The problem is regional agricultural research -- simultaneous and
coordinated experiments to test new varieties, to determine
cost-effective combinations of inputs, and to vary management
techniques for the control of disease. A network comprises typically
a dozen or so researchers scattered throughout half as many
countries, but working together on a common agenda.
A group of African agricultural research network coordinators
recently gathered in a circle in a small classroom in East Africa to
discuss strategy -- how to take advantage of information technologies
for their networks to do their work better.
Over the past several months we'd heard fascinating presentations at
various forums about complex databases filled with information on
insect pests, weed control, irrigation techniques, and the like. Web
sites seemed all the rage-- everyone wanted to get one. Web-enabled
databases were particularly in vogue. We'd been approached by a
number of vendors of databases, in Europe and North America
primarily, but also from South Africa -- research institutes and
universities that have repackaged great libraries of information
just waiting for a scientist (or a donor in behalf of scientists) to
A poll was taken.
Priority number one: Basic connectivity for those in the region
still not connected, perhaps one quarter of the membership of
the average network, mostly concentrated in a few "problem"
countries. Basic connectivity would be achieved even if only
through store/forward email to a secretary's computer where incoming
messages could be printed and distributed by hand within a research
center. Replies could be hand written, or in some cases where
scientists have their own desktop computers, replies could be given
to the secretary on diskette. Not a good solution, but quite
Priority number two: An enhanced connectivity upgrade, improving
from access through a secretary to direct desktop access. In part,
the second priority addresses the need for regional collaboration.
If true collaboration is to take place, regular and frequent email
communication is essential. Managing frequent communications,
particularly in a network where a dozen scientists are all
exchanging weekly messages, quickly becomes unmanageable through a
But the African network coordinators went to great lengths to say
that priority one should be facilitating for their colleagues a seat
at least in the same meeting room, if not at the table itself.
Jeff @ Lusaka
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