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Radio and mobile phones bring life-changing solutions to rural women

Languages: English

As thousands of farmers in central Tanzania battle with long spells of dry weather and erratic rainfall, with little hope of feeding their families, Juliana Yusuph is no longer worried.

The 39-year-old mother of five is one of the many smallholder farmers who now successfully grow sorghum, thanks to a mobile phone and radio technology in the village of Ntondo in central Tanzania.

“I knew nothing about sorghum farming. I never bothered to try, but the weekly radio programme on Radio Maria convinced me,” she says. “It has transformed my entire farming attitude and culture.”

Yusuph was part of the Her Farm Radio project, implemented by the Canadian NGO Farm Radio International and supported by IFAD in Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

The project equipped 2,300 women with mobile phones and radios. Women learned how to use the phones to record their voices and how to contribute content to the women listener’s group radio programmes. The project also trained 13 local radio broadcasters, with a reach of eight million listeners, in developing radio programmes tailored to women’s interests, incorporating the stories and questions women provided and making sure they covered themes brought up in the listeners groups.

The radios brought essential information on agricultural practices, but also on gender issues to women in the most remote areas of the four countries.

Yusuph says when training and radio broadcasts started she didn’t pay attention, but her neighbour convinced her to participate. “Ever since, I have been addicted to the radio programme. I never miss it,” she says.

Information she received on growing sorghum and its nutritional value convinced her to grow sorghum to complement maize, which saw yields decline in recent years. She has already harvested five sacks of sorghum in her one hectare field. She is still harvesting, hoping for eight sacks - enough to feed her family.

Women represent 43 per cent of the global agricultural workforce and carry out a substantial and growing part of the work on family farms. Often this work is unrecorded and undervalued. Women face immense challenges to access tools, land, inputs and importantly knowledge, which is key to improve their livelihoods.

Radio has a huge potential to disseminate information. With 76 per cent of African farmers owning a radio, it is still the primary source of information in rural areas of the continent. It reaches communities with no phones and no electricity and people who cannot read or write. In comparison, only 18 per cent of farmers have a phone and three per cent have internet.

Creating programmes focusing on issues women identified themselves and incorporating their content helped ensure that women listened to the radio programmes.

“There is a paucity of rural women’s voices in rural radio programmes, very few radio stations can send reporters to remote areas,” commented Kevin Perkins, executive director of Farm Radio International. “Also, talking through their phones, women felt protected. It is less intimidating than talking to a journalist with a mic,” said Perkins. “It allowed us to share the perspective of people we never heard before.”

Tailoring radio content to the information women need encourages them to pick up new agricultural practices, leading to better food security.

"About 20 per cent of people who listen to radio programmes about a productive agricultural practice are subsequently inspired to introduce that practice on their farms,"​said Perkins.

In the areas of Uganda where the project was implemented, almost 60 per cent of the farmers who adopted new banana cultivation practices, got their information from the radio programmes, compared to 23 per cent who got it from extension officers.

The project had another huge impact: using phones, hearing their voices on their radio and sharing their views on gender issues gave women a sense of empowerment and self-confidence.

“I thought no one could believe in me because I am uneducated and a woman. But my group members chose me as their chairperson. This gave me confidence to run for a Local Council position, which I got,” said Grace Akite from Orit south-Lira district.

It also instilled women’s confidence in their ability to educate others.

“I was so happy when I heard myself educating others on air, I realised that everyone has something to contributed in this world, even if you are just a farmer with no education,” said Sarah Apili from Uganda.

“I shared the same knowledge with other fellow women and they’re now happy farmers, very autonomous,” said Zaina Issa, a 51-year-old widow and mother of six from Tanzania, who smiled, showing how to record and send a voice recording.

Participants to the project also noticed a change in gender roles in the farms, and men taking part in activities once thought of as for women only.

In Tanzania, the programme on sorghum aired on Radio Maria has ended, but women can now listen to a programme on soybeans, which they requested.

“I want to diversify and farm soybeans. I have been following the radio broadcast and I want to give it a try,” says Zaina Issa.

Potentially, more crop diversification, confidence and gender balance is on the way.