When the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) Plus project team, led by Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), submitted an Application for environmental release of genetically modified disease-resistant cassava to Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA), it was business as usual. The team had developed a detailed outreach strategy to support the regulatory dossier during the public participation process. Our objectives were three-fold: Manage the Narrative, Secure Public Support and Issue Management

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and suddenly, we were faced with a unique situation – how to conduct a public participation process amidst a looming lockdown?! One thing was certain, for us to meet our objective on securing public support, we needed to engage with various stakeholders. To achieve this, our work plan was adjusted to suit the new-normal. 

NBA published a notice in two leading dailies, in accordance with Kenya’s biosafety law, as well as the Kenya gazette, in May 2020. This initiated the start of a one-month process that paved way for the public to submit comments to the Authority. The VIRCA Plus team, led by ISAAA AfriCenter, kick-started a first of its kind virtual public participation process in the region. As the world celebrates the recent approval with Kenya, we reflected and picked five key lessons similar biotech projects could benefit from:

  1. Proactively manage the process 

Application of modern biotechnology in agriculture is still a contentious issue. The debates have confused and divided public opinion. The situation in Kenya is no different. Given largely non-technical audiences are invited to submit comments on a technical Application during this period, proactive management of the process is imperative. For starters, collectively scan the operating environment and make use of digital monitoring tools. Speed is key, so keep your fingers on the pulse in order to manage upcoming issues in a timely manner. Consider setting up a process team and make use of efficient platforms that support real-time communication amongst team members. In addition, anticipate likely scenarios and outline appropriate responses to those scenarios. If you have a rapid-response plan, this is the time to activate it. If you don’t, think about developing one.

  1. Be Adaptable

The world has changed and we must change with it. Find ways of engaging all stakeholders in this radically altered world. Make use of online meeting and webinar platforms that are popular in your country. In the African context, think of user friendly platforms that are designed to work in low-bandwidth environments. Leave no one behind. Make use of SMS systems that enable you to engage with the farming and rural community. Repackage your frequently asked questions into short messages, translate into the national language where possible, and share via SMS. Intensify use of community and vernacular radio stations and support your experts to appear in popular agricultural radio shows. When COVID-19 gave us lemons, we made lemonade. 

  1. Pick your battles – wisely

There are endless debates about genetically modified crops on social media. Typically, they occur between two ends of the spectrum – proponents and opponents. Consequently, those in between, who happen to be the majority, are often left more confused. Expect these debates to heighten during a public participation period. However, remember that it is not a match on who can shout the loudest. Don’t engage in endless arguments. You will never win. Instead, stick to your social media plan and strategically share credible information that will enable the public to make informed decisions. Continuously monitor conversations to determine the best course of action. When the VIRCA Plus project team noticed heightened disinformation in a Facebook group with over 40,000 Kenyan farmers, the team did not respond to individual comments. Instead, a Facebook live session was set up, and members of that Facebook community invited to engage with experts. As the African proverbs says, “the lion does not turn around when a small dog barks.”

  1. Tap into your past efforts

Communicating with and engaging the public should not be an afterthought. As a project, develop and implement a communications strategy from the onset. Engage relevant stakeholders, as guided by your strategy, throughout the product development lifecycle. These efforts will come in handy during the public participation period. Go for the low hanging fruit by inviting those you had already engaged to submit their comments. Call on your champions and supporters to spread the word. In Kenya, review of public submissions focuses on the quality, as opposed to quantity of the comments. Consequently, the VIRCA Plus project team had a special session dedicated to updating the scientific community. This engagement ensured a good chunk of the submissions were fact-based. Remember, if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. 

  1. Trust is king!

The integrity of a project acts as a main element for building trust. Consequently, managing project reputation is an integral part of fostering public trust and increasing probability of product acceptance. Begin by ensuring that the team speaks with one voice and sends consistent messages to stakeholders throughout the product development lifecycle. Conduct communication trainings for your technical team, including how to handle challenging situations during a media interview. Develop key messages and talking points that will encourage consistent messaging. Document the process from the onset and develop short videos that show regulatory compliance. Ultimately, people want to know that you care, before they care about what you know. Ensure this key principle reflects in your messaging, and strike a balance between what the public wants to know versus what they need to know.

For more information, reach out to Bibiana Iraki on biraki@isaaa.org

Watch this short video by Prof. Douglous Miano, the project’s lead scientist in Kenya, on next steps following the GM cassava approval: