Building Resilience, Ensuring the Safety of the Rayuwa Project Stakeholders
The Rayuwa team began 2020 in high spirits. They were finishing their first year of program implementation in a remote cluster of communities in northern Nigeria, confident they would achieve even more than they had in the previous year. The news said COVID-19 was in far off countries, but on February 29th, even as team members from Nigeria and the United States gathered at the project office in Kafur, Katsina State for the annual strategy and work planning session, the first case was reported in the country’s south, in Lagos.
Since the moment the novel coronavirus officially landed in Nigeria, the response from Pyxera Global’s Rayuwa program has been to ensure, as best we can, sustained program activities that build community resilience in a way that emphasizes the safety of the program’s staff and members of the community. The central factor that has enabled and will continue to allow Rayuwa to achieve this objective is the integration of program sustainability mechanisms from inception—a core tenet of all of Pyxera Global’s Integrated Community Development programs. Our team was able to quickly adapt program activities to account for the need for a significant proportion of the staff to work remotely for the foreseeable future. Our approach and the mechanisms that enabled them are outlined below.
Rayuwa’s Response: Iterating and Adapting to a COVID-19 Operating Environment
In light of the need to step back from in-person activities, the Rayuwa team accelerated the design and implementation of planned technology-based initiatives and leveraged its community-based personnel to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the program’s interventions.
Short Message Services (SMS): Following the earliest community engagement and feedback meetings, bulk SMS via mobile phones have been used to send relevant messages to community members. In response to the need to maintain physical distance, the Rayuwa team expanded the system’s use to deliver key agricultural extension messages and continue building capacity on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). The system was also used to send messages to sensitize community members on the COVID-19 pandemic and what preventative measures they can use to avoid infection or transmission.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR): IVR was developed to create a “Rayuwa Community Helpline” to ensure the consistent flow of information between community members and the program team. The helpline gives community members access to information about Rayuwa activities in education, in-school and out-of-school teaching and learning for children, and agricultural extension services and other farm-based information in preparation for one of the most important times of the year for farmers—the coming rains and planting season starting in April and May.
Agricultural Extension Training Materials: Within days of recognizing the imminent arrival of COVID-19, the Rayuwa team developed key messaging about agricultural extension in the form of posters, flyers, and guides. The material will be used by community-based Village Extension Agents (VEAs) to continue to deliver trainings to farmers. The team is also developing agricultural videos in the local language, which will be used by the VEAs to train farmers using android phones and tablets provided by the project. VEAs were also trained in how to hold safe sessions, by limiting the number of participants and ensuring good hygiene practices by trainers and attendees.
Radio Jingles: Amid the government-mandated lockdown, movement is restricted. The Rayuwa agriculture team developed and is using radio jingles to disseminate key agricultural messages to farmers in the project communities. The messages were developed to suit the context of the villages and are appropriate to the upcoming crop season.
Cultivating the Next Generation of Farmers: Schools are expected to be among the hardest hit institutions by the COVID-19 pandemic, as all public gatherings have been prohibited. School activities are suspended and, with the social distancing rules in place, there are limited options to keep children engaged.
During the normal holiday breaks in the school year, Rayuwa’s village-based Community Education Workers (CEWs) would continue to provide home lessons for school-aged children. Now, with school sessions on hold, Rayuwa has trained CEWs on best practices to control the spread of the virus. Practices such as hygiene, social distancing, and learning sessions are conducted in very small groups and at home. The timing and frequency of any learning opportunities must be community-driven and conducted at the request of families, on the agreement that only a few children are congregated in one place and the rules of social distancing and personal hygiene are strictly adhered to.
Virtual Team Meetings: Members of the Rayuwa team have continued to work remotely, a new experience, with a bit of a learning curve, for some of the staff. Infrastructure also poses a significant challenge to efficiency, as the internet connections are poor for most team members. In the villages, there is no electricity, which can make charging mobile phones and the other devices the team is using to stay connected difficult. The signal for mobile phones in the villages also fluctuates periodically. Despite these challenges, the entire Rayuwa team, both community-based and remote, holds virtual meetings on Mondays and Fridays for work planning, feedback/updates, and technical brainstorming.
While no one could have predicted the way the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted program operations, due to a number of critical design and staffing elements, the Rayuwa program was actually relatively well-positioned to transition to a virtual operating model.
Intention to Opportunity: Leveraging Rayuwa’s Built-In Sustainability Mechanisms
Throughout Rayuwa’s design phase, the team had its eyes on project sustainability. Ensuring that the achievements of the program endures beyond its lifetime is central to Pyxera Global’s definition of success for all of our programs. Rayuwa’s approach was designed to ensure community ownership and their ability to carry on the activities of the project after the Rayuwa team eventually departs. These sustainability mechanisms include:
Rayuwa Project Assistants: In partnership with Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and Federal University, Dutsinma, the Rayuwa team recruited Project Assistants based on merit from the villages in and near the project area. Project Assistants support program activities in both agriculture and education based on their academic background. This strategy has become advantageous to the program in the face of unforeseen incidents such as the COVID-19 pandemic. While the implementation strategy must shift to remote communications with stakeholders by many of the program staff who come from outside the project area, the Project Assistants are able to maintain personal relationships—and trust—with community members due to their personal relationships with the villages
Village Extension Agents (VEAs): The VEAs are a group of recent graduates from post-secondary schools who reside in the eleven project villages and are recruited to volunteer as agricultural extension agents. While developing useful professional skills, their responsibility is to support Rayuwa’s Agriculture Project Assistants to effectively deliver agricultural extension education to farmers.
Community Education Workers (CEWs): Like the VEAs, the CEWs are also recent graduates of post-secondary schools living locally and working alongside the Education Project Assistants to support public school teachers. The CEWs help track and report school attendance and collect other routine data that is used to monitor and evaluate Rayuwa’s education-focused activities. By working with school teachers and receiving coaching from the School Support Officers (government employees responsible for oversight of public schools), the CEWs are developing skills for their future jobs in education.
Thanks to an agile team and sustainability mechanisms put into place during the design phase for the Rayuwa program, progress continues despite this unprecedented challenge. Adaptability and agility is at the heart of Pyxera Global’s approach to Rayuwa, and the pandemic presents an opportunity to test the strength of contingency measures and the team’s resolve.