports from each group back to the plenary will form a report on next steps in supporting agricultural journalism in Africa.Photo credit: Steve Werblow

Some overarching themes emerged throughout the presentations and ensuing discussions.

Trust. Farmers everywhere need to trust that journalists are providing them with honest information. However, most African journalists are very poorly paid. When they are offered paying opportunities from input or equipment manufacturers to write stories, the resulting product may be viewed with suspicion by farmers. Many farmers, however, are also poorly paid, and can’t afford to pay for the kind of agronomic or market information journalists provide to farmers in other countries. Good information is invaluable. Can agricultural writing guilds convince farmers they can benefit financially if guild members are better paid?            

Opportunities. Freelancers need markets, and in Africa, it’s political stories that sell. Everyone chases those markets, creating huge competition and inflamed media headlines. By comparison, conventional agriculture stories are tame and urban media outlets are unlikely to buy them, unless they bleed with a scandal or something similar. Can agricultural journalists “torque up” their story topics and angles to make them more attractive (but still honest) to the public and to urban media? Is there any opportunity to highlight the link between agriculture and food, which appeals to urbanites elsewhere? And with Africa becoming increasingly capable of feeding itself, will more opportunities emerge for agricultural journalists to find markets in agriculture?     

Professionalism. Anyone with a computer can set up an e-publication. That doesn’t mean their content is credible. There needs to be standards for agricultural journalism. Industry must be encouraged to support agricultural journalists’ professionalism in an independent, hands-off manner – farmers give stories about inputs and equipment more credibility (and are therefore more likely to make a purchase) if they believe the journalist isn’t being influenced by a manufacturer. Can resources be provided to help journalists cover stories from the field, without messages or professionalism being compromised?   

Education and training. New approaches to electronic communications, such as the field of knowledge mobilization, allows farmers and journalists to exchange information and learn from each other. It doesn’t need to be all one way. The private sector could get involved and develop extension programs and support. What is it farmers want or need to hear? Rainfall, weather, market prices? And although agricultural education in schools is not immediately related to journalism, it is later when children become news consumers and agriculture is foreign to them. Similarly, students who become journalists but have no exposure to agriculture don’t know how to pursue or write an agricultural story.

Theo de Jager, a farmer and president of the Pan-African Farmers’ Organization, addressed the lack of government support for agricultural growth.Photo credit: Alexis Kienlen
Scott Angle from the International Fertilizer Development Centre examined the challenges and opportunities for journalists to advance information transfer to farmers. Photo credit: Steve Werblow

The role of IFAJ in addressing some of these needs is consistent with the federation’s overall priorities of professional development, youth development and greater globalization. For example, it was suggested that IFAJ offer specialized training for pitching stories. Certainly, this could be done through a live webinar that is later posted to the IFAJ website. The 2017 young leaders’ group is already engaged in a prototype of this, through an initiative coordinated by the global office called “30-30” – online sessions in which a presenter has 30 minutes for a presentation, followed by 30 minutes for questions and discussion. The first sessions have dealt with photography and blogging, the latter of which was suggested as a way for African journalists to tell their stories and perhaps market them, as well as themselves as writers or videographers.

In addition, IFAJ was asked to help facilitate an African network of agricultural journalists to include journalists where guilds are not likely to be formed, and to promote press freedom where it doesn’t exist. The federation has already supported press freedom by changing its constitution to welcome membership from countries without press freedom, helping guilds form and supporting them through professional development and youth activities. There’s always room to improve; suggestions are welcome.

Other ideas included an exchange program worldwide for journalists, perhaps funded by an IFAJ foundation, the latter of which is now in the works.

Great appreciation to Faith Peppers, a past-president with the Association for Communication Excellence (ACE), for initiating discussions on the forum concept and arranging for the participation of Scott Angle from IFDC. Our thanks for support for the forum goes to its sponsors: AGCO, American Agricultural Editors’ Association, International Fertilizer Development Centre, and Syngenta.