Farm Radio International turns 35 this year. Since its inception, founder George Atkins has been addressing the needs of farmers in the developing world by broadcasting content that is relevant to these farmers’ homelands and daily lives; for this, the organization continues to be on the cutting edge. It has won awards for innovation from the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) and the Rockefeller Foundation. Today, nearly 600 radio stations in 38 countries subscribe to its regular broadcaster resource packages, and the organization has become the world leader in the effective use of interactive media in agricultural development and resilience.
Food Tank recently checked in with Executive Director Kevin Perkins to discuss the innovative programs and successes of Farm Radio International in its quest to fight poverty and food insecurity.
Food Tank (FT): How has your mission changed in the 35 years that Farm Radio International has been in business?
Kevin Perkins (KP): The basic mission remains the same, actually: to support broadcasters to serve small-scale farming families and rural communities. We work with radio stations that already exist, and we help them to do the best job they can.
The way we go about doing that has evolved. We’ve gone beyond just dispersing content to training and building radio station capacity. We still provide radio scripts and news stories to broadcasters, but we’ve also started working with partners to implement direct projects with specific goals. For example, if farmers have an interest in learning more about vegetable cultivation, we work with radio stations and other partners such as research organizations to do specialized interactive programming that will help farmers learn about and adopt new practices that improve their results.
FT: Why is interactive radio uniquely positioned to deliver impact in Sub-Saharan Africa?
KP: Well first, what we mean by interactive radio is an approach to radio that goes beyond distributing broadcast information, to being more of a platform where farmers can interact with each other. They can phone or text in and have their voices heard. Really, the spread of the mobile phone has made a lot of this possible. We’re able to use new approaches to make farmers’ views, concerns, and feedback an integral part of the programs.
One reason this approach can deliver impact is the accessibility of these technologies. Almost every farming household has a radio or their neighbor has a radio, and they like to use it to get information. And there’s really very few, if any, other sources of information available. The traditional extension services are not very strong. They’re lucky to see an extension worker more than once or twice a year. Television is not available, newspapers aren’t accessible, and fliers are limited.
The other reason that it’s impactful is that farmers in rural communities are able to make changes in their lives when they have access to information. And yet it’s more than just access; the radio also provides a chance to process the information, to discuss it and hear conversations about it, to debate it and talk about how it’s actually working for them. Information by itself doesn’t necessarily result in knowledge, and it doesn’t necessarily result in new practices; but, when there’s that aspect of hearing from other farmers, having feedback, interaction, and dialogue, it translates from data to actionable knowledge and new practices.
We’ve done a lot of evaluations of our work, and we have good data to show that this approach works. We’re able to see that farmers exposed to the radio programs are much more likely than they otherwise would be to take on a new practice that’s known to improve yields and resiliency. For example, in Ethiopia, we’ve been doing programs with four radio stations on teff cultivation, a cereal that’s indigenous to Ethiopia and widely eaten. They found that by planting it in rows and reducing the seeding rate, it will multiply the yield quite a bit.
So, we’ve been doing research on this approach and the experiences of farmers using it, and our evaluation shows nearly three times as many farmers will try these practices if they hear or are exposed to the radio programs than if they are not. We’ve seen repeatedly that knowledge levels are much higher when farmers are exposed, and the likelihood of them introducing improved practices is much higher. The radio station typically reaches from 200,000 to more than a million farmers; when you extrapolate, those kinds of numbers are really remarkable.
FT: Would you tell us about some of your other current projects?
KP: We’re working in Ethiopia with four or five different radio stations, and we’re focusing on the main staple crops that farming households depend on such as teff, sorghum, maize, and different kinds of beans. We’re doing interactive radio programming focusing on the staple crops one at a time and seeing really remarkable results in terms of farmers trying new approaches to cultivating and managing these crops. Going to back to the teff broadcast I mentioned earlier, about 61 percent of listeners introduced two of these row-planting practices, whereas only 20 percent of those who did not hear the radio program implemented these practices.
We’re also doing some very interesting work around the orange sweet potato. In Africa, the traditional sweet potato is a pale yellow color, but they’ve been able to find natural varieties that have a much deeper orange color, which means they’re a better source of vitamin A. This is particularly important as vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of infant illnesses. This orange sweet potato was developed from the native variety, which means that it can be more widely planted. However, since it’s new, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. We’ve been doing a lot of radio programming around the benefits of orange sweet potatoes and where to get the plant materials, how to plant, how to process, how to cook, and how to incorporate them into the household diet.
That’s happening in four countries, and it’s early on in the process. We haven’t done the evaluation yet, but we are hearing anecdotal evidence that demand for sweet potato planting materials is exploding and that there is more and more interest in including it in farming systems and as part of the diet.
A third project was a bit different for us. We were asked if we could find a way to poll farmers on their opinions about certain agricultural policies in Tanzania. We invited five radio stations to partner with us, and we developed five poll questions by holding focus group meetings with farmers and agricultural advisors. Four of the questions were yes/no questions and one was multiple choice. The radio station broadcast the questions and invited farmers to vote with their phones. All they had to do was call a particular number (one number for ‘yes,’ one number for ‘no’) and hang up. In Africa, if you hang up before someone answers, there’s no charge, which means that it is free for the farmers to call and register their vote.
We were hoping to get 6,000 farmers to vote—we got 9,000. We presented the results to the President and the Minister of Agriculture at an event in Dar es Salam so that the leadership of the country heard directly from the farmers. It’s a way to use interactive radio not just to share knowledge or distribute information, but to give farmers a voice and bring their views and concerns to the attention of decision-makers.
FT: How and why did you get involved in covering youth mental health? What is your aim in that effort?
KP: From the beginning, the mandate of Farm Radio has been to study small-scale farmers in rural communities, and a lot of what they’re interested in learning about on the radio has to do with farming. However, we’ve also addressed health, environmental, and educational needs. Mental illness is something that is just recently being recognized as a very serious cause of morbidity and mortality in all parts of the world, not just North America and Europe. Depression and other mental illnesses cause suffering and can be life-threatening. We saw mental health information as an important need of rural households and farming families, and we also saw an opportunity to develop and learn about new communication methods for dealing with these sorts of issues.
Major depression normally first appears for a person in adolescence, and if it’s identified then and responded to appropriately, then it’s much less likely to be a recurring problem or a more serious problem in later years. Often, youth suffering from depression don’t know where to turn or even what depression is, nor do their friends or parents know what’s happening. They get inappropriate advice or are simply ignored. By having people know what it is, how to talk about it, and who they can talk to, youth can obtain help. Even fairly basic counseling from trained health providers can make a really big difference.
We’ve been working very closely with youth to create dramas about depression for radio that are kind of edgy and have a youth feel and vibe, and we’re working with the radio stations to hold talk shows after each drama that are by youth and for youth. In the case of Malawi where we started the programs, we’ve found that the dramas have been a huge hit. When the first series was coming to an end, the station was filled with complaints saying, You can’t let this come to an end! You have to keep this show on the air! We’re replicating this program in Tanzania and finding new ways to use interactive radio to help young people.
FT: What other new ways does Farm Radio International spread the word about farming methods?
KP: Most of the farm broadcasters in Africa have a bit of training in journalism, and they might have some understanding of agriculture. But, they haven’t had training in designing and producing programs that meet the needs of farmers, so we’ve developed a lot of training courses and training modules that directly work with producers and broadcasters. That’s had a really big impact.
In rural Africa, people belong to groups, so we help stations make listening to radio programs a group activity. We’ve helped form hundreds of these community listening groups. We cost share wind-up MP3 radios so farmers can record programs and play them back later or record their own voices and send the recording to the radio. Groups can listen to a program multiple times or listen when it’s convenient.
FT: Who are your partners?
KP: We work with agricultural research centers such as the Maize and Wheat Research Center, the International Livestock Research Institute, and the Consultative Groups for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). We work closely with these organizations on content since we’re not content specialists; we’re specialists in the methodology and the process. We also involve farmers’ organizations and NGOs that work with farmers. We really play a role in convening and bringing these partners together to collaborate and provide a service to farmers.
Our main partners are the radio stations. Some of them are public; some are state-owned; some are community radio stations; some are set up by farmer’s organizations, church groups, or others; and some are commercial, privately-owned stations. As long as they’re committed to serving farmers in rural communities, we are happy to work with them.