The Case for Radio-on-Demand in Africa

Over the past few weeks Farm Radio International was fortunate enough to be covered in a great article by Melissa Ulbricht (@melissaulbricht) on both Mobile Active and the MediaShift Idea Lab blog on  The article looked into what we believe is a very exciting application of newer technologies to tried and true radio in the developing world.  The idea is quite simple:

Give farmers the ability to listen to market prices, archived radio broadcasts and other content on-demand and make it available when and where they feel is most convenient.  This idea sprang out of a traditional weakness of radio in the past; that it is inherently a technology that is broadcast once (sometimes twice) at a specific time.

For many farmers, broadcast times have been inconvenient, interfering with work that needs to be done in the field or elsewhere.  Women have often been excluded from listening to broadcasts due to lack of access to a radio during the time of broadcast and simply being busy with household duties.  To us it was a shame that such valuable information was only broadcast a finite amount of times and was often missed by the people that could benefit most.

The idea: What if we could make broadcasts and market information available to farmers through mobile phones on-demand?  The wide availability of mobile technology to even the poorest farmer in Africa could give access to radio stations’ back catalogue of programs when and where the farmer wanted – additionally making market prices/info available through a simple phone call even further enhances the radio’s agricultural services to farmers. Our research has shown that on more technical agricultural issues and quick listing of market prices, farmers want a chance to repeat listen in order to be sure about the techniques and prices.

The technology: The folks at have created the technology that has brought this idea from the drawing room to a reality.  Their technology called Freedom Fone, is known as an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system.  In all likelihood, if you are reading this in Canada, the US or Europe you have probably used something very similar to this technology when you try to get customer service for product X.  “Press 1 for service in English.”,  “Press 2 to listen to our store hours.”  When you interact on the phone with a computer system this way you are actually accessing a type of IVR.  Where our implementation of Freedom Fone differed, however, was the type of content that was loaded and the fact that it was linked to a farm radio campaign.

From Freedom Fone to Farmers’ Fone: We deployed Freedom Fone in both Ghana and Tanzania as part of our African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI) funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in order to learn how can new technologies could increase the effectiveness of radio as a sustainable, interactive development communication tool.  In both countries the technology was used to support and enhance what we call participatory radio campaigns (PRC’s) on specific agriculture topics that have the potential to improve the food security of local farming households.

We won’t go into too much depth here (you can read some very detailed analysis in the article here:  In Tanzania, through Radio Maria, farmers were encouraged to call into a specific number that was advertised on the farm radio program and leave messages that told their story of how they were implementing the change on their farm.  We know that farmers love to hear voices like their own on the radio and that when they hear these voices they are much more engaged in the farm radio programming.  In Ghana, the system was used to make commodity prices for local markets available for re-listening as well as the radio programs in two different local languages: Ewe and Akan. The system received over 4,500 calls, just over 2,000 of which accessed past the welcome message.  It was clear that we had found a service that farmers found interesting and useful.

Now the implementation of the technology was not perfect (you can read what worked and what didn’t here:   but in the end we have gained some valuable insight into how newer technologies can push radio to a new level of interactivity and in the process act as a more effective medium for farmers to participate in.  This is just one example of radio 2.0, where lines blur between mobile phones, SMS, MP3 and radio.  It is indeed an exciting time to be working in the field of communication for development and we are loving every minute of it.

Stay tuned for more results from the AFRRI project this fall when we will be releasing our major outcome reports, including one assessing our use of newer technologies with radio.

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