When Dr. Nalishebo Meebelo was hired by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy, Research, Capacity and Influence (PRCI) to serve as the senior program coordinator for the Regional Network of Agricultural Policy Research Institutes (ReNAPRI) she supported the organization’s position that a comprehensive strategic plan was needed to guide the day to day activities of the network. ReNAPRI is a consortium of ten African agricultural policy research centers that collaborate on policy research, outreach and capacity building throughout East Africa and in Ghana. Meebelo says three things were clear from the beginning: “Firstly, there was an increasing demand for ReNAPRI’s services on the continent. Secondly, we wanted to expand ReNAPRI’s visibility as an agent for policy influence in the African continent, and thirdly, we needed to be able to evaluate the impact and work of ReNAPRI. The best way to achieve these goals was through a strategic plan.”
In early March of 2020, Meebelo traveled to Malawi to begin working with Dr. John Medendorp, the Director of Michigan State University’s Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program, along with a specialist in that program, Cait Goddard, to begin developing the strategic plan. Medendorp and Goddard lead PRCI’s institutional capacity strengthening efforts and as noted by Medendorp, “We, like ReNAPRI itself, recognized the immense potential in the ReNAPRI network and what it could mean for Africa if ReNAPRI could become a leading voice for food security and agricultural policy.”
Working closely with Meebelo and several other members of the ReNAPRI network, Medendorp and Goddard planned to work with the organization on an actionable framework to achieve its goals. Unfortunately, just as the planning sessions were set to begin, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Recognizing the dangers posed by COVID-19, ReNAPRI and PRCI cancelled the in-person meetings and everyone involved returned to their home countries.
ReNAPRI now had a new challenge to face: how would they develop the strategic plan they need without being able to engage in-person with their members? Working with PRCI’s Medendorp and Goddard, Meebelo and ReNAPRI adopted a blended strategic planning process that included both online and offline activities. ReNAPRI used Zoom teleconferencing software to conduct the virtual meetings and used the program Smartsheet to assist with project management. Meebelo credits Medendorp and Goddard with helping ReNAPRI develop a framework and implementation plan for the strategic plan and for training her on how to use the necessary technologies to make the planning process possible. Medendorp added, “Thanks to Cait this experience was less painful than it might have been. Cait has a lot of experience with online teaching so we relied on her heavily, especially her knowledge of the different virtual learning tools that are available.”
Once Meebelo became comfortable with the technology, they began hosting weekly meetings with the policy centers. Meebelo says “The team began by undertaking a historical journey of ReNAPRI, looking at the organization’s achievements and challenges, and thinking about where we saw ReNAPRI heading in the next five years.” To prepare for these weekly meetings Meebelo says, “The ReNAPRI secretariat, including myself, would meet three times a week with John and Cait, to develop and distribute to participants a detailed meeting schedule and any materials needed for the meeting’s discussion.” Meebelo says, “this approach worked well, and week-after-week participation in the meetings from the centers remained high.”
Reflecting on the entirety of the process, Meebelo says the strategic planning sessions fostered open and honest discussion among the participants and ultimately were a success. Through the strategic planning process, ReNAPRI was able to agree on the content for the strategic plan and it will be launched at this year’s 7th Annual ReNAPRI Stakeholders’ Conference in November. Among the plan’s highlights are five pillars or intervention areas including project management, knowledge management, public relations and outreach, process management, and strategic partnerships and resources management. Goddard notes that, “Not only has ReNAPRI developed the capacity to create a strategic planning process, they’ve also learned how to work in an entirely virtual environment. In some respects they are leading the continent in this kind of work.”
For Medendorp, “the most gratifying part of this was the growing sense of ownership of the process on the part of ReNAPRI. A strength of ReNAPRI has been and will always be the initiative of its member centers but now we are also seeing effective coordination and leadership from the center. This will generate a really high payoff for the network and its members over time. This strategic plan is now a ReNAPRI process and not only have they taken ownership, they’ve done this really successfully and well.” Echoing these sentiments, Goddard added, “ReNAPRI’s ownership of the process grew as we went along, and by the end, they were giving us instruction on how they thought we could best present the planning materials.”
A copy of ReNAPRI’s strategic plan will be made available on the PRCI website when it becomes available.