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Talking back to radio

23 June 2009

Sheila Huggins-Rao

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Radio is often considered to be a one-way medium, but the African Farm Radio Research Initiative is investigating ways of combining radio and ICTs to gather content and to share information among farming communities throughout rural Africa.

With more than half of Africa’s population dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, there are growing demands for information on all aspects of farming. Farmers want to know where they can obtain new and improved seeds for the next planting season, where to market their crops, and about better farming practices that will help to maintain soil fertility, conserve water and improve output. 

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Image credits: ICT Update / Broadcasters use ICTs to involve farmers in radio programmes for rural Africa

Most African countries provide support to their farmers through extension officers; technical specialists who travel to rural areas to promote agricultural development. But in many areas, the number of farmers who require this support far outweighs the number of extension officers available.

Farmers often share information among themselves via formal networks such as cooperatives or associations. Informal networks are also useful, although exchanges of information and resources are often limited to the immediate area, and important questions may remain unanswered. Although farmers are keen to learn about new ways to increase their productivity and maintain their land, access to information and opportunities for sharing knowledge are often limited.

For many African farmers, the only source of information outside the community is the radio. Radio sets are relatively inexpensive and can be used in remote areas where electricity supplies are unreliable or even non-existent. Local radio also gives farmers a voice, enabling them to share their knowledge and experiences, and to acquire practical information that they can use to improve their livelihoods.


Traditionally, radio has been a one-way communication medium, where programme makers deliver information to their listeners. But in recent years the number of radio stations across Africa has grown rapidly – there are now more than 300 stations in Mali, 120 in Ghana and over 150 in Uganda – and new information technologies have become more accessible, providing many possibilities for developing more interactive, two-way radio communication for farmers.

At the same time, the use of mobile phones throughout Africa has surged, changing the way people communicate. Users can now easily receive and send information, images and even money anywhere in the world.

Used in combination with radio, mobile technology has also brought a new dimension to radio programming. For starters, listeners can now call radio stations to request information or advice, question guest speakers or talk to other callers. Presenters may also encourage listeners to send in text messages with requests, to answer questions, and even to participate in contests.

Since 2007, the African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI) has been studying the effectiveness of radio in supporting agricultural development and improved food production.

Implemented by Farm Radio International, in partnership with World University Service of Canada, the project is investigating two main questions: how and in what ways is radio most effective in enabling smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods, and how can new technologies such as mobile phones and MP3 players increase the value of radio as an interactive communication tool?

AFRRI works with radio stations in Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Tanzania and Uganda to strengthen their programming for farmers. The project team selected a total of 25 stations to participate in the project, five in each country, representing a mix of public, community and commercial stations.

Through a series of research and training activities, AFRRI is helping broadcasters to make programmes with information that is useful to farmers, and give farmers a chance to provide feedback on programme content. One component of the initiative involves working with the stations to test new technologies in the production of entertaining, informative and interactive programmes, in collaboration with the listening groups.

In Malawi in 2008, for example, AFRRI organized a training workshop on story-based agricultural programming, where staff from each of the stations were able to learn about community research methodologies, developing programme outlines and recording techniques, as well as how to elicit and make use of feedback from listeners.


As part of the workshop, AFRRI distributed recordable MP3 players to the participants for use during the training and in their future programme making. The players had been carefully selected to match the needs of the participants. The most important criteria were; affordability, accessibility, ease of use, compatibility with existing equipment and the willingness of the manufacturer to work with a development project.

With these MP3 players, the programme makers were able to make collect stories as recording and store the audio files for broadcast. During the training, the programme makers experimented with the MP3 players and discovered how to record a mobile phone call. By placing the call on speaker phone and holding the MP3 player close to the speaker, it is easy to record a phone interview, for example, which can be edited later and broadcast on air. Since AFRRI stations in Malawi do not have cable or wireless connections to link mobile phones to the broadcast consoles, this technique has become useful for interviewers who can now speak directly to experts in the capital and farmers in the field without having to travel to meet them in person.

Although mobile technology does not replace face-to-face interactions, being able to record a phone interview with an expert enhances the meetings, and brings the expert closer to the farmers. The experience of Dzimwe Community Radio Station in Monkey Bay, in eastern Malawi, illustrates the advantages of using this type of technology.

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Image credits: ICT Update / Talking back to radio

The Dzimwe radio station was running a campaign to promote a new hybrid maize variety whose high yields would benefit maize farmers in the area. As part of the campaign, the station broadcast a programme discussing the disadvantages of growing this type of maize. Many farmers, for example, preferred the taste of local maize varieties even though their yields were lower than that of the new hybrid variety.
Farmers who were already growing the new variety pointed out that highlighting its negative aspects could undermine the success of the campaign, since many listeners would focus on the disadvantages rather than the benefits.

The station decided that one way to overcome this problem was to broadcast the views of an expert at the Ministry of Agriculture. But arranging an interview proved difficult, not only because of the long distance the reporter would have to travel to meet the specialist in the capital Lilongwe. Protocol within the ministry and the specialist’s busy schedule meant that he was not able to meet the reporter. Instead, the reporter called the specialist on his mobile phone and recorded the conversation. The specialist responded to the farmers’ concerns, highlighting the advantages of the new maize variety, while also addressing its disadvantages.

Later, when the station broadcast the interview, the campaign regained some much-needed credibility and the farmers received the balanced information they needed to decide whether to plant the hybrid maize.


AFRRI regularly receives feedback from farmers in all five countries. Smallholders often ask for copies of programmes for neighbours who missed the initial broadcast, or simply to be able to listen to them again in their own time. Women in particular have asked for this kind of flexible programming since they can only listen to the radio at certain times of the day, when they are not busy with family, farming and other work.

MP3 players can potentially meet this need, since they can be used to play back recorded programmes to listening groups. AFRRI will be testing various ways of doing this throughout 2009.

In Karagwe, in north-western Tanzania, the Family Alliance for Development and Cooperation (FADECO) community radio station is investigating ways to make use of available ICTs both for generating content and for obtaining feedback from listeners.

Anyone living nearby can walk to the FADECO studio to ask questions or report problems related to farming. The radio station staff are often able to answer the questions themselves, especially if it is a familiar issue, but if not, they can call or email specialists to help with the more difficult issues.

Farmers living farther away can send SMS (short message service) messages to the FADECO station’s mobile phone number using specific codes in the text. The listener starts the message with ‘FR[space]’, then types a question and sends it to a dedicated number (in this case 15551), and the message is delivered directly to the organization’s computer via a web-managed system. The caller immediately receives a reply on his/her mobile phone confirming that FADECO has received the message.

Due to the costs involved, the station does not call or text individual listeners with answers but may print out the messages and email them to an expert, and address them in a later radio programme. This way the answers can benefit the farmer who asked the question and any other listeners tuned in at that time.


The AFRRI project team expect the results of their research to be useful not only to broadcasters but to others working in rural development, to researchers on agriculture and organizations concerned with food security issues in Africa and other parts of the world. After the project officially ends in 2010, AFRRI hopes that the participating stations will be able to continue broadcasting programmes for farmers to promote new business models and micro-enterprise initiatives.

For agricultural programming, the costs of travel for field interviews and internet connectivity remain high in most African countries, but the use of new technologies such as MP3 players and mobile phones can help to support programming for, and with, farmers without increasing costs.

Farmers are already reaping the benefits of the programmes produced using these technologies and new techniques, and of having more interactive contact with the radio stations. In Soroti, Uganda, for example, the Voice of Teso radio station broadcast a series of programmes on a new variety of cassava. Farmers in the area had not grown cassava for many years because of the high labour intensity and low yields, but after listening to the series more farmers were prepared to try out the new variety.

In Tanzania, after the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation aired a series of programmes on collective marketing, increasing numbers of farmers are now forming and organizing their own local cooperatives. Many farmers have reported that the information in the series enabled them to focus on generating income from the sale of their crops while minimizing the costs of marketing and transportation.

Although in most agricultural research it can take at least two or three harvests to measure and assess long-term changes, it is clear that radio combined with ICTs can play an immediate role in improving farmers’ access to relevant information.

While there is no shortage of new technologies that could improve the interactivity of radio in Africa, the main challenge for any development project is the management of the technologies at the radio stations, and how broadcasters apply them to reach the listening groups.

Careful planning is needed in both the procurement and distribution of equipment and training activities, and communities need to be involved at every stage. This will ensure that both the stations and the communities make the best long-term use of and benefit from the equipment.

Radio stations also need to take into account that they will need local support to maintain the new equipment and to repair the mobile phones, MP3 players or playback devices used by listening groups when they malfunction. It is essential to ensure there is no break in programming due to faulty equipment or devices.

AFRRI tries to address each of these issues, by testing different ICTs to find the equipment that best suits the needs of the radio stations. Programme makers also receive a better understanding of how to use new technologies to make radio an even more effective means of communication.

Through the project, radio broadcasters have been able to work more closely with farming communities than ever before, creating a firm foundation for using innovative and relevant technologies in order to reach even wider audiences and to hear more farmers’ voices on the airwaves.

Source : ICT Update

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