Putting More Women on the Radio Could Change Farming in Africa

Across the continent, the airwaves are one of the best ways to disseminate information about health, nutrition, and agriculture.

Clara Moita, a radio broadcaster with Radio 5 in Arusha, Tanzania. (Photo: Facebook)

Oct 13, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The podcast Serial ushered in what some have called a golden age of radio in the United States, but throughout Africa, radio has long been all the rage—especially among farmers.

“Radio in rural parts of Africa really has been the only source of mass media information available to farmers,” said Kevin Perkins, executive director of Farm Radio International. The organization works with more than 600 radio partners in 38 African countries, but its mission isn’t built around disseminating information from “the knowing ones” to “the unknowing ones.”

“To me, that’s so incomplete and ultimately ineffective,” Perkins said. “What makes so much more sense is to put the microphone in the hands of the people and let them share their stories, vent their own questions, and identify their own needs.” Who’s most in need of a radio revolution? Women farmers.

“Women are a major part of the agricultural workforce and central to food production, especially staple crops,” said Lyric Thompson, senior policy manager at the International Center for Research on Women. But, she continued, “They do more of the work with less of the support.”

Eight out of 10 African farmers are women, but when you tune in to the local farm radio station, it is men’s voices that come through the speakers. Women are less likely to own their own radios and cell phones, according to Farm Radio International. Most broadcasters are men, and there can be cultural resistance to a man and a woman sitting alone for a face-to-face interview.

Off the air, women receive only 5 percent of agriculture extension services, which could equip them with higher-quality, drought-resistant seeds; tools such as solar-powered foot pumps and irrigation systems; and information about the latest effective agricultural methods.

To close the representation gap on the air as well as the information gap in real life, the nonprofit has its Her Farm Radio initiative. Since its launch in 2013, the initiative has reached more than 2 million women. The 30-episode radio drama My Children was aired in six languages by 10 partner radio stations in Uganda to promote consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potato. The staple crop reduces the risk of vitamin A deficiency, a health challenge in sub-Saharan Africa that causes approximately 250,000 to 500,000 children in the developing world to go blind. Episodes were followed by polls, call-ins, and discussion—a kind of interactive radio made possible by the wide use of cell phones.

But the newest program, Her Voice on Air, consists of true stories from women farmers in Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Farm Radio International works with a dozen radio stations per country and about 20 women’s groups per station. In the past month, members from the women’s groups attended a one- or two-day training, then returned to their group with an inexpensive smartphone to record with.

“Young women who are savvy with the phones are trying to teach their mothers and grandmothers how to use these touch-screen Androids. There’s lots of laughter around that,” Perkins said.

Groups discuss the inequitable division of labor at home between men and women (and how it could be distributed differently), how to control weeds, and the role of women in growing crops and marketing. The recorded conversations are stored in the cloud and are accessible by radio producers, who can edit them into on-air radio programs and segments. There’s such enthusiasm for the form, groups within the same region have been known to engage in friendly competition if it seems as if one is receiving more airtime. (“They’re very, very anxious to get their comments on the air,” Perkins said.) The program gives a megaphone to voices that have previously been drowned out.

In Ethiopia, women discuss their approaches to agricultural challenges:

“I am Wesene Abebe from Hodanabe zone and Akaki Woreda. We are using BBM [a implement for cutting furrows for planting into fields] for water-smart agriculture. We benefited a lot from your programs about BBM thank you for that. And we want you to find solutions for our other problems as well. Thank you.”

“I am Bizen Abraha from Lalay dabo woreda. We plan our farming activities here. We are using seed varieties, raw planting, weeding at least two times and water conservation works. We are benefiting well.”

In Tanzania, one group of women burst into enthusiastic song in their recording. Another explained the mealtime ritual:

“My name is Mwanahamisi Juma from Nkwae Village. This is the division of the meal in my family after I cook: I give first to my husband and my boys in their ghetto. After they eat they return the remaining for me and my girls. This is the tradition of Nyaturu. Thank you for listening.”

They’re sound bites, but they speak to the power of being able to tell one’s own story.

“It’s easy to feel intimidated or nervous about raising these gender and cultural issues,” Perkins said. “But when people can have conversations and capture them in their own ways, in a way that involves a lot of laughter and humor and enjoyment of each other’s company, there’s no limits on what people are able to talk about, discuss, and explore. They own their own stories. It’s really quite transformative.”