Yet in spite of rural radio's widespread appeal as a channel of communication, low budgets and lack of material hampered its development as a source of reliable agricultural information in much of Africa. Common obstacles included inadequate radio staff training, poor equipment and lack of scientific and technical information that could be transmitted to listeners in a meaningful way.
In 1991, CTA sought to harness the potential posed by rural radio and boost the quality of the programmes broadcast on agriculture and rural development. The result was the RRRP programme, an initiative that was to become widely acclaimed – so much so that it went on to run for 17 years.
Aimed at linking farmers to practical information about agricultural technologies, as well as promoting knowledge sharing and helping to overcome illiteracy, the packs were designed to encourage the use of rural radio to disseminate scientific and technical information. CTA teamed up with various partners to deliver the service, including media organisations, farmers' organisations, regional networks and extension services and international organisations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Each pack dealt with a specific topic – ranging from crop storage to cassava, and from small ruminants to soil fertility. They contained all the materials needed to make a lively, informative programme on a specific subject – a kind of DIY kit for broadcasters. Included in each pack were between six and nine interviews loaded onto audio cassette tapes and later CDs, a transcript of the text, a prepared script to be read by the broadcaster, suggestions for introducing each interview, technical information on the topic, handbooks and photocopied articles and advice on how to use the pack. Radio broadcasters were free to pick and choose from the pack and use what they liked, translating material into local languages when they thought it would reach a wider audience.
Each pack was sent out to about 150 rural radio stations for the English version and 250 stations for the French version. When the programme was in full swing, it was producing five resource packs per year.
The topics chosen for the resource packs were based on suggestions made by radio stations themselves, which were encouraged to send in feedback and ideas on a regular basis. During the course of the RRRP programme, more than 50 resource packs were produced on a wide range of subjects, including vegetable processing techniques, animal husbandry, aquaculture, weeds, banana, coffee and beekeeping.
"We tried to make a radio toolkit with a focus on practical problems, though obviously everyone's problems with farming are different, so if you get too specific, you will exclude a great many people," said Mike Davison, RRRP Coordinator for UK-based media organisation WRENmedia, which assembled the material for the English language resource packs. The French version was handled by Agence Periscoop Multimédia.
"A lot of the packs were about raising awareness of technologies that were already out there, such as cropping and livestock practices. But we also looked at thematic areas, such as gender and agriculture or agricultural value chains."
Theme-based topics included farming opportunities for young people, marketing strategies for small-scale farmers, farmer organisations, land tenure and agricultural diversification.
The interviews were recorded by African journalists who talked to agricultural experts, extension workers, researchers, vets, personnel from ministries of agriculture and technical advisers working for NGOs.
In collaboration with GRET (Group de recherche et d'echanges technologiques) and CIERRO (Centre interafricain d'etudes en radio rurale de Ouagadougou), CTA produced a directory of rural radio stations Radio at the Service of the Rural World in ACP Countries. This contained details of more than 400 rural radio producers, journalists and presenters in ACP countries, and the addresses of training centres and resource personnel for rural radio in Europe and North America.
At the time, the formula was highly innovative.
"Many radio stations were very poorly resourced, so the programmes were rather dull. They did not have the money to get out into the field, talk to farmers and give their listeners anything with more reality and life to it. There was very little outside reporting," said Davison. "The idea behind the RRRP programme was to fill that gap, not by resourcing all the radio stations but by providing them with materials recorded by African journalists in the field, to bring some real farmers' voices and perspectives into their programmes."
A cornerstone of CTA's strategy in addressing the problem of poor programme quality involved conducting training workshops for radio broadcasters and journalists. Skills taught included improving research gathering techniques, use of recording equipment to improve production quality, budgeting for programme production, scriptwriting techniques and management for small radio stations. Journalists were given training in specific ways of making programmes more interesting, with a focus on field interviews that took them out of the studio.
A monitoring and evaluation process set up in 1995 consistently brought the response that the resource packs served to stimulate ideas for local programming, which in turn sensitised rural radio to rural development issues.
A powerful medium
As technology developed, CTA posted the resource packs on its website, so that radio stations with good Internet connections could download them directly. After a while, the materials for the pack were loaded onto CDs rather than cassettes, so that the entire contents of the packs could be delivered in a digital version, with no paper. Training was given in the skills needed for the move from analogue to digital systems, since digital recording and editing procedures differ significantly from analogue procedures. The rural radio resource packs produced between the programme's launch in 1991 and its closure in 2008 are still available for download on CTA's RRRP website.
Despite the rise of the Internet, radio remains a powerful medium, especially in rural areas, where connections and electricity supply may be erratic. Radio has the advantage that is does not rely on electricity. Solar powered and wind-up radios are an effective alternative to mains-powered radio sets.
As the CTA programme proved, rural radio can play an important role in countering illiteracy. It can mobilise interest in local issues, communicate news quickly and offer material in local languages. It provides valuable information on important issues to farmers and rural dwellers and can link extension workers and producers when personal visits are not possible. Crucially for many African countries, production costs are low compared with other channels, such as television.
"We were looking at how to raise awareness in a very dispersed population of farmers, many of whom were illiterate, about agricultural possibilities," said Davison. "We are talking about 20 or more years ago, but even today, if you talk to people, radio comes up as a very good way of getting messages out to farming communities. The strengths of radio as a medium are well established and continue to be recognised, despite all the other developments there have been."