Starting my Journey with RUFORUM

Joan Apio

Above: Ms. Joan Apio, Founder KAVIBE

When the RUFORUM job adverts were placed in 2008, the opportunity to serve an African led organisation motivated me to apply and work at the RUFORUM Secretariat. I was very nervous. This largely was due to my inexperience in the field of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT). I recall vividly when asked by the panel why I should be given an opportunity to work with RUFORUM, I responded “I will do what it takes”. I am a hands-on person and fascinated by technology and the opportunities it brings so I figured, it cannot be that difficult. Surely for a Network of then 29 member universities and then a lean Secretariat, I would somewhat make my contribution.

In October, 2008, I received a call confirming my appointment at the RUFORUM Secretariat. I was excited and promised myself I will do my very best not to let down the institution. At that time, I was still working as an administrator at a small business company in Kampala. Having served for nearly 3 years, I felt it right to discuss this new opportunity with my then boss. He looked at my contract and offered me some guidance. It is then that I leant the importance of creating strong professional linkages and “not burning bridges” as one progresses in life.

I started my journey at the RUFORUM Secretariat as the ICT program Officer. An opportunity I would later be grateful for in the years to come. As I was limited in IT skills, my determination and willingness to learn coupled with mentorship from Ms. Nodumo Dhlamini, former ICT Manager at RUFORUM Secretariat revealed that it is possible to learn anything when one is determined. I did a lot of self-reading and learning to ensure I delivered on the Job. I believe when Prof. Adipala Ekwamu, Executive Secretary gave me this opportunity, he saw something greater in me that I had not seen at the time – potential growth!


Above: With participants from the University of Gezira, Ministry of Agriculture, and Agricultural Research Corporation (ARC) at the elearning in University of Gezira in 2015

Working in the ICT department, we embarked on improving systems at the Secretariat to better serve the Network. We conducted trainings in partnership with Information Training and Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA) on Information Literacy in RUFORUM member Universities. Communication platforms such as dynamic website, social media, monthly newsletters and other related media become important moving forward. There was demand for implementation of IT related systems for effective operations at the Secretariat hence the development of the RUFORUM Information Management Systems (RIMS).

After four years working as an IT officer, I was promoted to be the Communications Officer in 2012. Communications became central to showcasing impact and demonstrating RUFORUM’s role and relevancy in Higher Education in Africa. “If you do your very best where you are placed, life will reward you.” That I believe is what happened to me.

Revitalizing the Communication Products


Above: Awarding of certificates to the Social Media Reports in Maputo, Mozambique in 2014

At the time, we had started engaging with Social media for increasing university visibility. Working with CTA, we ran some Web 2.0 trainings in the various RUFORUM universities. My background as an ICT Officer would play a vital role in shaping my communications career. It is important to understand the technologies that facilitate content creation and dissemination.

To prepare myself for this task, I enrolled in a UNITAR course “Social Media for development” with support from CTA. It was both an intense and life changing course. It allowed me to think creatively and strategically on the use of Social Media for influencing organizational change and tackling development issues. This was a significant piece in my career path. We intensified the use of social media in member universities through training, awareness meetings and networking online communities. This was something new and like all new things, there was a little resistance. It is important not to lose momentum but rather train people so they become your ambassadors. That is what we did, we began a social media “Movement” working with RUFORUM funded students to be change agents and demonstrate the relevancy of new tools such as social media to increasing research dissemination.

Cape town

Above: Conducting a Social Media training for RUFORUM graduates in Cape Town, South Africa in 2016

We embarked on revamping the communication products, simplifying the messages, showcasing impact, revamping the website, intensifying our engagement with social media, and establishing mailing systems to allow our audiences connect. Like it is said, “RUFORUM is a family.” We needed that connectedness solidified. So developing products that were relatable, relevant and demonstrated impact became our focus.

The Turnaround – Getting Recognized


Above: Holding the award from NARO received in 2014

In 2014 RUFORUM celebrated 10 years as an African-owned network. It also grew in membership. This became a moment for us to try new ways of communicating. We learnt that less is more. So developing simplified key messages was our focus. We introduced infographics, used compelling graphics, increased the number of stories from the field and enhanced our presentations. We promoted the culture of peer review as we believed in the spirit of oneness. Exhibitions though costly became key component in our marketing strategy. Allowing people to come through our stands mounted at various higher education and agricultural conferences proved prolific and valuable. It also gave us a personal touch! During this period, RUFORUM received an award for best exhibitor, from the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) conference.


Above: Attending to the exhibition stall during the NARO conference in Uganda in 2014

During this period, RUFORUM provided an opportunity for me to engage with a seasoned Communication Consultant to develop the RUFORUM Communication Strategy. Through this process, I learnt a lot from developing to implementing an institutional strategy. We also developed a mobile conference app and online registration system for the Biennial 2014. A first experience for the Network. These were new concepts. We had begun “pushing the boundaries”, exploring new possibilities of service delivery. Yes, people were now paying attention to our products and this was an exciting moment. Maybe a reward for the tireless efforts.

Making Agriculture Cool and Attractive
Agriculture still needs a lot of marketing for it to be relatable to an ordinary person. What does its success mean to a regular person? Over the years, we have invested in various communication products such as impact stories. However working on documentaries (video clips) with Go Trolley Films, this has greatly changed peoples mindset on their role in Agriculture and higher education. Because of the visual effect it has on the viewers, it has become our “Cool” way of delivering ambiguous messages.

There is an increasing demand to turn research into popular science. This means the young researchers need short soft skills trainings to use the available tools such as smart phones and social media to develop cool relatable content as a way of publishing and getting their research noticed. Most of the social media platforms are linked to search engines and this allows content to be more findable or accessible. This in turn increases the rankings of both persons and institutions.

Since 2014, we have been able to train over 275 young scientists in the use of social media for collaboration, networking and communication. Some of our alumni have gone ahead to be part of global online discussions and traveled too. This has boosted their confidence in presentation and use of these tools. As a trainer, its makes me extremely proud to have been part of their individual journeys.

I always joked with my colleagues that there is no intense working environment like at the RUFORUM Secretariat. It is a great opportunity to grow and nurture talent if one is an open minded and ambitious young professional. Under my leadership, we have made tremendous achievements in Communication, Publicity and Marketing. We have a vibrant mailing list of 12,110 subscribers and 8,113 subscribers to our news blog and a vibrant social media network. The RUFORUM brand continues to be acknowledged and strengthen.

Starting an Entrepreneurial Journey
During the 5th RUFORUM Biennial 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa I was privileged to engage with the selected top young entrepreneurs. During their pitch presentations, I recognized that if emerging entrepreneurs were given short skills trainings in communications and branding, Africa would produce more bankable ideas for funding. This crisscrossed with my passion to work with young people as they are dynamic, creative, open-minded, and risk-takers.


Above: On site mentoring and training of young people under KAVIBE in 2017

This experience inspired me to set up KAVIBE (, a digital marketing company that focuses on training and mentoring young people to be better communicators. We work with a number of young people to nurture more young talent, support startups, entrepreneurs and organizations in their communication needs.

I make this bold decision from a place of inspiration. Having worked with strong and professional female role models in the Network, watching and learning from them, I feel inspired to start small and build a communications empire. Yes, it’s a big dream and like all big dreams, they cannot be achieved single-handedly. One needs strong partnerships and tenacity. I believe I will make my mentors proud one day.


Above: Working with Social Media reporters in Namibia in 2015

I leave RUFORUM a very optimistic person, eager to take on this new challenge believing that the foundation I have received from such an incredible Network has prepared me for this journey. The continent needs more radical and tireless young people fighting for it, believing in it and forging partnerships that work for its greater good. It is time for young people to position themselves.

When people ask me what I have learnt from this whole experience, I can refer back to three traits: tenacity, humility, and love. Life will bring on challenges, it is through these challenges that you will build a solid character and grow. You will meet influential persons and do great things, some of which will astonish you, remember to stay humble and grounded. Lastly, do what you love; it is the one thing that will motivate you during the difficult times.

I thank RUFORUM for the opportunity to serve in diverse fields (ICTs, Communications, Marketing and Publicity). This has made me a more holistic person. I am proud of the growth that RUFORUM has amassed and wish the team the very best as I move on to a new challenge – consulting as a Communications Specialist with KAVIBE (

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