RANET: Bringing weather services to remote rural areas

Reidner Mumbi
Kelly Sponberg

A herdsman in the semi-desert region of northern Niger winds up his radio and tunes in to the daily weather report, in the hope that it will help him find suitable grazing pasture for his cattle. The programme is based on information downloaded via a digital satellite radio receiver.

A herdsman in the semi-desert region of northern Niger winds up his radio and tunes in to the daily weather report, in the hope that it will help him find suitable grazing pasture for his cattle. The programme, broadcast by a community-owned FM radio station in a village some 15 km away, is based on information downloaded via a digital satellite radio receiver. The same broadcast also features a request for assistance from another herdsman who has lost some of his animals. Later that day the station broadcasts discussions on health issues in four local languages. The sun is setting, but for a few more hours the solar-powered transmitter will still be able to broadcast local music, national news, and messages from migrants to loved ones at home.

This scenario is the goal of RANET (Rural Communications using Radio and the Internet), an international collaboration that is helping to make weather, climate and related information accessible to communities in remotest areas of Africa, Asia and the Pacific. RANET works with national meteorological services to improve their outreach to rural communities, which will ultimately strengthen the agencies themselves. In addition, the programme forms partnerships with local NGOs and other development organizations to ensure that the information in the community radio broadcasts is relevant to the needs of the local population, and that it will help them to cope with adverse weather, and improve their livelihoods.

RANET is often associated with the WorldSpace digital satellite system, which enables audio broadcasts and one-way data transfers to anywhere in Africa, Asia and the western Pacific. Working through First Voice International (formerly the WorldSpace Foundation) RANET uses reserve capacity on the satellite system to transmit current weather information including maps and charts to weather stations, rural radio stations and community centres in remote areas. The information is received by special digital radio receivers provided to partner groups at low cost.

The networks RANET develops, however, are not limited solely to the WorldSpace system. The programme works with a variety of partners to standardize appropriate FM community radio station equipment, HF systems, and even energy solutions. By bringing together various appropriate and sustainable technologies, RANET is supporting ‘human networks’ of dialogue and partnership that serve as the basis for sharing knowledge that will improve the lives of communities in remote areas.

The most important element of RANET’s strategy is to encourage broad local ownership. Each radio station or satellite receiver system is locally owned. RANET rarely funds an activity in full, but requires the participants – regional, national or local – to demonstrate the need for and value of the system and then to mobilize in-kind and local resources to operate it.

In Zambia, for example, in July 2004 a team of RANET members and the national programme coordinator visited the Mumbwa community radio station, which is now under development. The community has organized an association, is raising funds to refurbish a building for the station, and has constructed a radio mast with the help of another local partner. During the visit, RANET members were able to offer technical advice on the most affordable and durable equipment, and on how to obtain a broadcast licence, as well as to discuss the association’s plans for covering operating costs, programme development, and energy supply options. While it may take another six months or more for the Mumbwa radio station to become operational, the extended process of planning and dialogue will help to ensure that the station is firmly rooted and will have broad community support when it begins broadcasting, thus helping to ensure the sustainability of the service.

RANET believes that as well as providing assistance to the station operators, it is just as important to hold dialogues with potential listeners to determine their needs. Thus, in Zambia, RANET members recently visited the Mazabuka community radio station, where they met with local weather service staff, station operators and local farmers. During the dialogue they discussed technical aspects such as coverage and reception, as well as programming issues such as the timing of broadcasts so that they reach the largest audience. The farmers were able to talk about the past growing season and their needs in terms of weather forecasts, observations and even hazard warnings. Although some requests may have been beyond RANET’s scientific capacities, the farmers suggested a number of changes in format or content that could easily be accommodated, such as using more familiar local place names in the forecasts. Such fine-tuning can often mean the difference between a forecast being used to good effect, or ignored completely.

The partnerships with various national agencies, international organizations and local communities help to ensure the sustainability of RANET’s communication networks. Most important, however, the process of dialogue leads to the effective dissemination and application of weather and climate information, thereby reducing the vulnerability of rural farming and other communities to seasonal weather fluctuations and other natural hazards.

Reidner Mumbi is Director of RANET Zambia, and Kelly Sponberg is RANET Program Coordinator at US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

RANET is funded by the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and NOAA. It receives in-kind contributions from national agencies and the participating communities, as well as direct financial support from other donors on a project-by-project basis. For further information, visit www.ranetproject.net

27 November 2006

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