Making Radio Waves

Much has been made of the Internet revolution, but the genius of communicating ideas across borders does not necessarily require cutting edge technology. In fact, for many people, there's one good old-fashioned technology that has a greater power for change: radio.

For people who live in remote rural areas around the globe, without easy access computers and who don’t read or speak the most common languages of the Web—English, Spanish, French—the Internet is not much use. But a global exchange of ideas and information happens anyway, in part thanks to Farm Radio International.

Farm Radio brings the ideas and advice of small-scale farmers all around the world to fellow listeners who in turn send their own tips and advice. Farm Radio staff in Canada collect the suggestions, conduct research and write scripts that are distributed for free to some 300 partner radio stations in Africa. The scripts are put into the local language and read on the air in 39 African countries. They’re also offered electronically to broadcasters in Asia and Latin America.

Originally Farm Radio aimed simply to make information available to small-scale farmers. Today, in addition to providing scripts, Farm Radio also works on the ground in rural locations—training broadcasters in research, reporting, identifying good stories, script writing, and starting up community radio stations.

Farm Radio—which began in 1979—was the idea of a Canadian radio host named George Atkins who was traveling in Zambia. He discovered that there were radio shows aimed at rural communities, but they imparted advice like how to repair tractors and what kinds of commercial fertilizers to use—information of dubious value to people not nearly wealthy enough to own tractors or buy fertilizers.

“Surely this information isn't of any use to them,” Atkins recalled telling some local broadcasters. “Instead of talking about commercial fertilizers and all things to buy, some of which aren't good for the environment, why don't you talk about fertilizers using animal manure?”

One of Farm Radio’s first successes in sharing farmers’ advice across cultures and continents was the broadcasting of a solution used by farmers in Botswana to combat weevil infestations—mixing wood ashes with stored grain—that made its way through Farm Radio to South America.

“We have a woman broadcaster in Otavalo, Ecuador, who is a Quechua Indian,” Atkins explained. “She speaks the Quechua language but understands Spanish, even if she can't read or write. We send cassettes to such people. She listens to the cassette in Spanish, and then, every morning, goes on the radio and talks to a hundred thousand Quechua Indians; telling them how to keep weevils out of their grain. That's a local issue. It doesn't matter that the story originated in southern Africa. Well, if that isn't development communication I don't know what is.”

Today, Farm Radio International researches and writes 40 original scripts each year, which are translated into 70 languages and broadcast around the world more than 12,000 times a year. Their programs are aimed at increasing food supplies and improving nutrition and health through practical, inexpensive advice that encourages environmentally sustainable practices.

“They provide education and information tailored for the right audience through the right medium of mass communication,” said Nigerian radio producer Sachia Ngutsav.

Farm Radio recently worked with Changemakers to identify great ideas for rural development and to encourage the people behind them to enter the Cultivating Innovation: Solutions for Rural Communities competition.

Among the world’s one billion people who rely on agriculture for their living, there are already many solutions for boosting productivity, increasing incomes, and improving the quality of rural life. Through this competition, sponsored by Farm Radio supporter The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, these ideas can spread even further than the already amazing breadth of Farm Radio’s global connections.