Running successful virtual workshops in Africa

We have all had to grapple with a new virtual academic reality, but some countries have had even more challenges during this transition. Read on to find out about challenges and solutions for organizing virtual workshops in Tanzania.

5 min read
Running successful virtual workshops in Africa

The restrictions on physical meetings brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the widespread adoption of online/digital platforms for virtual meetings. Similar to other African countries and beyond, Tanzania joined the rest of the world in adapting and utilising such platforms to continue business. Tanzania adopted the same popular tools used globally, mostly through Zoom, Skype, GoToMeetings, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts. This did allow some virtual events such as meetings, workshops and seminars to continue, but not without challenges, some of them unique to the African context.

While there is a large overlap globally on the issues pertaining to making this digital transition, here we highlight some of the challenges in organising and attending virtual workshops that we have experienced while living in Tanzania. We also share tips and tricks for effective virtual activities from first-hand experience in hosting and attending virtual events in this country. Given that many of these challenges exist around the world, we hope these experiences and tips are effective not just for a country in Africa, but for the globe at large.

From the organisers' perspective, one of the main challenges is expensive, unreliable and low internet bandwidth. Internet speed in many African countries is slower and more expensive when compared to the global average. Connectivity also fluctuates depending on the location of the user, relative to distance to the nearby cell tower. This has led to multiple cases of communication breakdown during virtual events leaving participants stranded. In addition, most organisers - even those from academic and research institutions - rely on a private internet connection. This makes it more difficult to both organise and attend virtual activities, particularly those that may take longer than an hour and require video transmission.

Assigning multiple hosts may save an event; in case the main host drops out, the other is available to proceed to save time on technical issues during the event.

To work around the internet challenge, it is crucial to have a backup source of internet in case of a breakdown in connectivity, as this happens quite frequently. In Tanzania this meant paying for internet bundles from more than one service provider. As a bonus, having IT personnel on standby who can handle technical challenges as they arise has been quite helpful. It is also important for organisers to prepare in advance, anticipate setbacks and hold a practice session to test connectivity and platform navigation with speakers and presenters. This is especially important when working in teams. Assigning multiple hosts may save an event; in case the main host drops out, the other is available to proceed to save time on technical issues during the event.

Looking ahead to a post-COVID-19 future (and/or in countries with more relaxed physical meeting restrictions), institutional organisers may arrange for participants to join virtual events from a common location with a strong and reliable internet connection, such as a university or research centre. This hub model has worked quite well with the H3ABioNet annual 3-months long Introduction to Bioinformatics (IBT) course that has been hosted since 2016. The arrangement boosts participation and has been advocated as a possible alternative to in-person scientific conferences.

Another common challenge is low attendance rate despite high registration numbers. In the past, we advertised our virtual events widely and received enough registrations, sometimes more than intended capacity, indicating a high interest in the activities. But experience has shown that only about half of those who registered will actually login/connect during the event and even fewer will stay connected to the end even for 1-hour long sessions. While the latter can be partly attributed to low internet bandwidth, another reason may be the presence of too many virtual events vying for the same audience. Closely associated with the attendance problem is the difficulty of obtaining feedback from participants, making it hard to gauge effectiveness of events and to learn from mistakes. (Editor's note: a 50% attendance rate seems to correlate quite well with that seen on other continents.) Sponsoring facilitators and attendees with at least an internet bundle and, if possible, other equipment, has been shown to boost participation. This may go hand-in-hand with following up on participants by calls or texts (through mobile numbers provided optionally during registration) a day or two before the meeting. Calls and mobile text messages are more accessible to most people than emails, plus they do not require an internet connection. In addition, organisers should send out clearly written and step-by-step guidelines on event logistics at least twice before the meeting to facilitate a smooth running. We also advise to register a larger number of attendees than the limit (~3 times the target) to ensure a full house of participants.

Actively seeking sponsorship in organizations outside one’s institution/region that support digital platforms in science communication could help sustain the event. Another option is to collaborate and merge efforts with other similar initiatives to lower costs and increase efficiency.

We have also observed that sustainability of virtual events is low, be they seminars, workshops or otherwise. Yes, participants not showing up consistently may contribute to the sustainability challenge. But a more important factor limiting sustainability of virtual events is the cost associated with hosting virtual events, such as internet connectivity (as described above), subscription to different meetings platforms, and buying proper gear such as headsets. Most physical events such as workshops and conferences were already established and justified cost-wise, but the abrupt change to our "new normal" has been difficult to finance with a lack of sponsorship. Actively seeking sponsorship in organizations outside one’s institution/region that support digital platforms in science communication could help sustain the event. Another option is to collaborate and merge efforts with other similar initiatives to lower costs and increase efficiency. As a last resort (and we have done this on several occasions), self-funding of virtual events may also be done, especially for short and/or small ones.

From the participants' side, limited knowledge on how virtual meetings and online platforms operate, such as the use of cameras, microphones, chat rooms, breakout rooms, and screen sharing, has been a problem. Tanzania - like much of the world -  was not big on virtual participation before the pandemic and we all had to learn and adapt quickly. When we organised virtual activities, they sometimes became chaotic with background noises and as organisers, we had to constantly be on alert to mute and even remove people from events. This contributed to overall ineffectiveness and loss of precious time during the events. To circumvent this, it is of paramount importance for participants to familiarise themselves with platforms used to host events on beforehand and when possible, ask for assistance from organisers. In addition, organisers should take a few minutes at the beginning of the workshop to introduce participants to the platform and its functions. Participants should also plan to have an alternative backup source of internet connection and fully recharged devices in the event of power and/or internet connection loss. It is also important for organisers to choose hosting platforms that are most suited to particular contexts, taking into consideration ease of use, popularity, data consumption, and available features. For example, it is easier to get more participants by hosting an event on Zoom because many people have access and are already familiar with it. Also Zoom has a "raise hand" option that is not available in other platforms that may reduce interruptions during events.

With these lessons and tips in mind, we hope that readers will gain insights on how to organise effective virtual meetings in challenging contexts, such as ours.

About the authors:

Aneth David is an academic in agricultural biotechnology at University of Dar es Salaam and a PhD student at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Connect with Aneth on Twitter, or via her personal website.

Mohamed Zahir is a medical geneticist, a lecturer and research fellow at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania. Connect with Mohamed on Twitter

Grantina Modern  is a biomedical research officer at DECOHAS, Tanzania, and a finalist MSc. student in Health and Biomedical Sciences at Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), Tanzania. Connect with Grantina on Twitter.

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