KM4Dev Futures: Charles Dhewa Journey with KM4Dev
My journey with KM4Dev
by Charles Dhewa
This is a true story about how I have travelled with km4dev including, people, events, ideas and opportunities that have changed my life. The article's main intention is to surface some of the hidden narratives of how km4dev has impacted participants. Such stories cannot be revealed through peer reviewed journals where there is an evidence hierarchy with some experiences edited out to fit certain publishing conventions. The author will use this story to trigger similar stories from other km4devers who will not be the same if they hadn't come across km4dev. Instead of measuring km4dev by the number of people it touches and geographical spread, the depth of stories will provide an alternative perspective.
From 2002 to 2006 I was working as Regional Communications Officer-Southern Africa for the DFID-funded Crop Post Harvest Programme. Knowledge Management was slowly being popularized in some of the documents circulated in the development sector. Personally, I was looking for new ways and words to inspire fresh forms of expression and engagement beyond the traditional mass communication which I was finding too one-sided for its own good. Knowledge Management sort of crystallized my new trajectory.
When I left DFID Crop Post Harvest Programme in 2006, I was invited to a Knowledge Management seminar in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event was convened by GDNet (based in Cairo, Egypt), World Bank Institute, Africa Development Bank and Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA). All these organisations had a very active interest on Knowledge Management. The seminar had a number of power point presentations which, on reflection now, focused so much on the theory of Knowledge Management.
The Institute of Development Studies, part of Sussex University (UK) was represented by two people mainly from the library section and they brought a lot of publications describing their work. Among these publications were a small blue compendium of organisations that were dealing with Knowledge Management. It was in this small publication that, upon returning back to Zimbabwe and searching for information, I got a website link to KM4Dev.
It was a marvel to stumble on KM4Dev and details of people who were behind it. In between browsing around, I downloaded as much information about KM4Dev as I could get. I also read about people who were the public face of KM4Dev, for example, Lucie Lamourex , Riff Fullan and a bunch of others who had been part of Bellanet. Although my interest on KM had been ignited during my stint with DFID Crop Post-Harvest Programme, I started digging around KM more purposefully on coming across the KM4Dev website and associated publications. This digging phase preoccupied me for much of 2007.
By 2008 I had grasped enough of KM to be able to explain how it complemented or differed from communication. I could perceive that many organisations were quickly re-branding their library services and Public Relations efforts KM. As often happens with new phenomena, there was a penchant by a number of organisations to conclude that KM was a new name for what they were already doing.
I was new to Dgroup and its rules such that, even though I had signed for the KM4Dev Dgroup, I could not confidently jump into conversations. In one of the threads, I read that a KM4Dev face-to-face event was to be held in Almada (Portugal). Riff Fullan was inviting people from the South to apply for participation sponsorship. Although I was a bit late in applying, I was surprised when the reply from Riff indicated I had been selected to participate. This was going to become my first journey to Europe and my first longest journey by plane. You can imagine my anxiety. Then came the visa issue. Fortunately, the Portuguese Embassy in Harare was very friendly and helpful. Travel documentation (invitation from Riff and Helvetas) made the process easy.
Although things were getting economically tough in Zimbabwe, I was not prompted to think of disappearing in Europe as most Zimbabweans were doing when afforded a chance to escape from domestic hardships. I had registered Knowledge Transfer Private Limited in 2006 and for some reason it was way too special for me to leave for whatever opportunity.
I was one of the first people to arrive in Almada after Riff who was already waiting for everyone, particularly newcomers like myself. Almada was an amazing location where we could see part of Lisbon from across the bridge under whose waterways dolphins could be seen jumping up and down. It was my first time to see dolphins. After introducing myself to Riff I struck a conversation with Carl Jackson whom I found very easy to relate with since I had previously worked with British guys like him.
Before going to Almada, there had been a web indication that we were supposed to choose what we wanted to eat on the first dinner which was at a restaurant right by the sea close to where Christopher Columbus is said to have sailed off discovering many parts of the world. It turned out the majority of participants had chosen to eat crabs which they ate with a small wooden hammer. It struck me that civilized people ate crabs. Growing up in rural Zimbabwe, crabs had been considered food for the very poorest of the rural poor. Although I had not initially indicated what I wanted to eat, the team seemed patient with me, particularly when I started looking at the menu and choosing what seemed familiar food when others had already started eating.
The real event I looked forward to started the following day. Nancy interviewed me and a Ghanaian colleague. In fact we were two of the only three Africans at the event. The other one was a gentleman from Uganda who said his father-in-law was the Supreme Court Judge of Uganda then.
Having been used to formal events, the session seemed way too informal and for some minutes I wondered what grown up people thought they were doing – sitting down in a circle, engaging in what I later gathered was a fishbowl, etc. The interview with Nancy was really great and I later realized she wanted me to feel welcomed. Eva Schiffer introduced Net-Mapping and I was amazed by her confidence in commanding everyone to do as she ordered, drawing linkages and mapping things on flip charts with pens. I also attended an interesting side-thing organised by Paul Corney where he talked about his experiences in implementing KM for the Asia Development Bank. This was the formal stuff I had anticipated the whole event to follow.
I really laughed when a young lady (Beverly Trayner’s daughter) took us through some kind of games where we walked around in circles, producing some kind of pattern. It was really funny to see dignified gentlemen like Manuel doing that sort of thing. I really struggled with the essence of it all.
As all these little bits and pieces of the event gelled into my mind, things started getting a bit more meaningful and the climax was when Nancy said, “We are all trying to escape our academic experiences..”. It was then I thought, ok all these games were an effort to explore other ways of knowledge sharing as opposed to weighing everything through cognitive lens. I jotted this in my notebook. This prepared me for the next new thing (Open Space Methodology) facilitated by Marc Steinlin. I was intrigued when Marc started explaining the rules: the law of two feet, bumble bees, what happens is what was supposed to happen, etc. However, it got me thinking about how I could deploy this method in African contexts where people are used to being commandeered to do serious things. From my experience working with farming communities, if you allow people to attend any event they find interesting they will focus on what’s interesting and not what is useful. It’s human nature to drift into comfort zones. On the other hand, I felt the strengths of Open Space was that it allowed people to follow their feelings & intuitions and this often results in creative. I started looking at tools from a pros and cons perspective.
In Almada, Sarah Cummings introduced IKM Emergent to participants and I expressed interest in being involved, particularly when she indicated there would be an event in Africa to drill down the programme.
The Almada occasion happened in May 2008. Mid June I visited UK for the first time in another initiative – the International Association for the Study of the Commons held at the University of Gloucestershire - where I presented a paper that was well received. I rubbed brains with so many luminaries such as the world famous late Elinor Ostrom who popularized the words ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. Melding the UK event and Almada laid a strong foundation for launching me onto the international scene. In my mind, I saw clearly how Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) Ltd could fit into the whole puzzle.
2009 saw me attending a collection of related events in Brussels. My participation was sponsored mainly by KM4Dev & IKM Emergent though I couldn’t differentiate the two at the time. Through IKM Emergent, I had started honing some interesting ideas on local content with Pete Cranston, Peter Ballantyne and a number of African colleagues. In Brussels I met John Smith for the first time. During an open space session he organised an interesting huddle where we discussed the importance of values. It was the first time I heard the term ‘huddle’ being banded around. Nancy was also kind enough to hand me a copy of Digital Habitats – a publication she, John and Etienne had just produced. I also met Roxanna Samii for the first time and we suddenly connected. Little did I know that I would be working with her in IFAD two years down the road.
The local content bunch then branched to focus on something else, led by Pete and Peter. We had a terrific event that saw us visit the Belgium Museum where at the end I was very sad to see a lot of birds, animals, art-works and other items plundered from Africa during colonial times by the late Belgian King. People were now paying money to the Belgian government to see things looted from Africa. It touched my heart.
A fellow KM4Dever, Sophie Trienen who works for FAO was later surprised to see me on the panel of presenters at the CTA event held in the centre of Brussels well after the KM4Dev and IKM Emergent events had ended. Although separate, to me, all these events were one large cloth of experience that had been unlocked through joining KM4Dev.
Addis ShareFair 2010 Part of the IKM Emergent agenda in Brussels was organising the Share Fair to be convened by ILRI in Addis Ababa. I organised an event on translation where my intention was to raise the profile of language issues in development. Identifying people who would attend my session was quite empowering. There was a big KM4Dev contingent in Addis and I facilitated a small meeting in which potentially new members got an opportunity to hear what KM4Dev was all about. Patrick Apoya, a charismatic gentleman from Ghana expressed interest to be a km4dever and shared an interesting African anecdote about how animals stopped getting into a large cave after seeing that tracks of their peers had always been going in one direction into the cave never to return. He said he had been wondering if KM4Dev was like that curve in which every animal that went in was eaten by a lion that was resting in the cave. We assured him KM4Dev is a friendly cave housing friendly animals.
Joining the Core Group
Around 2010 I had become so much part of KM4Dev that when an invitation for members to join the Core Group was circulated, I embraced it. It was Lucie who actually nudged me to move into this decision-making role. Although I have not been a regular participant on the Core Group’s skype conversations, I have followed conversations with keen interest, contributing ideas here and there. Participating in the Core Group meeting during the 2011 Share Fair 2011 at IFAD headquarters was quite fulfilling for me. If I am not mistaken, I have been the only African from the South on the Core Group. A sense of responsibility that comes with being a Core Group member spurred me to be a KM4Dev ambassador. I found myself luring a number of professionals to find out more and learn about KM4Dev. I even volunteered to steer focused conversations.
This event hosted by IFAD was a great opportunity to see a fusion of KM4Dev and other approaches particularly from the big UN organisations (IFAD, FAO, UNDP, UNEP, World Bank, etc). Our very own Roxanna Samii was at her best, mastering the ceremony. I met Etienne Wenger for the first time and was astonished by his fish bowl session where a few people would move into the centre of the circle to debate issues with him. I confidently stepped forward and we shared ideas while the rest of the crowd listened. I didn’t know that in the crowd was the Zimbabwean Ambassador to Rome (Mary Mubi) who, later pulled me aside and expressed her joy in seeing a Zimbabwean speak in front of people from all over the world. During the Share Fair, myself and Pete were advancing ideas on sense-making as a critical part of KM. A collection of African versions of story-telling were the basis of our session which, though attended by few people, went deep into the message we wanted to convey.
With IFAD 2012 The track record I had built since becoming a KM4Dever and my contributions to KM4Dev Dgroup discussions did not escape the notice of a number of people including IFAD. Toward the end of 2011, IFAD-Water put out an advert looking for a KM Specialist with firm roots in grassroots activities. I sent in my application though I didn’t expect any positive feedback. In any case, I had thought if they had considered me, I would request to be based in Zimbabwe or any other African country. A phone call came in early 2012 indicating I had been short-listed and they wanted an urgent phone interview to which I agreed. After the interview, I was told I had been successful and was to spend six months in Rome. They wanted to know if I was ok with it. After a few consultations with my wife and some people who had become part of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) Ltd, I agreed. On 8 March 2012 I started an eventful six months stint with IFAD. The biggest benefit was learning more about the head office mindset in big organisations. I can write more than 20 pages about this but not now! During my IFAD days, I pulled strong KM4Dev punches – selling KM4Dev to internal staff most of whom were torn apart by years of doing the same thing.
What about now?
Working for IFAD gave me an opportunity to gather a handful of resources that I relayed back home to strengthen Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) Ltd (KTA). I was able to meet some costs related to keeping the company on track & meet the needs of my three employees who kept things going in my absence. My wife Barbara, was very supportive and almost behaved like my employee since she could find time from her teaching schedule to monitor what was happening with KTA.
When I returned home in September 2012, I had gained a new reputation & profile. In fact, before I even left Rome, I had received an email from Hivos indicating their interesting in working with KTA in the agriculture sector given the unique nature of our initiative called eMkambo that I had launched before leaving for Rome. During my first week in Zimbabwe, we had a fruitful meeting with Hivos which culminated into an amazing relationship that has also helped put KTA on the global map. I will let it come from someone’s mouth here: http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2013/reaching-new-heights. With a firm presence at 16 informal agriculture markets in Zimbabwe, KTA currently has 21 employees whose skills include computer science, banking & finance, agriculture economics, accountancy, statistics and social science. My intention is to grow KTA into a legendary knowledge sharing company. On 26 November 2013, I made a presentation to the President’s Office mentioning how Zimbabwe can only be able to use its natural resources in achieving inclusive growth if it takes KM and evidence-based decision making seriously.
If I hadn’t joined KM4Dev, it would not have been possible for me to build Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) Ltd from mud. I have not even mentioned other international doors that have been opened such as working with the International Development Research Centre (IIDRC) of Canada, among others. I have become aware that it’s possible to have one foot on the ground while the other foot is dancing around the world!