In the typical way things happen at large global firms with highly decentralized project management, I first learned about the exceptional digital work being done by DAI’s U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Agricultural Value Chain Activity in Uzbekistan project (AVC) through an email referenced in a meeting about something totally different. I took a photo of the email—true story, I even sent the shot to my colleagues I was so excited—followed up with the listed contacts, and two weeks later was having a fascinating conversation with two dynamic Uzbek colleagues, Kamil Yakubov and Sardor Kadirov, who manage AVC’s digital initiatives.

The Numerous Folks Watching Uzbek YouTube Horticultural Videos

After their earlier and successful foray into digital tools via the MEVA app in 2014, the AVC team helped to launch a YouTube channel last year with short training videos to teach farmers best practices around pruning and disease control. They advertise the channel on partners’ Facebook pages and mine the comments for questions that will help them better tailor and target seasonal content. In addition, AVC tracks all viewing data—learning, for example, that viewers don’t watch more than 2 minutes of content. The project YouTube page currently has had 55,000 views since May 2016, with a rapidly growing subscriber base among both Uzbekistan and the neighboring countries—40 percent of viewers come from Russia, and 18 percent from Kazakhstan. The diaspora and export market viewership audience is strong. Given the crop similarities in the regional countries as well as large diaspora populations, the growth in these audiences is not surprising.

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ICT: From Social to the Workplace

AVC works nationwide across Uzbekistan—no easy task in a large country with roughly 30 million people, especially in a project heavily focused on technical assistance training. Since the beginning of the technological era, Uzbekistan has adopted all the new technologies including trending messaging apps, with Telegram leading the pack as the most popular app in Commonwealth of Independent State countries. Uzbeks like Telegram because it’s fast, doesn’t use a ton of data, doesn’t take up a lot of phone memory and works well on low bandwidth data. Plus, it has stickers (you can see our full review of Telegram from App-a-Thon 2016 here). Because the staff and partners of AVC used Telegram so much in their personal lives, it was a natural migration point to pivot to workplace conversations.

Three months ago, AVC, in collaboration with its local program partners, established an informal chat group so it would be easier to consult and train remotely and allow the project to better and more consistently serve rural partners whom it otherwise took several days of travel to reach. Originally launched with 30 people, much to the AVC team’s surprise the chat group quickly became a huge hit: AVC’s partners added partners, friends added friends, and it took off. Beyond just meeting real-time training needs of the partners through chat and media, the group allowed the partners to feel more connected to the program and for the members to build both personal and professional bonds. The chat group also took on a life of its own beyond the original vision of the project, becoming a self-directed marketplace for buyers and sellers after one member posted interest in buying cherries. As the group has evolved into an organic forum for members to do business together, members strike deals in regional areas across the country and form business relationships that will undoubtedly last far beyond the lifespan of the project. The group now has 200 carefully curated members of leading Uzbek horticulturalists and is a busy information channel with 30 to 40 daily messages and a constant flow of questions, photos, videos, and dialogue.

Cross-Channel Data Mining

AVC’s best-in-class digital channel work doesn’t stop at just content—AVC actively seeks to cross-leverage channels to understand their end user needs better. For example, it shares its YouTube videos in the Telegram group, to get reactions and learn real needs from a highly targeted and pioneering audience. The two currently active project channels—YouTube and the Telegram chat group—are related but not fully cross-referencing. AVC doesn’t advertise its Telegram group in the YouTube channel as the small size of the group keeps it useful and focused for members; it also allows AVC to use the group to figure out a content strategy and identify data patterns to determine what time of year certain content is needed.

Building on Initial Success

Cognizant of the demand for a wider Telegram presence, AVC sees its wildly successful chat group as a perfect small-scale pilot to influence its strategy to open up a Telegram channel, a publicly available content stream on the Telegram app. AVC is currently planning to launch this channel next year, after a full year of running the private chat group—enough time to assemble a strong editorial calendar based on the content patterns revealed in the chat group and in the reactions to its YouTube content. We will definitely be checking back in with them as that channel is launched!

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