2 - 4 November 2020 | Hosted by the University of the Free State

CoVID-19 proves to have been a game changer in 2020 public events

When CoVID-19 froze contact meetings and sent organisations scrambling to find alternative modes of engagement, Universities South Africa and its programmes were not spared. However, what may have presented itself as a catastrophe went on to stimulate creativity and open exploration of new avenues.

Re-configuring EDHE events for 2020

The Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, which thrives on stakeholder engagement and hosts no fewer than five annual events with South Africa's 26 public universities, was forced to go back to the drawing board to enable its engagement events to continue, notwithstanding the pandemic. The annual EDHE Lekgotla, which aims to share best practices, latest trends and developments in entrepreneurship and foster collaboration among institutions, was at the top of that list, followed by the annual Student Entrepreneurship Week and the annual EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity. Although there were other significant events on the cards, identifying ways to execute these events in 2020 became a top preoccupation of the EDHE team.

Fast-forward to 9 November. Both the EDHE Lekgotla 2020 and the national Student Entrepreneurship Week, #SEW2020 are now done and dusted. Thanks to the six-member team all putting their hands on deck, the intricate five-day and three-day programmes were delivered seamlessly – all virtually, and were both lauded a tremendous success.

Linda Dhladhla
Ntsiki Mkhize
Sakhumzi Dukwe

Ultimately, the thinking and oratory skills of Mr Linda Dhladhla (far left) Ms Ntsiki Mkhize (middle), wove the Lekgotla tapestry together and kept it holding for the five-day duration. Subsequently, Ms Mkhize and Mr Sakhumzi Dukwe (far right) would achieve the same with the #SEW2020. Dhadhla is a Student Engagement and Communication Officer for the EDHE Programme, while Mkhize, an independent, is a Founder and Chief Social Entrepreneur at MentHer, a global mentorship network supporting female social entrepreneurs. Dukwe, who co-presented the #SEW2020 with Mkhize, is a Master of Commerce in Entrepreneurship student at Nelson Mandela University, and the founder of Regal Apparel, a clothing shop based in Port Elizabeth.

Keeping the EDHE Lekgotla together in September

Linda Dhladhla says what preoccupied him the most, ahead of the Lekgotla 2020, was keeping the audience focused, and participating, for the duration of the hours they would spend staring at their screens, each conference day. Just how could one keep them entertained and interested from Day One to the last, without losing them along the way?

"For me, it took a major mental shift to transition from organiser to continuity presenter and anchor," he says. "Suddenly I found myself having to speak, live on television, while paying attention to what else was happening around me, and responding appropriately. This meant staying alert to occasional messages transmitted to me via earphones from the technical team. Some of these were warning us of changes to the programme, for example, when a scheduled speaker was no more available."

Initially, the team encountered numerous technical glitches. "First, there was a time when we were broadcasting but some people were not receiving the signal. The production team signalled me via earphone: 'advise them to tune in via YouTube,' they would instruct.

"There were also instances when scheduled speakers experienced connectivity challenges. I was nervous. Anchoring the show along while listening out to these messages and paying attention to conveying the technicians' message accurately -- essentially juggling those multiple roles while live, on air, turned me into a nervous wreck."

In some instances, speakers successfully came through and connected effectively at the beginning but then got dropped partway through. "This is where Dr Norah Clarke, our Director, stepped in to save the day. At times she shared information on some of our EDHE projects and at others, the technicians played pre-recorded videos. Those became true life-savers. Some video clips ran for five minutes and others would go for up to 15 minutes," Dhladhla recalls.

Through all these hair-raising episodes, team work became the most important ingredient to managing the event. "All six of our team members were alive and alert to the occasion. When one was focussing on one aspect, another was taking care of something else. While Dr Clarke kept her eyes on speaker readiness, Linda Lindani was co-ordinating the production. Lerato Makgonyane kept the team fed. Zamaswazi Shabangu made sure that the Whova app was updated all the time while Zana Boshoff managed us all."

Dhladhla says keeping energy levels up, particularly after lunch, and maintaining engagement with their viewers after every presentation, was a challenge on its own. When fatigue kicked in, concentration levels also dropped, somewhat. "At the end of Day One, I was thankful I was not trending on social media for wrong reasons. I sighed, seeing that Day One was done. Nothing was broken, and, if anything, people were telling us on Whats App, that 'you guys are doing a great job.' This was reinforced during our team debrief during the evening of Day One. Comments to the effect that we had pulled off Day One were enough to pick me up."

He admits that the moment he lay down, that evening, he passed out.

Which moments excited Dhladhla?

Linda Dhladhla and Ntsiki Mkhize

With no previous exposure to live television broadcasting, Dhladhla admits that all of this was daunting, especially on the first day of the conference. Although he has worked in radio, the two mediums are vastly different. "It is one thing to speak behind the microphone on radio, but quite another to link my comments to live visuals on television." Be that as it may, Dhladhla said he found it all thrilling. He says he was fascinated by how everything came together and worked out so well. His calm nature and the constant encouragement from his teammates allowed him to manoeuvre seamlessly in days to follow. He also acknowledges his partner on camera, Ntsiki, herself a seasoned presenter who did a splendid job of commenting between presentations and facilitating smooth transition from one session to another.

"Despite that this was a first, for us, the EDHE team, it was a great experience by all accounts." Although he was no more doing continuity presenting at last week's Student Entrepreneurship Week, Dhladhla said he would have done it all over again, had he had to do so. This time around he was project-managing the event and left Ntsiki Mkhize and Sakhumzi Dukwe to anchor the show.

What went into behind-the-scenes planning

Initially, EDHE Lekgotla 2020 was scheduled to take place in July. However, the national lockdown, with its restrictions, made it impossible to stick to the schedule.

The team convened and brainstormed ideas on the theme, structuring the virtual event, identifying speakers and figuring out how to fill the hours that would add up to a five-day virtual affair. Prior to the onset of corona in South Africa, Dr Norah Clarke, the EDHE Director, had planned to travel to numerous institutions in Africa and Europe to identify best practices in entrepreneurship while also subliminally identifying prospective speakers for the Lekgotla. When countries shut their borders and South Africa imposed a hard lockdown, the planned trip was converted to a virtual tour. Other EDHE partners also participated. That is how the team identified speakers for the Lekgotla.

Previous use of the Whova app (an online events platform) to register, feed conference updates and facilitate networking towards the EDHE Lekgotla 2019 in Durban, also helped things along. The app continued to serve as a networking space for the Lekgotla 2020 –thus making up for the absence of physical contact.

Bringing EDHE Lekgotla 2020 to life

Ms Zana Boshoff

Ms Zana Boshoff (left), the EDHE Project Manager, breaks down how Lekgotla 2020 was executed. Once the team had agreed on all the elements, they invited proposals from media production houses. It was during this process that the team selected MSM Productions, a company that specialises in events live-streaming, to broadcast the conference. The crew comprised a director, two camera operators, a sound engineer, video mixer, video editor and a production assistant. Ms Linda Lindani, an EDHE Project Administrator skilled in television production, became an appendage to the MSM team.

Project execution took constructing a makeshift studio in one of USAf's office blocks. The Aganang Boardroom became the choice venue because of its medium size. The hallway adjacent to this boardroom was perfect space to attach a control room. Other favourable factors were natural light shining into the boardroom; the ease with which furniture could be shifted around and the see-through glass doors which would allow the technical team full view into the studio, thus allowing verbal communication back and forth. Having the USAf IT support on hand became a bonus.

MSM then erected the required studio with cameras and television screens, in the boardroom. This is the space from which our two presenters kept the live show going for five days, with the support of two videographers. The adjacent hallway (right) became the control room and the working space of the technicians.

Ms Linda Lindani (front right), an EDHE Project Administrator skilled in television production, became an appendage to the MSM team
Ms Linda Lindani
Ms Linda Lindani (front right), an EDHE Project Administrator skilled in television production, became an appendage to the MSM team

Presenting the conference

In deciding on the presenter/host team, Linda Dhadhla became the natural choice, first, as a familiar face to the higher education audience and secondly, as someone with not only broadcasting experience but also well-versed in entrepreneurship. Ntsiki Mkhize, an established social entrepreneur with a wealth of television experience, was found to be a suitable match. Her background in television includes hosting Sisterhood on CRAZE (e-TV), news anchor at ANN7 and most recently hosting Career Connect on Business Day TV. She also used to host an online show called Basic on My Big Startup.

Both Mkhize and Dhladhla believe pulling off the virtual EDHE Lekgotla was a great achievement. Secondly, having such high calibre speakers share their expertise, affirmed EDHE as a global player. It also proved that the EDHE programme has a lot to offer to the higher education sector.

Much bigger reach at a fraction of historical cost

Boshoff confirms that hosting the virtual event helped the EDHE Programme save massively on venue, travel, logistics and catering costs. It also expanded the conference reach to an audience of over 1200 in comparison to the 600 at the last contact event in 2019. "An investment in a well thought-through virtual event is definitely a worthy option. Another A-team, which includes the EDHE Community of Practice Conveners from our 26 universities, played a major advisory and organising role from their own institutions. Best-equipped with compelling speakers; competent presenters; a proficient technical production team and a feasible studio-set-up with good internet connectivity, we could not go wrong," she adds.

The power team
The technical team
The six-member EDHE team (left), their technical production partners from MSM (right), as well as the two presenters, are the power behind the successful execution of EDHE Lekgotla 2020 and #SEW2020.

Ultimately, Boshoff believes that the virtual EDHE Lekgotla cost them a third of what they spent on the Durban event of 2019, and a fraction of costs related to the 2018 edition in Cape Town, that gathered up to 200 delegates. #SEW2020 is a different ball game, though. This was the first time the event was being hosted as one combined affair for all institutions. There is therefore no basis for comparison, from a cost perspective.

As at 9 November, planning is coming together for the Intervarsity Competition finals scheduled for 26 & 27th of November. The competition will take place on the 26th and the announcement of the winner on the 27th together with the EDHE Awards.

Although the plan is for this to be a contact event, with limited physical attendance, "all our events for the time being will include live streaming to reach a broader audience and make them part of the experience," Boshoff clarifies. "We will be hosting hybrid events, going forward."

For the EDHE team, both the EDHE Lekgotla and the Student Entrepreneurship Week have proven that in this digitised era, large public gatherings with zero physical contact, are achievable. However, given that humans interact better in person than via computer screens, a blended type of approach to events will be preferred where feasible, in the CoVID-19 environment.

Below is a YouTube link where the EDHE Lekgotla 2020 and #SEW2020 visuals may be accessed.

Written by Nqobile Tembe, a writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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