Reflections on process from the AfriFOODlinks Consortium Meeting in Kisumu, Kenya

AfriFOODlinks Kick-Off Group Photo

Written by Paul Currie, Associate Director, Urban Systems at ICLEI Africa

Last week, we hosted our first in-person consortium meeting for the #AfriFOODlinks project, a European Union funded project which seeks to drive urban transformation, equity and sustainability #throughfood. Please check out our awesome website here:

This meeting was an exciting yet mammoth task: bringing together a consortium of 26 partner organisations, and 20 local government partners to get them rolling in the implementation of the project. To do this, we at ICLEI Africa, as project coordinator, had a choice in the meeting design: focussing on workplans, deliverables, individuals' roles and tasks, and due dates OR facilitating the deepening of relationships between partners, with a sense of trust and knowing that this would support long-term rapport, communication and support between individuals and organisations – thereby  ensuring the project objectives are successfully delivered by all. If you know me, and the ICLEI team's facilitation style and work on platforms such as RISE Africa, you know that this wasn't really a choice, and of course we would run a meeting that would be rich in ideas and in opportunities for interaction and cross-pollination.

I have too many reflections on the meeting, most of which need more time to develop – most of these are ‘content’ reflections on urban food system transformation - but I’d like to share a few clear ideas on ‘process’ which struck me, as a facilitator of the programme:

  • Our programme was designed to ensure that every person (70 of us!) would have interacted with everyone in some way over the 5 days. It started at 10am and tried to finish promptly at 4:30 every day. It had long lunches and encouraged everyone to use this open space to interact, reflect or do the busy-work demanded of us, so we could be present in the formal programme. We had no speeches or interventions (besides the Governor of Kisumu) longer than 5minutes. These short speeches and tight panels with no audience questions were designed to give participants a taste of a bigger idea, and then invite the to deepen discussion with the provocateur at lunch or in the open space time.
  • We sat everyone in a circle, so we could see each other. We had a remarkable facilitator, Eddie Wasswa Jjemba, who held the energy and brought in facilitation techniques which centred joy and appreciation. We stood up, we danced, we did collage, we walked, we talked, we listened to music. We were in plenary of 70, groups of 10, groups of 3, pairs and solo. We began each meeting with 2 religious prayers, a non-denominational spiritual reflection and some time in silence. We sang and clapped and cheered and ululated. And we did a huge amount of work. This pluralist and joyful way of being actively set a basis for trust and appreciation right from the start. 
  • We feel, in this facilitation style, that it is not as important for everyone to hear everything in the meeting, but rather we want a million conversations happening at once - therefore we don't need to have 'report-backs' that block people from their lunch, as people try to recount everything they havelearned or experienced. Instead, we have centred individual and group learning and sharing, while using simple technology to harvest ideas in quick ways, that everyone can then look at on their own time.
  • Our first activity of the meeting was to interrogate the project values, and develop ‘practice statements’ – how do I practice ‘inclusivity’ – how do we practice ‘learning’ - how will I know how well we are doing this? Starting the meeting with values instead of workplans immediately demonstrated how important we, as the coordinators, felt they were, and immediately got people thinking about practice, process and shared values. 
  • The values conversation was emboldened by an initial introduction on our project's gender action plan and safeguarding policy. Funmilola Oni-Adeniyi (PhD) had drafted a Safeguarding Policy for our meeting, which is also currently being adapted as a Safeguarding Policy for the project. All meeting participants, by participating, were bound by, and committed to, the Policy’s rules, which were designed to ensure that the meeting was safe and comfortable for all, and that no harm would be done to anyone. We drew attention to the role of the safeguarding officer who could be reached at any time in the meeting, and to a reporting and response protocol, which would then be followed. Our emphasis on this, and our practice of Safeguarding, was noticed and emphasised by participants, and enabled a comfortable exchange of ideas.
  • When we spend time together deepening our understanding of each other, creating shared values, and setting the basis for cooperation, I have noticed that we often feel uncomfortable that we have not been ‘productive.’ Feeling productive in our society currently revolves around the production of things, and needs more focus on the 'production' of understanding, relationships or feelings. This necessarily requires real time and direct (non-multitasking) attention. Carving the space and time for us to do this really important. 
  • We use the term co-production quite freely, while there are often few examples where we practice true collaborative development of ideas, processes or products. Co-production takes time, and can be uncomfortable - we need to practice embracing this discomfort and asking why it is emerging... interrogating this personal or collective discomfort allows us to question our assumptions, or to have honest conversations with partners about our priorities or needs. In true co-production, when a challenge is raised or observed, change is needed, yet often teams are too afraid to change something, for fear of how much time it will take, or how it would be perceived. When we noticed that there was still unclarity over project activities in day 3, we demolished the day 4 programme and created full space to address this gap. That adaptability is vital as a practice of co-production – to demonstrate that you are paying attention and will create space for what’s important. 
  • I was asked at some point if the success of this programme in forming community so quickly was due to the facilitation framing, or due to the partners/individuals having shared values? I’d have to say BOTH – On facilitation: creating the right framework for interaction means that we create SPACE for different people to share their ideas and passions with different people. Setting a framework for people speak to others individually, in groups or as a plenary, as well as for people to communicate through prayer, art, dance or silence enacts a value of elevating different ways of knowing or being, and practiced PLURALITY. On partners: our partners in this project have demonstrated a deep frustration with the use of jargon, without a clear practice of these ideas, and all seem to have a deep need for their work to be transformative of systems that we observe, and the lives of those who interact with these systems. For that, I am truly proud, emotional, and excited to be walking the next few years with such engaged people. 
  • And can you believe, we did this all in both French and English?! We hired Kenya-based interpreters to provide simultaneous interpretation for main sessions and breakaways, and we demonstrated how people could use their phone translators to have conversations. This made all the difference for bridging francophone and anglophone participants and experiences.

This emphasis on process, joy and values as a way of meeting and working drew much praise from project partners and participants. To me this demonstrates the huge deficit in the normative ways of conferencing, eventing and meeting, and we (with a number of cool partners) are on a mission to queer this. To create equitable participation, multiple ways of knowing and being must be purposefully invited and facilitated. To land our messages, we must be joyful. Building relationships takes space and time, and we must create this space and time, because these relationships are what form movements of change. 

Many thanks to all who brought their energy and interest into the room. I feel it is a start of something bigger...

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