In this article, Zablone Owiti (Research fellow, CCKE) reflects on how the first virtual GHACOF was different from the previous in-person events and what lessons we can draw from it to improve future virtual events in the region.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to restrictions for in-person gatherings, widespread travel bans and mandatory social distancing measures. These actions challenge long-standing work practices and the climate services community, like many others, is finding new ways to adapt. Traditional in-person events where all stakeholders are invited are no longer possible. In line with this, the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) held the 55th Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum (GHACOF) online for the first time on 18 May 2020.
GHACOF brings together representatives from National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs), sector focal points, regional partners and global climate centers to ensure consistency in the access to and the interpretation of seasonal rainfall and temperature prediction in Eastern Africa and the implications for critical sectors. It provides a structured means for users, researchers and climate services providers to interact at the regional level to ensure that user needs for the seasonal prediction are met.
The goal of GHACOF55 was to issue the June to September 2020 rainy season forecast for the region, including its potential impacts and mitigating measures. It also reviewed the March to May 2020 season so far in terms of the rainfall onset, amounts, distribution and impacts compared with the previous seasonal outlook. During the opening session, ICPAC Director, Dr. Guleid Artan said, “This seasonal outlook is critical considering the ongoing simultaneous emergencies affecting the region, including floods, the desert locust invasion and Covid-19 pandemic. Regional and national authorities are expected to use the outlook and potential associated impacts to adjust their contingency plans”.
Dr. John Marsham from HyCRISTAL presented on the potential role of climate change in the recent climate extremes in the region, including the record-breaking Lake Victoria water levels, and the value of integrating climate change into Climate Outlook Forums. Read more on HyCRISTAL’s contribution here. Similarly, read more about climate change in Uganda and climate change in Kenya.
The 55th GHACOF ushered in a new era, being the first virtual forum since the start of GHACOF in 1998, with attendees interacting through the Zoom platform while it was also live streamed on Youtube. Previous GHACOFs were conducted through face-to-face dialogue and learning between the providers and end-users of climate information. This forum should be viewed as a successful pilot, and any lessons learnt are highly valuable as future face-to-face GHACOFs may not be possible in the foreseeable future, in which case this online forum is an important trial run. This can also inform better planning of other virtual climate services related meetings in the region – for example, the planned WISER programme’s final workshop in early 2021.
More than 180 participants joined the virtual meeting from around the Greater Horn of Africa (GHA) region and from international partners such as the World Meteorological Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation, UK Met Office, DfID, and the University of Leeds among others. This was within the range (150 – 200) of participants that normally attend the in-person forums. In fact, for the June – September season which constitutes an important rainfall season over the northern and equatorial sectors of the GHA, participation is always limited to stakeholders from sectors of the region. According to Dr. Philip Omondi, (climate scientist, ICPAC) the attendance was one of the highest for the season’s GHACOFs.
A virtual GHACOF provides an opportunity for promotion of the event beyond targeted traditional delegates and partner institutions as the virtual platform opens up the opportunity for many more stakeholders, who might have been limited previously by travel related costs, to participate.
Creative solutions and possible improvements
With known Internet connection challenges in the region, how did ICPAC ensure attendance by key stakeholders? An interview with Mr. Zachary Atheru, (Programme manager, ICPAC) reveals that key stakeholders including representatives from National Met Services and sectoral focal points from member countries were provided with financial support to purchase internet bundles from their local mobile phone service providers. In some cases, such as South Sudan, a meeting room was booked in a hotel where all the participants assembled, as they could not access an internet connection from their homes. As such the success of the meeting reflected the considerable effort put in by ICPAC and attendees, and now a system is established that will greatly ease planning of any future virtual meetings.
In terms of the practical running of the meeting, there are areas that could be improved on to ensure a smoother operation of future events. These include familiarising participants, especially the presenters, with how the online platform works (such as slide sharing). Running a real time poll at the end of the event to get participants’ views would also be beneficial in identifying ways to improve virtual convening.
Reflections on the event
While I enjoyed the forum for its interesting plenary, lightning talks and sector-specific group discussions; a number of sessions from the traditional in-person, 2 – 3 day forums were omitted as the event lasted only for half a day. This was attributed to inadequate time to coordinate and plan the sessions with partners. Notable sessions from in-person GHACOFs that did not feature included; the high level opening session normally graced by government officials from the host country and development partners; the marketplace session in which climate services work and initiatives in the region are normally showcased; and panel discussions hosted by partners to present and deliberate on topical issues of climate adaptation. With more time to prepare with partners, I hope that these types of sessions might be possible in virtual meetings in the future.
Despite this, the virtual GHACOF had one of the highest number of attendees (including international participants), as well as valuable question and answer interactions with presenters through the text chatting feature. The advantages of hosting it virtually include not only the cost effectiveness and increased participation but also the carbon footprint reduction potential of such virtual gatherings – an added benefit particularly relevant to an event covering research on climate change.
The lessons from this GHACOF will be taken forward as planning begins for the final WISER workshop and other events whose stakeholders are mostly from the Greater Horn of Africa region.