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The power of online communities

Communities of practice can strengthen smallholder farmers’ ability to influence policy and improve their farming practices

February 22, 2016

The latest issue of CTA’s ICT Update magazine features eight articles portraying the huge potential of communities of practice (CoPs) for leveraging learning and innovation in the agricultural sector. The articles provide experiences of various partners in establishing CoPs along with some case studies and lessons learned.

Used by a number of development organisations, online communities aim to facilitate a collective learning process. Since they were first used as a knowledge management tool by the private sector in corporations such as Xerox and Boeing, online communities of practice have been attracting a growing interest in international development. One of the most active online communities is Dgroups, which currently engages more than 700 groups, with more than 150,000 registered users.

What exactly are CoPs?

There are many ways to define CoPs, but one basic aspect is that they provide an open forum for dialogue on new and emerging issues, and they also provide a platform that encourages debate and the exchange of good practices, resources, ideas and information between people all over the world who get together on a voluntary basis, either face to face or in a virtual space.

CoPs are characterised by mutual informal learning, reflection, shared practices and resources, while promoting problem solving around a specific subject. Initially conceived as closed groups restricted to a defined geographic area, with the emergence of new technologies, CoPs have been rapidly transformed into a powerful tool of knowledge sharing and collaboration between individuals within and across organisations. In light of their potential benefits, CoPs can be seen as a source of learning and innovation, also in the agricultural sector.

At the global level, Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) is a powerful resource. The community traces its origins back to 2000, when participants from two workshops wanted to continue the discussion among themselves and created an electronic forum where this could take place. Since its inception, the KM4Dev community has grown to 4,226 members (in October 2015) and includes various types of organisations and networks from all over the world.

Smallholder farmers, who constantly face the prospect of having to absorb a huge amount of information that will directly impact their work, can benefit from CoPs to strengthen their ability to influence agricultural research and policy and improve their farming practices.

CoPs as a learning tool

CoPs, like most of online tools, are meaningful when implemented for the right purposes. Though there are no standard procedures for creating effective and active CoPs, if we are to make the most of their potential to create sustained value, several factors need to be taken into consideration. Eagerness to participate and trust within the community are two necessary conditions for a CoP to thrive.

The facilitators of CoPs not only determine the sustainability of CoPs, they are also the internal driving force among their members. Indeed, in addition to supporting community members in their exchanges, they also encourage equal participation among all members and provide them with useful information in a clear, reliable and timely manner. Understanding members' needs and capacities enables facilitators to determine the most appropriate support strategies that can help to close the gaps between knowledge, policy and practice. Information should be filtered and shared through the most appropriate format in a manner so it meets the different needs of the participants.

CTA's commitment to CoPs

CTA is committed to building the capacities of its partners and networks so they can make better and greater use of CoPs to advance food security and nutrition across the ACP region. Dgroups and Participatory Web 2.0 for development (Web2forDev) are just two examples of CoPs through which CTA is working to improve information sharing and the collaborative production of content in the agricultural sector.

Along the same lines, CTA has been working with the Pan-African Farmers Organisation (PAFO) to build an online platform to support discussions and the exchange of information on policy with their 250 members across five regions. The e-consultations helped PAFO to formulate policy ideas on several broad themes – land acquisition, links between climate change and agriculture, rural youth in agriculture and the uneven progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals in African countries – before presenting them to the African Union conference.

As an outcome of the Workshop on Building Resilience on Climate Change hosted in Vanuatu in 2012, CTA supported the establishment of the Melanesian Spearhead Group Green Growth Knowledge e-Platform. Created in 2013, this online platform aims to facilitate knowledge acquisition, the sharing of ideas and the exchange of best practices on green growth.

CoPsFrom online to face-to-face training: building partners’ capacity on the use of CoPs to advance food security and nutrition in Vanuatu, October 2014.

The Caribbean Network of Rural Women Producers (CANROP) identified online tools as one of their knowledge management pillars to accomplish their mission of helping rural women to integrate into economic activities and improve their socio-economic position. CTA organised a knowledge management workshop to help CANROP to review, and strengthen its management and communication.

As a result, CANROP developed a strong presence in social media, featuring a dynamic Facebook page with a private group for networking and exchanging experiences.

Read more articles on CoPs on the latest issue of ICTUpdate

Related online resources


About the authors

Chris Addison (addision@CTA.int is senior programme coordinator of knowledge management at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation in Wageningen, the Netherlands, where he is leading work on open data for a project on agriculture and nutrition security. He also coordinates the Pacific Region project portfolio.  

Isaura Lopes Ramos (lopes@cta.int) is currently working on the data revolution for agriculture and nutrition security project in CTA’s knowledge management and communication programme. Previously, she managed knowledge management projects for the United Nations in Cabo Verde focusing on communications.