Entebbe is one city I have always looked forward to visiting even as a child, especially after watching the popular movie “90 minutes at Entebbe”. Therefore, when I got an invitation to participate in the 2017 Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communication (ABBC) symposium, I was elated.
I arrived Entebbe after leaving active journalism to work for Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) as a Communication Consultant, with the responsibility of providing the Nigerian public accurate information on issues of biosafety and modern biotechnology, especially GMOs. As a reporter who covered this field over the years, I hit the ground running but was amazed at the pace scientists work. They take their time to react to any negative publicity about their work.
In my desperation to feature experts in the media and provide understanding on biosafety issues or dispel misinformation, I am always confronted with these sentiments: I cannot react to a lie! The reporter who said that is not a scientist so why should I bother. If I appear on TV talking about this, people may think I am looking for an appointment or just seeking recognition.
This was my predicament until I arrived Entebbe for ABBC 2017, which focused on strengthening communication for improved biosafety management, empowering participants to build networks, acquire knowledge and skills on developing simple messages, as well as delivery of those messages through storytelling.
During the Symposium, I heard different experiences from all over the world, describing how communicators tackle and navigate the challenges of communicating biosafety. From the presentations, I appreciated why communicators like me shouldn’t miss such opportunities, as well as why we need to stay on top of issues, if the public is to get factual information on agri-biotech and biosafety.
The saying ‘a lie can travel half around the world when the truth is still putting on its shoes’ stuck with me from the Symposium. That means as a communicator, you have to be proactive. I made up my mind that on return to Nigeria, I will ensure that we are the ones to lead the discourse rather than always reacting to the lies; we shall be dictating and shaping the narrative.
Another lesson from Entebbe that helped me in my work is to always draw a line between biotechnology and biosafety. Knowing this important distinction has helped me in presentations and in planning speaking appearances for my principals, as well as my outreach programmes. For us in Nigeria, keeping to this distinction is crucial, as activists are quick to say: ‘He is promoting.’
Using social media in putting out accurate and factual information was another useful lesson from Uganda. On return, I have encouraged all scientists working with me to take advantage of social media platforms to correct the misconceptions and misinformation about modern biotechnology, especially GMOs. This has really helped our campaign as some experts now initiate conversations on GMOs from their social media accounts without being prompted.
The opportunity for interactions and networking that the symposium provided is one I won’t forget. I was able to meet those who have been in the business of communicating biotechnology and biosafety for years. With them, I compared notes, shared ideas and got some very useful tips on the way forward for my work. The relationships initiated during ABBC2017 continue helping me to date. When confronted with very difficult situations, I revert to one of the experienced colleagues I met at the symposium and seek their opinion.
I am thrilled that Nigeria is hosting the next edition of ABBC come August for various reasons. It is an opportunity for colleagues and friends from outside West Africa to experience our hospitality and cuisine. There exists a lot of fake news about Nigeria and Nigerians. Hosting this conference is an opportunity for those who have read about Nigeria to experience why we are one of the happiest people in the face of the earth.
Ibadan, the proposed city for the conference, is the capital of Oyo State, in south-western Nigeria. With a population of over 3 million, it is the third most populous city after Lagos and Kano. It is also the country’s largest city by geographical area.
Aside from learning about new communication principles and tips, and witnessing Nigeria’s agricultural biotechnology progress firsthand, be prepared to taste the naija pepper soup!
Alex Abutu is a seasoned African journalist currently offering communications support to Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org