The Africa Evidence Network (AEN) is a diverse network of people and organisations who strive to end poverty and inequality in Africa through the increased use of evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM). AEN are constantly increasing the capacity for and engaging evidence-use within the EIDM ecosystem in Africa; one such effort is Africa Evidence Week (AfEW).
AfEW 2021 was an overwhelming celebration of the incredible stories and advancements of evidence-use in Africa. With over 100 activities, its success is a reflection of the rich African EIDM landscape. The event was also a triumph in its design and planning. AEN, connecting with its large community across media and topics, creatively shone the spotlight on interesting and important victories in the field. AEN’s #EvidenceCapacitiesWebinar series continues on 17 November with ‘Capacity development aimed at system-level change in/for evidence-use
We reached out to some of the AEN secretariat to share their reflections and experience planning the event. Offering their insights are:
- Siziwe Ngcwabe, Director of Operations at the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE)
- Natalie Tannous, Strategic Marketing and Communications Manager at the Africa Centre for Evidence
- Precious Motha, Programme Officer at the Africa Centre for Evidence
Africa Evidence Week 2021 was an incredibly well-curated, week-long programme, rich with discussions, and activities to look forward to all day long. How did you maximise the success of a global conference with minimal resources?
Siziwe: AEN members are an incredible resource for us. For this event, members contributed to the development of the concept note and there was buy-in from the beginning. So our ability to maximise our limited resources is foregrounded in the relationships we have built over the years with our members, partners, and EIDM leaders.
Natalie: We were inspired by the success of the first Evidence Week hosted by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluations (3ie). This made it easy to attempt to replicate their success. We also have a culture at the AEN secretariat for innovation. Since we already had several elements required for a successful Week: a healthy social media following, an engaged network of dedicated members, a high-quality implementation team, and (most importantly) consensus from the membership that showcasing their work is something they wanted, we stood a good chance of pulling off a great event.
Can you share any insight into how the Evidence Week was developed, planned, and executed that led to the success of the event? Especially working across media (blog posts, videos, Twitter chats, webinars) to engage with attendees throughout the day.
Precious: The first Africa Evidence Week that took place in September of 2019 was a great foundation for us to work from. We reflected on what worked and didn’t work, and this helped us to set up an Evidence Week planning team and develop a detailed work plan in consultation with our members and partners.
Natalie: If I had to summarise how we executed the week in a single word, I’d choose: ‘together’. When there were difficult times, we worked through them together. When we brainstormed, drafted, posted, designed, and tweaked, we did it all in close collaboration with the entire AEN team: from Siziwe as the operations lead all the way through to Kekeletso Makau, our incredible communications whiz.
I think something like AfEW 2021 works so well as a communications activity because researchers struggle to share their work. In the hustle and bustle of trying to get a project wrapped up there is little time or energy to showcase their work. However, a research team will often produce a great deal of output; presentations, webinars, reports, blog posts, guides are often part of the day-to-day work of doing research. Africa Evidence Week is like a holding space where someone else helps draw attention to the work you’ve done. So working across media was useful to engage with attendees because the AEN took the responsibility of sharing and promoting already produced content off the shoulders of various stakeholders within the evidence-use landscape.
Truth be told, the diversity of topics and the engagement generated is really to the credit of all the participants. We did our best to design a programme that did justice to the diversity of content that we received from participants. That, we cannot take credit for. That is just the amazing work happening in the Africa evidence-use ecosystem.
Do you have any reflections on what worked and what didn’t work with respect to running Africa Evidence Week 2021?
Precious: What worked was having a portal for registration and creating templates for content submission. This made things easier and clear for participants in terms of finding information about the week and the type of content they can submit. Receiving content after the deadline had passed was challenging. In future we’ll ensure the deadline for content is not too close to the launch of the programme. We may also centralise the registration process in collaboration with the hosting organisation to avoid any delays for webinar attendees.
Natalie: From a communications perspective, one challenge we experienced was trying to explain what Africa Evidence Week 2021 is/was. Queries we received demonstrated that perhaps communication leading up to AfEW2021 had not been effective enough. However, I reviewed the 4.9 million impressions our hashtag received over the course of the five days and realised that while it was a challenge to articulate succinctly what Africa Evidence Week is, it was not preventing incredible support and participation from those within the African evidence ecosystem. Funnily enough, that challenge presented itself as an opportunity: leverage the intangible nature of something as incredible as Africa Evidence Week to produce a digital asset that can be used to promote any of the Africa Evidence Weeks. So even as we had our challenges, there are always creative ways to overcome them, provided you’re brave enough to reflect about what could have been done better.
The Evidence Week was a great indication of how the EIDM space in Africa is only growing stronger. Do you have any reflections on how AEN has grown over the past couple years?
Siziwe: AEN has grown in many areas over the years. We currently have more than 3,500 members across the continent and beyond and accommodated 600 delegates in our event, up from 100 a few years ago. With each event we host, our audience and engagement grows. When the event is over, we continue to engage on topics that still need unpacking through blogs, stories of change, webinar series, and tracking meaningful connections and collaborations.
Precious: What has contributed to AEN’s growth is the fact that all our activities are focused on facilitating a connection between EIDM practitioners in Africa with one another, and with the world of EIDM internationally. We believe that only through relationships, does the Network have the potential to change norms in the use of evidence for the benefit of the region. AEN achieves this aim by becoming a mechanism through which producers and users of evidence can connect, communicate, and collaborate.