WoodCluster and PhytoWood Projects under COVID-19: Challenged to be flexible and focused

Interacting with local stakeholders in WoodCluster Field School in Ethiopia 2019 – which cannot take place in the pandemic (©WoodCluster)

Uncertainty is what most people probably feel currently in their private and professional life worldwide. It also characterizes our current work in the WoodCluster and PhytoWood-Synergies projects. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the project flow from one day to the other. After being still confident to postpone activities for a few weeks or a few months earlier this year, it became clear that most activities on the ground in 2020 had to be cancelled. These included research fieldwork from PhD candidates and MSc students, workshops with local stakeholders as well as educational excursions with students.

Bringing people together from different countries and gathering local stakeholders for group discussion are some of our core activities. These cannot be conducted in the near future as borders are partially closed, international flights reduced, and infection risk during travels prevailing. Official restrictions and reservations of the local people in the partner countries need to be respected as well.

WoodCluster project online meeting among partners in Tanzania and Germany to organize a workshop in Tanzania (©IIFP)

Nobody can predict how the global situation due to the pandemic will be in 2021. However, parallel and particularly political developments in the countries also still need our attention, like uprisings due to ethnical conflicts as happening last and this year in Ethiopia or upcoming elections like in Uganda in the beginning of 2021. Uncertainty was always present but now became a very prominent and timeless element of our work.

Online meetings are getting more important for the communication and project planning. These past few months, we have been having online meetings with our WoodCluster project partners in Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Currently we are organizing a national-level workshop in Tanzania that will take place in a hybrid way end of November. Similarly, in PhytoWood project, we have been regularly keeping in touch with project partners in Germany and Ethiopia through virtual meetings.

In addition to online meetings, other project-related activities like attending conferences had to be shifted online. Alexander Koch, who conducted his master’s thesis under the WoodCluster project in Ethiopia, presented his research in the virtual Tropentag 2020 conference as well as IConARD (International Conference on Agribusiness and Rural Development) 2020.

Nonetheless, some of our students at the TU Dresden, who contribute to their theses to the WoodCluster project, managed to conduct field work amid COVID-19. For instance, our student from Uganda, Sherry Kyamagero, managed to collect empirical data despite the challenging conditions. However, not all students can be as fortunate. Pragyan Raj Pokhrel, one of our master students from Nepal, who contributes his research to the PhytoWood project, had to shift his study to a desk review about farm diversification through medicinal plants. Of course, it is a pity to lose an opportunity to conduct field work as a young researcher.

In comparison to Germany that currently undergoes the second wave of COVID-19 and the so-called “Lockdown Light”, in Uganda and Tanzania, the local students at our partner universities have slowly returned to their research work and fieldwork after corona restrictions were lifted.

This uncertainty teaches us to always look ahead and not lose sight of our objectives, but be flexible with the means to reach the ends. We continuously discuss options and plan accordingly to be flexible in finalizing the WoodCluster and PhytoWood projects with the highest possible benefit, and to maintain the African-German network.

By Maxi Domke and Kendisha Hintz

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