Farm Radio International looks to break down barriers

Four women smile as they hood a small blue radio outside in Africa.
Members of a women’s community listening group in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region. Photo credit: Nebiyu Yetsedaw

By Gabrielle Huston

Journalists in sub-Saharan Africa face two major barriers in serving their communities. The first is people’s access to news. The second is how to assess the locals’ needs and provide information that will help them.

A hop, a skip, and a 16-hour plane ride away, Canadians are helping them tear those hurdles down. 

Farm Radio International is an international non-profit organization based out of Ottawa, with headquarters in Hintonburg. Its goal is to “help African farming communities help themselves” through radio broadcasts.  

The choice of radio may seem strange to Canadians; Statistics Canada reported that radio broadcasters operating revenue in our country has fallen steadily since the industry’s record high of $2 billion in 2011. The critical difference between sub-Saharan Africa and Canada is access to electricity.

Data from the World Bank shows that, as of 2021, 100 percent of Canadians had access to electricity. We have no problem getting our information from electric sources. Canadians’ top news sources include television news stations, news websites, and social media, according to a 2022 Maru Public Opinion study.

Meanwhile, only 50.6 percent of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity. The situation is worst in places like South Sudan (7.7 percent), Burundi (10.2), and Chad (11.3); these three countries have the least access to electricity, not just compared to other African countries but the entire world.

Even where access is better, like South Africa (89.3), their relationship with electricity isn’t as simple as in Canada. Since 2007, South Africa has experienced rolling blackouts, known as load shedding, intended to prevent the power grid from overloading. In July 2023, Arwen Kozak wrote: “The typical American experiences less than 10 hours of power outages a year – whereas in South Africa, more than 10 hours of power outages were scheduled for just this past weekend.”

“They’re not maybe using mobile phones in the way that we use mobile phones,” said FRI’s Director of Programs, Ian Pringle. “They’re not watching movies, they’re not watching television, because they don’t have access to electricity. So if they don’t have access to electricity, you know that their access to information and communications opportunities is also tiny, tiny, tiny compared to what people are used to here.”

Radio offers a unique solution to this challenge. It stands out among other news media because of its low barrier to entry; so long as you have a radio, you can engage, and they can be charged through wind-up power or small solar panels. 

“The one thing that always strikes me about radio is how accessible it is for people,” said Marina von Stackelberg, a senior reporter for the CBC. She visited Ghana and West Africa on a Farm Radio International internship through her journalism program at Carleton University. “The one thing that I remember [are] the radios that we would give to communities. The radio was solar powered. It had plugins for people’s cell phones, and the cell phone batteries would be able to be charged off of it. And these are communities that were not necessarily connected in any other way. And so the radio, it literally became like a light source, a power source, a community hub for people.”

A man poses for a photo next to a microphone at a radio station in Africa.
A broadcaster at Voice of Lango radio station in Lira City, Uganda. Photo credit: Simon Scott.

The CRTC’s 2021 data shows that the vast majority of Canadians listen to radio through their car (80 percent). In Africa, on the other hand, people listen on physical radios or, for those who can charge their phones regularly, through its built-in radio.

“Even the most basic of mobile phones allows the listeners to engage with the radio station, call in or participate,” Pringle said. Even in rural areas, a lot of people have simple phones, and most of the phones have a radio in them, not a streaming digital radio [but] an actual transistor for a radio. … You’ll see people walking through town with a little thing in their ear and a phone in their pocket and they’re listening to a radio show on FM. All you need is an antenna, and the antenna is your headset.” 

But once you have the people listening, what do you tell them?

FRI was created because its founder, veteran CBC journalist George Atkins, identified a disconnect between what the radio stations were broadcasting and what most of its audience needed to hear.

“The farm programs on the air were geared towards the big farms with the technology and the tractors and the combines,” said Kevin Perkins, FRI’s Executive Director. “[The small farmers] still probably wanted to listen to them, even though they didn’t have the wherewithal to implement what they were hearing about.”

FRI helps broadcasters find solutions through two major avenues. First is its network of almost 1,400 radio stations, large and small, which it supports with materials to “improve the quality of their programing.”

“For us,” Pringle said, “the quality of the programming means that you’re doing a better job of serving the needs and the rights of their listeners.” 

Connecting with the local radio stations also allows the content to be translated into the local language.

“The community radio stations especially, but even smaller or even regional, can serve them in their language in auditory form,” Perkins said.  

FRI’s “main channels for distribution” are Canada’s official languages: English and French. However, it also produces content in approximately 30 native African languages, like Swahili (used especially in Kenya and Tanzania), Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), and Bambara and Hausa (both languages common in West Africa). 

“These would be the big African language groupings, and we make the resources available in those languages and distribute them to the appropriate stations in those languages,” Pringle said. “But the basic idea is that even if scripts are distributed in English and French, the colonial languages, we are working with radio stations that have some basic capacity in those colonial languages and then take those scripts and translate them into the local languages that they use.”

The second way FRI works is by organizing projects.

“The projects are much more specific because, in the context of those projects, we will help individual stations to put new programming or improve programming on the air around very specific topics,” Pringle said.

For example, one project running in Ghana and Nigeria focused on improving farm 

yields through advice about fertilizers and seeds. It reached 5.3 million listeners. A concluding survey found that its audience was 24 percent more aware about the recommended soybean varieties than non-listeners. 

While developing that informative content is essential, the person delivering it is also critically important. 

“I think in the majority of cases, you’d find [the hosts] come from those very communities,” Perkins said. “They’re known in those communities, which means they’re trusted. People listen to them, know that they understand them. A great radio host, you feel like they’re your friend, right?” he said. “She’s my friend, I listen to her every morning when I’m having my cup of coffee. … They call it a companionship medium.” 

Perkins emphasized how, being from the community, journalists’ personal knowledge and connection helps them give more targeted, necessary information. For example, in the coastal community of Ada in Ghana, tomato growers and livestock raisers were at odds.

“The tomato growers were upset with the livestock owners because the livestock were eating the tomatoes,” Perkins said. “They got so frustrated they started putting animal poison amongst their tomatoes. It was a very serious conflict.” 

That radio station wanted to help its community’s food security by talking about improved tomato varieties, but the farmers told them “the goats will just eat them.” In response, the radio station proposed a show about how to build enclosures to keep their animals contained, rather than free ranging. 

“They did a whole program on that as a way to support the tomato growers,” Perkins said, “and the animals got healthier because they weren’t roaming, they weren’t run over by cars or stolen, and they were healthier. … I went to visit that community and every single home had a new enclosure that they built for their animals.” 

Allan Thompson, the director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said that local journalism is important to encourage but that, even in Canada, it’s “in a bit of a crisis.” 

“The journalism based in Canada about communities, about local concerns, about things that people really identify with, that’s a struggle in Canada,” Thompson said. “I think this is one of the important things to foster in journalism around the world. This is a way for people to be engaged with their communities, and not see this as some sort of top down, you know, something that comes from state radio, or from somewhere else. That journalism is about your community and your livelihood and the possible difference that you can make.”

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