The seed for Farm Radio International was planted nearly 40 years ago in rural Zambia when a man named George Atkins had a simple, but really good idea.
It was 1975 and George, a Canadian farm radio broadcaster, was out in the Zambian countryside with his African colleagues as part of a workshop he was running. As they travelled around interviewing farmers, George asked them about the radio shows they had created recently.
When a broadcaster from Sierra Leone said that his latest broadcast was about maintaining spark plugs on tractors, George was surprised. The conversation that followed went something like this:
“But how many farmers have tractors in Sierra Leone?” George asked.
“Oh, about one in eighty thousand.”
“And how big is your audience?”
“Huge ... 800,000.”
“Then,” George asked, “You’re actually talking to only ten farmers? Don’t you think it would be better to talk about oxen than tractors?”
George quickly came to learn that farmer programs across Africa were usually not aligned with the needs of their listeners.
Why? There simply wasn’t widely accessible information about farming techniques that could help small-scale farmers. Most of the information available had to do with the large-scale, mechanized farming of developed countries.
His idea was simple: find low-cost and no-cost ways to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people — small-scale farmers — and share them via the world’s most accessible communication device: radio.
Determined to get his idea off the ground, George took a sabbatical from the CBC to travel the world in search of ideas to help small-scale farmers and new contacts in the world of rural radio broadcasting.
When he returned to Canada, he established the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network and worked on producing radio resources to send overseas.
On May 1, 1979, he and his family mailed the first package of scripts and tapes to 34 broadcasters in 26 countries.
That, of course, was just the beginning. Since then, the organization now known as Farm Radio International has sent more than 100 script packages, and our network includes more than 780 radio stations in 40 countries with a distinct focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
The Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (DCFRN) is founded and the first script package is sent out.
The George Atkins Communications Award is established to recognize excellence in rural radio broadcasting.
We decide to narrow the focus of our work to where we know we can make the biggest impact: sub-Saharan Africa.
We enter into a strategic partnership with WUSC and move our office from Toronto to Ottawa.
We begin the African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI), a 42-month project to assess the effectiveness of farm radio in improving the food security of farming families.
We change our name from DCFRN to Farm Radio International / Radios Rurales Internationales to reflect the bilingual nature of our work.
We complete the first round of Participatory Radio Campaigns, which reached an estimated 40 million listeners in 5 countries.
Farm Radio Trust is established as an independent strategic partner in Malawi.
We open “The Hangar,” a radio and ICT innovation lab at our office in Arusha, Tanzania.
Our work on youth mental health is the focus of a three-part documentary film by Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco of the CBC called Mental Health on Air.
We use radio and mobile phones to gather input from nearly 4,000 Tanzanians for the Government of Canada’s International Assistance Review. Learn more.
George Stuart Atkins
“I have to pinch myself when I think of the people who are helped by this service that is available to them by just turning on their radio.”
George grew up on his family’s farm near Oakville, Ontario. After graduating from Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph and doing post-graduate studies in Wisconsin and Colorado, he went on to be a farmer himself.
Farming was George’s first career. His second was in radio. He began doing farm-related broadcasts while still farming full time. In 1955, he gave up farming to work for the CBC.
Over the next 20 years, he became a fixture on the National Farm Radio Forum, various farm radio programs, and on television.
In 1979, George founded what would later be known as Farm Radio International. Little did he know that this organization would go on to improve the lives of tens of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people.
For his work serving small-scale farmers around the world, George was honoured as a member of the Order of Canada in 1989. While George left us in 2009, his legacy is alive and well. And the world is better for it.
The George Atkins Communications Award
Each year, we honour George’s dedication and service through a professional award in his name. The George Atkins Communications Award recognizes rural radio broadcasters for their outstanding commitment and contribution to food security and poverty reduction in low-income countries.
Canada’s Farm Radio Forum
The story of Farm Radio International goes back even further, to the early 1940s.
In 1941, the newly established Canadian Broadcasting Corporation started a weekly rural listening group project called the Farm Radio Forum. For more than 20 years, farmers gathered across the country to listen to and discuss agricultural programs. The Forum also included a regional report-back system that collected farmers’ feedback, ideas, and experiences for future broadcasts and to share with relevant government bodies.
The Canadian farm radio experience went on to influence agricultural broadcasting elsewhere in the world — and not only through our work. A UNESCO report on the Farm Radio Forum encouraged India, Ghana, and France to adopt it in their programming. After all, good ideas have a way of spreading.