Closing Rural Africa’s Information Gap

By Kristine Pearson and Sava Tatić

Mockup of Radio Voice Bank platform

Access to information is a basic human right, yet in many parts of the world, realisation of this right is hindered by a lack of technology, social constraints, poverty, or a combination of the three. Nowhere is this truer than in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to The World Bank, some 100 million Africans live in rural and remote areas that are underserved by communication networks. On a recent research visit to Kenya, a group of Maasai women demonstrated what this means in practice. At a community meeting held in an Evangelical church in Narok county, 25 women explained that while most owned or had access to basic internet-enabled mobile phones, few had enough data for a simple web search or the reading skills to navigate their phone’s interface.

Other than receiving calls, the only thing these women used their phones for was making voice calls and mobile banking (and even those tasks required help from their literate children).

But if technology is a hurdle to information empowerment in Africa, we believe it is also the solution. That’s why Lifeline Energy and Sourcefabric are working together on a joint project that will help nourish Africa’s vast information deserts and provide underserved communities with a vital source of news and educational content.

Called Radio Voice Bank (RVB), we are building the equivalent of YouTube for audio. Once launched, RVB will be the world’s first open source and searchable library of curated MP3s for rural African listeners. Ultimately it will enable individuals, groups, health and education providers and broadcasters in Africa and beyond to share, search, stream, download, and listen to programming via internet-enabled devices, microSD cards, as well as solar and wind-up radios (devices that Lifeline Energy has produced for two decades).

Our initial motivation for creating RVB was simple: while community radio is central to information sharing in vernacular languages, every day, valuable radio content is created, and then lost forever. Once radio programs on everything from health to gender-based violence to farming are aired they are rarely retrievable later. RVB was conceived as a way to address this challenge with a mix of open-source software and humanitarian initiative.

Recent visits with future users have demonstrated that the need for RVB goes far beyond our early ideas. More than a platform for resurfacing previously aired content, RVB has the potential to be an educational lifeline for tens of millions of vulnerable people, particularly women, who are in need of up-skilling and job training.

More than two decades ago, when Lifeline Energy was launched, the HIV/AIDS pandemic was sweeping across southern Africa like an invisible tsunami, silently tearing families apart. In South Africa alone there were 1,500 new infections a day, not unlike what we’re seeing now with Covid-19. Back then, mobile phones were for the well off and the only reliable way to reach rural populations was via radio. This was when Lifeline Energy (known then as Freeplay Foundation) was launched to distribute wind-up radios to underserved populations as a way to access information on HIV/AIDS and other topics.

A decade later, when Lifeline started working with Maasai communities in Kenya’s Narok county, technology and information access had barely changed. In one early encounter, a group of 50 women — all of whom were illiterate except for two who spoke English — explained how not a single person among them had ever turned on a light switch. While Kenya’s indigenous communities have been remarkably resourceful in layering Western technology with local knowledge to survive in harsh conditions, challenges like climate change are accelerating faster than the Maasai can adapt.

Over the past decade, Lifeline Energy has returned to Narok county more than a dozen times, and every visit these women have been honest, forthright, and deeply aware of their situation. These Maasai women, like many women in rural Africa, are some of the most marginalized people in the world, and their living situation is deteriorating. They fear becoming “dropout pastoralists,” whereby they have to leave their land and live with relatives or in a slum in a town, where other threats to health and safety would emerge.

What’s different today is their interests. No longer is HIV/AIDS education their primary concern. Rather, they urgently want to learn new skills that will help them make money and support their families.

During a visit last month as part of RVB user research, one Maasai woman, Nolamala, said she wanted audio content that would teach her how to farm. Others agreed; farm skills would help them feed their families and provide surplus produce to sell at market. Another woman suggested raising chickens to sell chicks and eggs. While the Maasai don’t traditionally eat chicken as part of their diet, animal husbandry for income generation holds great appeal. But whatever these women do, access to training and instruction — on topics as varied as basic literacy, farming, numeracy, and even English and Swahili language skills — will be key to their success.

Traditionally, such information has been hard to come by, especially for older African women. With low literacy rates — among Maasai women older than 40, for instance, only about 5% can read — radio has long been the only medium that can reach them. Even now, dropout rates among Maasai girls is alarmingly high and only 10% will finish their schooling.

Covid-19 has further upset even the trusted source of radio. In this one Maasai community, for instance, the community radio station has temporarily closed down due to a lack of funds.

RVB has the potential to serve all of these interests, and to do so in an on-demand format. For Sourcefabric, partnering with Lifeline Energy to build RVB is a natural extension of our mission to strengthen journalism and expand access to news and information. For Lifeline Energy, working with one of Europe’s leading open-source technology developers furthers our goal of addressing some of Africa’s most complex social problems through innovation, integrity, and excellence.

Expanded access to training, education, and knowledge will not alter rural Africans’ situation overnight, but it can help position vulnerable communities for a brighter future. Together, we’re working to ensure that a lack of information no longer impedes Africa’s development, and that innovative technology reaches those who need it most.

Kristine Pearson is Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy and a fellow of the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum. Sava Tatić is Managing Director of Sourcefabric, a non-profit developer of open-source technology for news media.

We build open source tools for journalism, including Superdesk, Live Blog and Airtime. http://www.sourcefabric.org

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