From Classroom to Conference: A Student's Perspective on ICTforAg 2020
I awoke at 4 a.m. on November 18 last year, determined and excited to be a part of as many hours of my first virtual conference as I could handle.
Beginning my career in development amid a global pandemic has provided challenges and a surprising amount of opportunities. As a project management intern at DAI for the Digital Frontiers project, my understanding of international development has been challenged and expanded.
In my academic experience, the digital development community’s prevalence is underrepresented, despite its many key advancements and contributions. Frankly, prior to this role, I had never heard of the digital agriculture sector or even imagined its importance. In the last six months, however, I have worked on projects related to the gender digital divide, e-Government and digital agriculture. These topics have pushed the boundaries of my undergraduate education and focused on the innovative aspect of development.
The 2020 ICTforAg Conference, an annual conference hosted by the USAID’s Bureau of Resilience and Food Security and implemented by Digital Frontiers and our partner DevGlobal Partners, adapted to the global climate and circumstances to convert what is typically an in-person conference to a 16-hour international virtual convening. These unprecedented circumstances gave way to a broad-reaching, inclusive and unique event that centered around various voices across the digital agriculture and development sector.
Acting as both a participant and a member of the implementing team, I gained a unique perspective on a virtual conference’s challenges and opportunities. As I had never attended a conference before, virtual or in-person, my expectations were "virtually" non-existent. In the months prior and then again during the event, I found myself exhilarated by the chance to connect with and learn from individuals around the world about innovations that my academics had not covered.
My classes had never given me an opportunity to hear from farmers globally on what challenges they face and how technology can better meet their needs, like what we experienced in the "Ask Me Anything: Farmers" session. I had never heard discussions on the role of AI or data-sharing and the future impact it could make in this sector. I certainly never imagined a recording of me describing my favorite ways to make and eat rice dishes would be shown to thousands of people around the world in one of the Social Sessions. However, each step of the conference exposed a new area and perspective to me, highlighting systems-oriented and digital solutions to global agricultural issues.
As a young professional, the virtual event meant that I could network with and ask development experts and practitioners questions – an opportunity that would otherwise be unavailable to me. My age, experience or even appearance didn’t act as a barrier to any learning or interacting experiences throughout the conference. I felt more comfortable, confident, and willing to interact, even though this setting felt foreign to me. And this feeling was not unique to just me, as the virtual setting allowed more youth attendance than in years past.
Youth participation is just one of the ways the event was able to be inclusive and break barriers. Of the 1,502 total participants, 43 percent were youth (29 and under). Typically, young people, students or otherwise, would not have been able to participate in an in-person global conference due to travel, logistical or time restrictions. By removing these barriers, a more diverse and younger population became part of the digital agriculture conversation. ICTforAg 2020 further promoted this participation through the Youth Social Media Ambassadors (YSMA) program, which was inspired by youth initiatives formed from other conferences. The YSMA program, led byDevGlobal Partners, provided the opportunity for 40 young participants worldwide to implement digital marketing campaigns before and during the event, and some individuals even spoke in sessions.
Sixteen hours and a few months later, I am grateful and excited for the ways innovation and technology are meeting the needs of communities globally. As a student and "youth," ICTforAg 2020 served as an exciting and educational introduction to the digital agriculture development community. By continuing to utilize non-traditional methods of outreach and learning, a younger, more diverse, and inclusive sector will grow to create digital solutions to the ever-evolving disruptions we face.