Messaging Apps: Tackling training in the pandemic

Posted by Derek Ivens

Covid-19 may have forced our workshops online but by innovation and experimentation our trainers have continued to teach and mentor often on less conventional platforms.

Coronavirus cut short Derek Ivens' training for the Thomson Foundation in Sudan but then he turned to his smartphone and messaging app WhatsApp.

One day earlier this year, I was in a room in Sudan working with some of the country’s brightest young journalists. Twenty four hours later I waved a socially distanced farewell and rushed to catch the last plane out of Khartoum before Covid-19 paralysed the world.

I thought it was the end for an innovative project which was trying to improve coverage of economics and money matters for people in a country where poverty and debt have meant misery for millions. But I was wrong.

A few weeks later I’m all set for a series of seminars with the same trainees. Most are still in Khartoum, the difference is that I’m back in the UK, hoping the wi-fi will keep working so I can talk to the group. I haven’t actually made it home as despite the lockdown, I’ve been designated a “key worker” on another high-priority media project which means today’s “classroom” is a cramped desk in a not-very-luxurious hotel somewhere in England. 

Sudan’s IT infrastructure is so weak that meeting on Zoom or Skype is impossible, which means we’ve opted for the messaging system WhatsApp. One by one we link up with Anas, Rania, Mayada and the rest of the group to hear updates on their work. Dialling the numbers is Entisar Omer, a fellow trainer and colleague who translates and adds huge value to our discussions.


I’m humbled by the ingenuity and can-do attitude of this Sudanese generation.

Derek Ivens, Thomson Foundation trainer


Angry sparrows in Mohamed's house

It's not as simple as it sounds. Connections fail then return. Sometimes Entisar’s signal crashes. There are mysterious noises on the line – is Nadir in a factory? Have thousands of angry sparrows invaded Mohamed’s house? 

I’m humbled by the ingenuity and can-do attitude of this Sudanese generation. Many of the group face long daily power cuts, so again and again they borrow phones from friends when their own run out of charge. Others go into the heat of the streets to find a one-bar signal – because otherwise they will miss out on a chance to learn.

Working from home in a crowded, quarantined house is also difficult, so I’ve become familiar with the crying of babies as people juggle work with parenting.

New ways to communicate

For trainers like me, the job has changed and become considerably harder. Gathering smart people in a room to share ideas and being able to spend one-on-one time with them is very effective, but we've learned new ways to communicate. Sometimes we have back-to-back virtual “meetings” with people in several different continents.

I don’t miss planes, airports and hotels sometimes sharing with rats and scorpions so in some ways this has been a good year with a much lower carbon footprint. 

I long to return to Sudan and other countries where the media need help, but I think 2020 has shown that pandemics, power cuts and vast distances will never be able to stop people wanting to learn and make their world a better place.


Relevant content

Derek Ivens

Derek Ivens

Radio journalism and Trainer of Trainers

Derek has been training radio reporters and senior journalists working extensively on our training programmes in Sudan. He has more than 25 years experience in the BBC as a presenter, reporter, producer and editor.

Explore our projects across the globe