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Improvisation, a little creativity and a whole lot of hard work keeps EU project on track

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Team Leader Paolo Scalia receiving a COVID-19 test from health authorities in Ghana prior to the workshop.

Positive COVID test results threatened to derail an important monitoring and evaluation training event in Ghana, but the team refused to give up, delivering results that wowed everyone involved.

March 29, 2021

One year into a 1.5-year project to strengthen the capacity of monitoring and annual performance reporting in Ghana’s agriculture sector, a critical workshop had gathered the key players for a 9-day training to take their skills to the next level.

In light of the COVID pandemic, several precautions had been taken to ensure an in-person event could take place with minimal risk to participants’ health. A key step in the process was COVID tests for all participants. But when four results came back positive and everyone had to go into isolation, the workshop seemed destined for failure. That is until the two-man NIRAS team whipped up a solution that delivered results far beyond expectations.

I lost a bit of sleep over the positive test results. Sitting here at my quiet desk in Copenhagen, I am in awe of what the team has achieved in the face of so many challenges. From start to finish over what has been a crazy period, it was a full delivery of the training programme without exception. It’s been a privilege to work with this team.”

Project Manager Maria Mortensen

A COVID-spanning effort from day one

Launched in February 2020 in Wa, northwest Ghana, the EU-funded assignment to improve the monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) system in Ghana’s agriculture sector quickly faced obstacles thrown down by the COVID-19 pandemic. With borders shut, the project office closed and international staff were sent home.

But lockdowns and travel restrictions have been no match for the MEL experts selected to head up the project, which focused on strengthening data collection, analysis and reporting skills of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture regional and district officers of the Upper West Region. A long-time NIRAS associate, Team Leader Paolo Scalia worked closely with Senior Monitoring Expert, Thomas Ayamga who led operations from his home base in Tamale thanks to the flexibility of the client – the EU Delegation in Ghana  – who gave the pair room to change tactics in delivering the expected outcomes.

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With precautions in place, the workshop went ahead as planned ... until the positive test results arrived!

“It could have been that we threw our hands up in the air with despair until COVID was over. But the EU wanted to do everything they could to make the programme a success,” Thomas explains. “We consulted with a diverse group of multi-stakeholders to ensure each activity could be carried out without physical contact. We had full knowledge of the beneficiary target group and their needs and limitations, thanks to a survey we implemented early on to assess capacity. And most importantly, we had backup plans and contingencies in place for every eventuality. Even though it might not seem it, the effort to do this project mostly online is three times higher than face-to-face.”

With COVID fears somewhat alleviated in Ghana due to the low number of cases, in October 2020 a workshop was held in Wa, gathering regional and district MEL and reporting officers from the region. Masks were compulsory, social distancing was observed and food was offered on site so participants would not have to leave the hotel. Packing in an enormous amount of training, the 7-day event went off without a hitch, and a second round was planned for February of this year.

Despite the best precautions …

“There were three COVID tests on the way in, one at 3 am in the airport, I was extra cautious,” Paolo explains. “We reduced the number of participants – focusing on the key players who could train others – found a better hotel that could host everyone in a larger space, required masks to be wore at all times and offered testing for the 19 participants.”

The testing was not compulsory but following Thomas and Paolo’s example, everyone complied. The workshop started as planned and all was on track until the 7 am call that announced the bad news.

“In that moment, we didn’t know what to do. We called Maria, the EU Delegation, the Ministry … little by little, we realised we could go ahead because everyone was in the hotel and had to stay there due to the isolation requirements, we now all faced,” Paolo says. “Luckily no one had any symptoms so rather than wasting everyone’s time and letting them stay alone in their rooms with nothing to do, we decided to try to make it work. We arranged USB keys, hotspots and data packages for every participant to connect.”

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Makeshift set up in Paolo's room for the online workshop to continue.

With his flip chart behind him and his computer sitting atop his suitcase, Paolo conducted the session online with participants connecting just doors away. Every few hours Thomas and Paolo facilitated break-out sessions and group exercises, which worked remarkably well.

A winning team

“The buy-in of the participants was very important but the critical success factor was Thomas who did incredible work,” Paolo explains. “He called participants one-by-one to address concerns and ensure everyone had what they needed. He dealt with the lab, the regional COVID team, and the Ministry and worked non-stop over the 9-day period to make the workshop a success. We have been receiving emails from the participants to thank us not only for the training but for everything that was done to make this experience as positive as possible.”

Not wanting to take all the credit, Thomas adds, “The level and depth of knowledge and explanation that Paolo offers on MEL is unmatched. But none of this would have been possible without the support of Maria. She was always available. Sometimes you have to make a decision ‘on the tip of a hair’ and there is no time to let a day pass to get approval. The ease and speed with which decisions were made and numerous calls made to the client on our behalf, ensured our success. The good hotel and supporting infrastructure were also critical success factors.”

With only a few months to go, Thomas will wrap up the project with coaching on the Ministry’s 2020 Annual Report and training of trainers on MEL reporting topics. Activities will be scaled down by focusing on eight key individuals who will roll their learnings out to colleagues when the project comes to a conclusion in July.

Maria looks forward to working again with this winning team, but hopefully next time under easier conditions.

Maria Mortensen

Maria Mortensen

Project Manager | EU FWC Coordinator

København, Denmark

+45 2171 2303

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