The value of meeting virtually

Our seventh blog in the series on The GSMA Innovation Fund for Digitisation of Agricultural Value Chains explores how we have shifted our annual learning and knowledge sharing event for grantees from face to face to online, in response to the continued global travel restrictions.

What is a field focus week? 

As part of their funding under The GSMA Innovation Fund for Digitisation of Agricultural Value Chains, grantees benefit from periodic field focus sessions hosted by the GSMA AgriTech team. These have consistently been one of the most valued areas of support that the programme has offered to grantees as they develop and rollout digital agriculture services. Under normal circumstances, these take the form of a week-long visit to one of the grantee countries, comprising a mixture of group knowledge-sharing workshops to review progress and lessons learnt, in addition to focussing on challenges and identifying opportunities to break down those barriers.  We also organise field trips to the host-grantee’s digitisation initiative, so that the wider group can talk to the local stakeholders and understand how they have benefited from the project, as well as identify where improvements could still be made. One of the key benefits of these field focus weeks is the opportunity to build strong relationships with and between grantees and partners.

While global travel was restricted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the GSMA AgriTech team had to adapt their approach to hosting field focus sessions. Taking some of the lessons learnt and tools used during our adapted remote user experience research approach, we created a virtual field focus week (FFW).

Making a field focus week ‘remote’

With the obvious challenges of balancing seven time zones and not taking grantees ‘away’ from their day jobs, the schedule and structure of a normal field focus week had to be significantly altered. Instead of five full days of content, the event was split into six, two-hour sessions over the course of two weeks. This gave grantees the opportunity to attend the field focus sessions without losing a significant portion of their working day.  

To maintain engagement during the sessions, content was a mixture of short presentations either by the GSMA AgriTech team or the grantees themselves, as well as interactive activities to help delve into the topics in greater detail. The content covered during the two weeks spanned themes such as how to strengthen climate resilience of farmers through digital services and how to conduct a product iteration workshop. In one of the online meetings, we hosted  Microsoft FarmBeats, an IoT Platform for data-driven agriculture, to learn about their product offering and go-to-market plans. The objective was to expose grantees to ideas on how to diversify their own services going forward and gain a non-grantee perspective on digital agriculture opportunities.

Miro has proved to be a valuable real-time collaboration tool as we worked on case studies to understand how to continuously improve and iterate services based on insights from business intelligence, user experience (UX) research and user feedback surveys. Plenty of time was kept for questions and answers as well as debates between grantees to replicate the networking benefits from meeting in person as best as possible.

How to host a virtual field trip

Whilst we were unable to truly replicate the experience of a field trip, we used the power of technology to virtually transport our grantees to one of our sister projects funded by the Australian Government (DFAT), in Papua New Guinea, which, while outside the Innovation Fund, is focussed on a very similar agricultural last mile digitisation approach. 

Having introduced the context and objectives of the projects, the agritech partner walked attendees through a digitised farmer credit scoring and loans process. Grantees were then invited to assess and recommend improvements to the user interface (UI) as well as the farmer onboarding processes.  Grantees benefited from being able to assess the project from a fresh perspective and take new ideas and opportunities back to their own markets while the Papua New Guinea team benefitted from suggestions on how to improve their product offering.

Making the most of breakout rooms for virtual networking

Grantees were randomly assigned to several 10-minute one to one networking sessions with other grantee teams/product managers in breakout rooms on Microsoft Teams. By keeping the meetings small we overcame the tendency for people to hide during group calls and encourage the building of a more personal relationship with the other participant. This was the closest we could get to replicating the valuable informal conversations that take place between sessions at a field focus week and during travel to and from field visits. While we recognise that there is no substitute to in-person networking, these short sessions allowed grantees to get to know others’ working on similar product offerings and start to develop relationships and understand more about projects in different markets. Participants welcomed this opportunity and we shall continue evolving this section of the remote field focus session.

The future of field focus week

The AgriTech programme has now run two virtual FFW events, evolving the process through feedback from attendees to ensure more engagement and value for our grantees going forward. Spending a full week in the field together is certainly an invaluable bonding experience and re-creating this virtually definitely has its challenges. But while we are all keen to meet again in person as soon as the pandemic allows, our experience shows that digital technology can bring people together across continents to share knowledge and take learnings back to their own markets. 


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