By Toss Gascoigne

The Volkswagen Foundation aims to strengthen and extend research in sub-Saharan Africa.

And that’s why we were called in: to train researchers from the humanities and social sciences to communicate their work.

The people they wanted to communicate with were farmers, policymakers, politicians, funding bodies and colleagues, and the challenge is always the same: how do you take ideas, which are sometimes complex, and put them ‘in a nutshell’?

Nutshells – simple bold descriptive statements – are important for communicating with these audiences.

Most people don’t want the background. They don’t have the time or patience for the detail – they just want to know how this work is going to affect their lives and the lives of people around them.


African researchers give feedback on our communication workshop (4’33”) 


In Uganda, we ran 4 workshops for 20 people.

We covered talking science with the media and presenting science.

The venue was a slightly decaying luxury hotel in Mbarara, about 5 hours drive from Entebbe (with a coffee break as we crossed the Equator).

The issues they deal with are familiar:

  • land rights in Zimbabwe
  • deserter soldiers roaming South Africa
  • micro-credit and micro-insurance
  • planning for better cities
  • providing women with incomes.

Participants came from a dozen sub-Saharan African countries, many with PhDs from German universities.

Our workshops focused on communication:

  • How can you use the media?
  • How can you target the right audiences?
  • What should you say?

The workshops were all highly practical, with participants doing interviews with real journalists and giving talks before their peers. They all went home with a USB stick loaded with recordings of their performances – the video camera is an essential part of our workshop.

The impressive Volkswagen Foundation offers post-doc researchers 3-year funding and links with German institutions, and a wonderful opportunity to network.