How do you share ideas – including potentially transformative ones – with people who do not have Internet access, are largely illiterate, and live far from paved roads?
Even in today’s hyper-connected world, most farmers in Tanzania – who make up 75 percent of the country’s population of 48 million – have limited interaction with people outside their communities. Ideas, by extension, are slow to travel. Many small-scale farmers use outdated farming techniques when planting and harvesting their land, based on knowledge passed on from their ancestors. They also run the risk of being cheated in the market, if they do not have frequently updated price information for crops. Too often, this means that small-scale farmers experience low crop yields and remain trapped in a vicious cycle of hunger and poverty.
Mobile technology, long the focus of international development efforts, is not always reliable for spreading information across rural Tanzania. Nearly 40 percent of the country’s population lacks a mobile connection. “Network coverage is not so good for mobiles in remote areas,” admitted Christopher Chiza, Tanzania’s minister of agriculture. Many farmers, he said “cannot really play around with these gadgets.”
Infrastructure limits sharing ideas face to face with farmers in isolated villages. Despite being twice the size of California, Tanzania only has a third of the Golden State’s road network. Over 90 percent of rural roads are unpaved, making them especially difficult to traverse in bad weather. (Tour guides sometimes joke about the “Tanzanian massages” visitors receive – referring to the sensation of traveling on the country’s bumpy and uneven roads.)
In this environment, there is one communication technology that is being harnessed to deliver important agricultural knowledge: the simple radio. Nearly 90 percent of rural Tanzanians have access to this inexpensive, centuries-old technology – and they use it frequently. “In the mornings, I listen to Christian music, and then the news,” said Onesmo Sumari, a cucumber farmer in Njoro, a village outside Arusha. “And my family and I listen every evening.”
Around the world, farmers use the radio to get timely crop information and learn new techniques. In sub-Saharan Africa, four times as many farmers have access to the radio as to cellphones.
In this vein, radio stations across Tanzania have developed shows that cover a range of agricultural issues, from the intricacies of cattle rearing to the nutritional value of orange-flesh sweet potatoes. The Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s public broadcaster, has been airing shows for farmers since 1955. Community-based and privately owned radio stations have introduced agricultural programming more recently. Some shows have even added interactive elements to their programming, giving farmers the opportunity to learn from their peers.
“The radio provides information that rural folks feel they can trust,” said Mercy Karanja, who advises the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on agricultural development in East Africa. “Farmers talk about the ideas to their fellow farmers. They can become agricultural innovators, and even champions.”
In Arusha, a city close to Mount Kilimanjaro, the local station Radio 5 recently broadcast a program on kitchen gardens. The station invited a local horticulture expert, Digna Massawe, to explain how to grow these gardens and their nutritional benefits. In Swahili, Massawe explained the types of vegetables that could be grown near one’s home, their nutritional benefits, and how they could be attractively arranged.
The program’s host, Clara Moita, paced the conversation and fielded the many incoming calls. In the middle of the show, Moita ran a text-based survey with listeners, asking whether they were previously familiar with kitchen gardens: 75 percent said yes.
Moita has been working as a radio jockey for four years, and in that time, has met many of her listeners for the purpose of understanding their agricultural needs. “Most think I’m a good farmer, and that I can teach them something,” she said. Some of her listeners credit Radio 5 for their decision to grow new types of vegetables.
Radio 5’s agricultural content is supported by a Canadian nonprofit called Farm Radio International (F.R.I.). It works with 10 stations in Tanzania, collectively reaching up to 40 percent of the country’s farmers. F.R.I. entered Tanzania in 2007 because it saw a substantial opportunity in the predominantly rural country. “Almost anyone can get a radio signal, usually in their own language,” said Kevin Perkins, F.R.I.’s country director here. “It’s also a listening and storytelling culture.”
The organization began in the late 1970s, when a radio broadcaster named George Atkins traveled to Zambia. He had been hosting an agricultural show in Canada for the previous 25 years. Atkins learned that most agricultural programming in Africa at the time was intended for large commercial farmers. For instance, some shows talked about tractor maintenance, which was irrelevant for small-scale farmers who used oxen. African broadcasters from several countries told Atkins that they would welcome new radio content.
Today, F.R.I. runs programs in 38 radio stations across seven African countries (they actually provide content to 490 stations, but don’t do hands-on work in all those locations). They work primarily with local stations like Arusha’s Radio 5, as opposed to national broadcasters, so they can tailor their messaging. “Farmers want information they can use now – if they’re planting, they don’t want information about harvesting,” said Karanja. “The national broadcaster may be aligned in some regions, but they’re not as aligned” as local stations.
In the case of Radio 5, F.R.I. helps develop scripts of interest to small-scale farmers in the area. It also helped set up interactive software to allow listeners with mobile coverage to be part of the live shows. For instance, farmers can call the station during a broadcast, text the station to answer a survey, and record their conversations to play on the air.
The focus on interactivity began after F.R.I.’s research arm published a study in 2010. They randomly assigned rural communities in five countries to one of three groups. The first, the “active participants,” gave feedback to the broadcaster before, during, and after the program. The other groups either passively listened to the broadcasts or remained unexposed to them (acted as the control group).
Three years later, the researchers found that nearly 40 percent of the active participants had tried new farm techniques, compared with 20 percent of the passive listeners – and only 4 percent of the control group.
Other studies corroborate F.R.I.’s findings. A group of researchers in Kenya found that
women were especially likely to benefit from interactive broadcasts, as compared with “simply consuming information provided by others.” Researchers in India found that the addition of an answering machine to a radio program offered “the potential to considerably improve community engagement,” though they noted the challenge of introducing new technology to certain communities.
To encourage dialogue, F.R.I. supports “listening groups” for the radio broadcasts. For instance, every Friday afternoon, a 65-year-old farmer named Elembora Esse joins 20 of her neighbors to listen to Radio 5 under a thatched hut in Malala village, about 15 miles outside Arusha.
Esse said the group had been helpful because members discussed the radio show and practiced the techniques at their own pace. Around the hut, the group has planted a “model farm,” where members jointly grow leafy greens, eggplants and an organic pesticide called amaranthus. Many group members, including Esse, have successfully copied some techniques in their own farms.
The group listens to the broadcast on a windup radio, which operates without electricity and is able to record voice. Members have recorded some of their conversations — in one they discussed their experiences producing and marketing vegetables — and Radio 5 has played this content on the air. “Farmers’ voices are always featured through phone-in programs, interviews and village debates,” said Perkins. “Listeners want to know that farmers like them have tried their approach.”
To be sure, there are important limitations to interactive radio. Though the shows are inexpensive to produce and distribute, they require considerable care and expertise to produce well. Onesmo Sumari, the cucumber farmer, has different knowledge requirements than his neighbor Juliet Japhet, who rears poultry and has less formal education. To achieve the results of F.R.I.’s “active participant” group, radio producers must conduct substantial research and regularly integrate farmers’ feedback.
In addition, the farmers who participate in interactive sessions are by necessity more connected. Listeners in areas without mobile coverage will be, at best, passive listeners of broadcasts – putting them at an immediate disadvantage.
At a deeper level, radio shows may not be sufficient to spur sustainable behavior change. In contrast to F.R.I., the nonprofit One Acre Fund runs face-to-face training sessions with farmers in East Africa – also designed to introduce them to new ideas.
At a recent session in Magulilwa village, in Tanzania’s Iringa district, farmers participated in lively role-playing to demonstrate the optimal space between seeds. Four farmers volunteered to act as seeds. They were asked to stand very close together and grow like maize. Audience members started giggling when their peers began squirming because they were packed too tightly. “It is a highly visual and memorable example that sticks with people,” said Andrew Youn,One Acre Fund’s founder. “It sure beats a more technical message of, ‘The optimal plant population is 20,000 plants on one acre of land.’”
One Acre Fund enters villages with the intention of staying for several years. “Lasting change can require many years and in my opinion requires organizations that are committed to a region for the long haul,” said Youn.
In his organization’s experience thus far, Youn has found agricultural radio to better serve as a “supplement to person-to-person contact,” preferably from a trusted community member. The deep engagement, however, implies that One Acre Fund has reached fewer homes to date than radio stations have.
For the millions of farmers who are not yet touched by holistic interventions like One Acre Fund, radio can be an effective and inexpensive first step to introducing new ideas. It appears to be especially true in places like Malala village, where a group of farmers can meet and support one another as they try new innovations.
“Learning to grow vegetables is important for me,” said Elembora Esse of the Malala group. “I can earn more money from my neighbors and friends.”
Sarika Bansal is a journalist who writes about social innovation and global health. She is also the Director of Partnerships of the Solutions Journalism Network. For this column, she traveled to Tanzania with the International Reporting Project.