For the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), project site visits are essential for country Missions around the world. Site visits are required as part of each Mission’s performance management and provide opportunities for staff to better understand each activity’s unique context and how local communities experience USAID support. This spring, the COVID-19 pandemic brought travel to a halt around the world. USAID project teams hustled to determine what essential activities could be continued safely, and what would have to be put on hold.
It quickly became clear that site visits could no longer take place. So how could projects—especially those in remote areas without reliable internet connectivity—replicate the important experience of visiting a project in the field?
Site visits to projects—such as this one to a project in Haiti in 2015—are important components of USAID Mission performance management and knowledge exchange. Photo: USAID AVANSE.
One of our projects, the Scaling Up Nutrition Technical Assistance (SUN TA) activity in Zambia, decided to take on the challenge by hosting USAID’s first virtual site visit in the country. Using a video conferencing platform and having project staff join live from the field, the SUN TA team took 40 participants in Zambia on a tour of activities at four different locations. The virtual visits were well-received by USAID and can serve as a model for other development projects that are adapting to a post-COVID-19 world.
The SUN TA team knew COVID-19 would require them to pivot to a virtual format. But given the breadth of the project’s work, staff wanted to offer something beyond a typical video presentation in a conference room.
“We were motivated by the opportunity to demonstrate what SUN TA and its partners are doing despite the challenges brought about by COVID-19,” said Philippe LeMay, SUN TA Chief of Party. “That is why when the request was made by USAID to organize a virtual site visit, our teams on the ground worked hard to make it a success. It was a first for USAID Zambia and we are proud that it has now become a new standard practice for USAID.”
SUN TA selected Google Meet as the meeting platform. Teams in different sites in Zambia logged on to laptops and phones to connect to the meeting. Using these devices, each site showcased its activities by moving cameras on mobile phones and computers. A lead facilitator at each site explained what viewers were seeing and engaged with the “visitors” in real time. The innovation was highly successful—but pulling it off meant days of preparation, anticipating all possible mishaps. In the Zambian context, the main challenges were most likely to be technological, especially connectivity and familiarity with the virtual meeting application.
“We did a test run two days before to assess the challenges and to familiarize the team with the application,” said Carrim Banda, SUN TA’s Data and IT Systems Manager. “We planned ahead by equipping our colleagues on site to use different mobile phone networks for their data in case one failed.”
Virtual visit participants included USAID officials, SUN TA senior leadership, field staff, government officials, and beneficiaries dispersed across Lusaka and three different sites in Kasama District of Zambia’s Northern Province.
Scenes from SUN TA’s community garden activity, which provides training in growing nutritious produce.
SUN TA showcased its work in health and nutrition, agriculture and livelihoods, and water, sanitation and hygiene. The event simulated a site tour, where observers got to see gardens providing households with a variety of nutritious vegetables, community-based volunteers, and groups of mothers learning about better childcare practices, new infrastructure contributing to improved sanitation and hygiene, and community development staff facilitating training of savings and loans groups.
“We are overwhelmed by what we have seen. You have really done a great job, we are short of words and we are really grateful,” said Helen Chirwa, the project’s Contractor Office Representative (COR) at the USAID Mission in Lusaka.
Virtual visit attendees tuned in from multiple locations in Zambia. The visit was an innovative approach to the unforeseen circumstances brought on by the global pandemic and stands as an example of how adversity results in ingenuity. Given the virtual visit’s success, it is definitely something SUN TA will use again and adapt for different settings in future.
Reginald Ntomba is SUN TA’s Communications and Learning Manager.