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The enduring power of radio for agricultural extension in Africa

FRI staff test the Uliza platform – a suite of tools aimed to make radio more interactive than ever and connect farmers with broadcasters

© Simon Scott/FRI

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Charles Wandera is a farmer in Masindi district, Uganda. The area was recently hit with an infestation of the invasive Fall Armyworm; recently arrived in Africa, Armyworm caught farmers off guard in Masindi, leaving them unaware of how to defend their crops against the pest. Wandera turned to radio for a solution. He has been listening to a programme on Radio Kitara, supported by Farm Radio International (FRI), a Canadian NGO that works with radio broadcasters to deliver programmes aimed at small-scale farmers and their communities.

With funding from the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), Farm Radio International (FRI) trained Radio Kitara to produce and air programming about the Fall Armyworm. “All along we have been lacking information on how to fight Armyworm, but from the time we got a chance with this project with Radio Kitara, we are getting information Monday and Fridays,” says Wandera. The radio programme describes how to recognise the pest, how farmers should monitor their fields for Armyworm and what control methods are most effective.

Like other projects it is involved with, FRI conducted audience research to identify which radio stations farmers trusted and listened to most, as well as what specific information was needed among female and male smallholder farmers. FRI then worked closely with experienced farmers, topic specialists and radio broadcasters to design the programmes, ensure accuracy of content and respond to listeners questions and information needs using a suite of digital tools.

The programme on Fall Armyworm is not unique among FRI projects. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the international NGO also runs interactive radio programming on agriculture, nutrition, climate services, gender issues and mental health.

It has been 40 years since FRI first started work, sending information in the form of radio scripts and tapes to broadcasters across the developing world. Like technology itself, FRI’s work has evolved substantially since its inception in 1979. However, its focus on improving the lives of farmers and their communities by supporting rural radio broadcasters has not wavered. The radio landscape has changed greatly over the years, with diversification and expansion of radio stations, widespread use of local language programming and the possibility for greater audience interactivity. Adapting to these changes, FRI has also been inspired by the arrival of ICTs and digital tools. Contrary to what might be assumed, ‘new’ ICTs and digitalisation have not heralded the death of radio. Instead, they offer many exciting opportunities for radio producers and listeners alike, and make radio all the more powerful as an extension and digital advisory service.

In 2007, FRI was given the chance to gather evidence of radio’s effectiveness, with the launch of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI). FRI implemented an action research project across five countries that sought to capture hard evidence – for the first time – on the ability of participatory radio campaigns to educate small-scale farmers and support them in making productive changes on their farms. The research, reported in 2011, showed that farmers throughout the areas covered by a broadcasters’ signal could be expected to listen in large numbers (66% of potential listeners), learn from what they heard, and introduce the practice featured in the radio campaign (21% of listeners, on average). The results spoke for themselves. FRI expanded their operations into proactively promoting the use of interactive radio as an efficient and proven means for communicating, sharing good practices and delivering a range of development outcomes at scale – sometimes to hundreds of thousands of rural listeners at a time.

FRI continues to see results similar to this original study and the project’s multi-stakeholder approach offers development partners the ability to use interactive radio to help bring improved practices to scale. Since 2007, the 232 radio stations that FRI has directly partnered with serve an estimated 141 million Africans, including 46 million adults in the rural areas of 11 countries. In 2017 alone, an estimated 20 million rural adults tuned in to interactive agricultural radio programmes in these countries, broadcast as part of 30 FRI projects – and 4 million of those listeners improved their practices as a result. These figures alone show the continued appeal of radio, and radio’s unique reach and scale in sub-Saharan Africa.

Is radio still relevant today?

With good information, small-scale farmers can make better decisions. Access to information and free discussion is a tool of empowerment, especially for citizens who are geographically, economically or socially disadvantaged. Indeed, freedom of information and expression is a fundamental human right, and the internet, TV and newspapers are still out of reach for the majority of rural smallholder farmers. Plus, face-to-face agricultural extension is often insufficient, leaving smallholder farmers, particularly women and those in very remote locations, without access to the information they need to improve their harvests. Greater access to mobile phones and the internet provide many opportunities, but barriers remain regarding connectivity, cost, electricity, access, language and literacy.

Radio, on the other hand, is established in people’s homes, cultures and daily lives; it is responsive to current events and farming topics, and is available in local languages. Today, radio is more attractive and effective than ever as it takes advantage of mobile phones and the internet, and can harmonise and benefit from various digital tools. Radio listeners can access text or voice information offline, take part in call-in programmes, hear their questions answered and get linked to service providers. Through interaction, listeners themselves can help shape programmes to respond to their own needs and those of their communities – making them all the more likely to tune in.

Radio is also significantly less expensive than traditional face-to-face extension models. FRI estimates that the cost of a participatory radio campaign is approximately $1 per farmer. In places where extension agencies are often understaffed, radio is able to reach rural and spread out audiences with farming knowledge, and so build market connections.

Interactive radio programming

Building on the results of the AFRRI project, FRI continues to experiment with ways to combine radio, mobile phones and the internet to provide the most cost-effective and impactful digital services to farmers – for both men and women. Uliza (‘ask’ in Swahili) is FRI’s innovative solution for audience engagement, monitoring and quality assurance. The online platform allows the radio stations involved to engage hundreds, often thousands, of radio listeners – who lack internet access themselves – using their mobile phones before, during, and after farm radio programmes air. Listeners can vote, register for alerts, access additional information or content and get their questions answered. Listeners also leave messages on Uliza saying what they think of the programmes and how these can be changed to suit their needs. Content can be delivered to listeners in their own language, eliminating literacy barriers, and, using a ‘beep for call-back’ service, calls can be triggered free of charge. Broadcasters upload episodes each week to Uliza, and then FRI staff and subject matter specialists involved in the project listen to the episode and provide feedback to the station team so they can improve subsequent episodes.

Measuring impact

Measuring radio’s impact on audiences is complex as it is difficult to identify true control communities. Some stations have national coverage, while in areas without a signal, listeners communicate with those who cannot listen to programmes. Radio’s effectiveness can be assessed through estimates of listenership as well as changes in knowledge, attitudes and practice. FRI uses mapping of FM radio transmitters, quantitative household surveys and qualitative techniques to measure the impact of specific radio interventions. FRI has generated a range of results in recent years, showing that interactive radio, when carefully designed with broadcasters and monitored by audiences and experts, increases knowledge and promotes the use and scaling of agricultural techniques among small-scale farmers. For example, in 2016, interactive radio promoted forest landscape restoration among 270,000 listeners to the ‘Voice of Lango’ radio station in eastern Uganda. Eighty-three per cent of listeners tried drought resilience practices following the radio programmes, with radio cited as the most important influence on uptake.

Women’s participation

As well as sharing essential agricultural information with farmers, radio can give women a platform to have their voices heard, increase their confidence and contribute to their civic engagement. FRI developed the ‘Her Voice on Air approach – funded by International Fund For Agricultural Development – training broadcasters and working with women’s community listening groups to solicit and share women’s perspectives and experiences as content in radio programmes. The aim of the approach is to foster a sense of empowerment and self-confidence for the women involved. In this approach, all that is needed is one phone in the hands of a community listening group and some technology behind the scenes. On designated weekly radio programmes, each group listens together, discusses the question set during the radio programme then decides on their response. By calling a special number and leaving a free missed call, the group will receive an immediate call back. The recorded voice on the returned call invites them to give their thoughts over the phone. Each woman’s voice is automatically recorded on the Uliza platform, from which broadcasters can easily download the audio file and edit for use on their next broadcast.

Hiwot Tirfneh is the leader of the women’s radio listening group in her community in Ethiopia, which meets regularly to listen to agricultural programmes aired on Dimtsi Weyane Tigray radio station. Using their smartphone, Tirfneh’s group was able to inform Dimtsi Weyane Tigray about the lack of rain they were experiencing. Soon afterward, they were listening to programmes on topics such as water harvesting. This topic, that they once knew almost nothing about, is helping a lot. “We have learned that we have to save every drop we get from the rain. I am applying the techniques and I got good results. You can see a difference even between the crops where water harvesting has been practiced and not,” says Tirfneh, who rotates grain crops on her field. Prior to taking up the practice, Tirfneh would harvest about 200 kg of grain during periods of infrequent rains but since adopting the water harvesting techniques, she can harvest 500 kg despite the severe and ongoing drought.

FRI uses this gender responsive approach in many of its projects, where radio stations typically work with up to 10 listener groups. In the ‘Her Voice on Air’ project, FRI partnered with 13 radio stations whose broadcasts reached over 8.1 million listeners, including 134 community listening groups with over 2,300 members.

Conclusion

Radio is still, on average, the most common method by which farmers access agricultural information – after friends and family. It is estimated that over 80% of populations in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a radio set and use it regularly. Even outside of sub-Saharan Africa, radio attracts regular listeners, and podcasts have seen a surge in popularity. Despite the overwhelming number of sources or types of information and entertainment available to those of us with access to all the latest ICTs, radio and audio still have a place in our lives – FRI thinks they always will. With the advent of digitalisation, radio offers huge reach and opportunity for tools or apps which gather data and ground truth, so can tailor information for specific communities and individuals. FRI has endorsed the ‘Principles for Digital Development’, and is exploring data-driven advisory services, integration of visuals via mobile tools, machine learning and AI for interpretation of data, so ensuring closed feedback loops and gender responsive programming. In addition, FRI are exploring new business models for sustainability of radio programming. Advances in technology, coupled with the reach of radio and its current place in our lives, present an exciting future for listeners and radio stations alike.

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