What does entertainment have to do with development? A whole lot if you ask us.

Thinking back to my days as a student, my mind always seems to gravitate to a few vivid memories from just a handful of classes. But why? Was their content that different from others? Not really. Did they focus on topics I found inherently more interesting? Perhaps. But what really made the difference was content delivery.

The teachers who were the most effective in helping me understand and retain complex information were also the most engaging and entertaining. They invited students to be part of a conversation and found ways to make learning fun. I’ll never forget being instructed by a physics professor to throw eggs at a bed sheet to understand momentum. Messy cleanup aside, the concept stuck.

You may be asking yourself what my classroom memories have to do with international development. Well, I’ve come to learn that participation and entertainment are not only key to success in the international development classroom, but in the field as well.

I work for Farm Radio International (FRI), an Ottawa-based organization that works with more than 500 radio partners across 38 sub-Saharan African countries to serve small-scale farmers. Having been doing this work since 1979, grounded in Canada’s strong farm radio legacy, we know the difference that good, practical information can make for struggling farmers … but only if they tune in.

Starting in the 1930s, the CBC used radio as a way to reach and connect farmers across the country. Back then, it was really the only way to deliver essential farming information to remote areas of the country. And it was a huge success. Spanning several decades, our National Farm Radio Forums were invaluable in giving farmers the opportunity to be heard, learn from each other and hold elected officials to account.

The power of radio as a communication tool and the importance of farmer participation formed the backbone of FRI when it was established in 1979 by Ontario’s leading farm radio broadcaster, George Atkins. Thirty-five years later, radio is still the best way to reach African small-scale farmers.  It’s available even in the most remote of areas, can be understood despite illiteracy, and is simple to use. Across sub-Saharan Africa, it’s as important as ever to ensure that farm radio resonates with farmers, and our work at FRI focuses on helping our radio partners deliver high-quality agricultural programming that farmers actually want to listen to.

This brings me back to my experiences in the classroom. Too often, instructors talked at students, not with us, providing lots of information but no opportunity for exchange and debate. No breaks, no interaction, no engagement. And the result? Students were soon sneaking out of the classroom. The content may have been useful but the delivery method made it seem boring. And boring is boring, whoever and wherever you are, and regardless of the medium used to share information.

This is particularly true when it comes to radio, which relies entirely on sense of sound. The track record of development-oriented radio in Africa is mixed at best. For decades, many of the “instructional radio” programs heard across the continent featured great educational content, but in a format that didn’t intrigue or motivate listeners to listen in.

The word entertainment is rarely one that is seen in the concept notes and proposals of international development projects, but it should be. Entertainment enhances participation.

We’ve certainly witnessed this in our work at FRI, which currently involves running radio dramas on mental health in Malawi, cooking shows about how to use vitamin-rich orange sweet potato in Ghana, mobile audience voting during a reality radio program on young farmers in Mali, and much more. These programs all address important topics and issues in agriculture, health and development, but also make for really great listening. For us, audience participation and entertainment are indispensable, crucial to our success in reaching farmers across sub-Saharan Africa.

Without audience participation and efforts to ensure entertainment, we are no different than a well-meaning professor speaking to a classroom slowly emptying of students. As with all communication for development initiatives, radio programs are only beneficial if farmers are motivated to tune in. This was just as true in Canada in decades past as it is across rural African communities today.

About the author
Mark Leclair is a Senior Program Officer with Farm Radio International. When he isn’t on the road, he works out of their Ottawa office on communications, the development of new projects and managing existing projects.

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