By Charlie Senack –
While most of Farm Radio International’s work on the ground is helping reshape people’s lives half a world away, much of those efforts begin right here in Hintonburg.
For 40 years, the non-profit organization now based in Ottawa has been aiding farmers in Africa, educating them about agricultural practices via radio and the written word. Radio is a key form of communication in Africa, where many farmers are non-literate and rely heavily on radio programs to get information.
“Whereas here we are looking at radio as mostly an entertainment means or something to listen to when you’re commuting, it’s really the lifeline of tens of millions of people in Africa,” says Mark Leclair, manager of communications and knowledge management for Farm Radio International.
The concept really began by accident in 1975, when former CBC radio host George Atkins travelled to the Zambian countryside with his African colleagues as part of a workshop he was running.
Along the way he talked with some of the African broadcasters about their radio programs and what type of farming issues they discussed. Atkins soon realized much of the content wasn’t useful for most of the audience–for example, one broadcast was about maintaining spark plugs on tractors, even though only a small number of farmers actually owned such equipment at the time–and he decided to send out scripts to local broadcasters that provided information that was much more relevant to farmers’ day-to-day lives.
“The people who got the scripts, they all seemed quite happy about it and here was material that was coming to them which was useful for the farmers they were talking to,” Atkins said in a 2009 interview when Farm Radio International celebrated its 30th anniversary.
The organization sent its first set of scripts to 34 broadcasters in 26 countries in May 1979. Since then, Farm Radio International has delivered in excess of 100 script packages to more than 780 radio stations in 40 countries, with a distinct focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
The organization moved its head office from Toronto to Hintonburg in 2005. It is now located in the World University Service Centre at 1404 Scott St.
Employees collaborate with trainers all across Africa, who work on the ground with broadcasters to teach them new material and show them how to fine-tune their skills to make broadcasts more effective.
“When we come in, in many cases we are the first set of formal training these radio stations will get,” Leclair says. “We are giving them some really tangible interviewing skills, editing skills and (training on) how you produce educational programming.”
Radio craft team lead Sylvie Harrison now oversees all of the creative programming in Africa. She got her start at Farm Radio International as a volunteer, when she worked at four local radio stations in Ghana for a year.
After returning to Canada, Harrison landed a full-time job with the organization and has since returned to Africa more than a dozen times for her work, visiting seven different countries.
“I come up with the training material and the curriculum that we use to train broadcasters, but I’m not the one training broadcasters,” she says. “All of that is done by the team members that are in those countries. What we are there to do is build on the broadcasters’ strengths and build on that point of communication for development.”
To mark its 40th anniversary, Farm Radio International has started a series of writings on its website. To read those stories and find out more about the group, visit farmradio.org.
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* This feature is brought to you in part by Catherine McKenna, MP Ottawa Centre.
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