Japhet Emmanuel was 10 years old when his father introduced him to radio. This was the best way to learn English, assured his father. So every evening the young Tanzanian man would sit next to the small black radio listening to the one English program.
“BBC World Service,” he deepened his voice to sound like a broadcaster. Each night he listened carefully, mimicking the words of the announcer.
These nightly practice sessions came in handy because today he works as a country program manager for Farm Radio International — a Canadian-based non-profit organization that works in partnership with around more than 400 radio broadcasters throughout Africa.
He speaks mostly Swahili on air, but speaking English has allowed him to travel and share the stories of Farm Radio International.
“In Africa we have a shortage of extension experts, especially in rural areas,” he said in a recent interview. “So this is where we think radio comes in so handy because you can use what extension experts you have on air and deliver the same messages that would be done by so many other experts.”
Farm Radio International, which was formed in 1979 by the late CBC broadcaster George Atkins, creates programming for farmers throughout the 38 African countries it serves, tailoring content for each area depending on the agro-ecological zone.
Programs, covering everything from crop production, to nutrition, farm safety, HIV/AIDS, and biosecurity, reach a huge number of farmers.
Though they don’t know the total number of farmers yet that they reach, according to Emmanuel, they know at least 2.2 million farmers in Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Malawi alone listen to Farm Radio.
To illustrate the impact of the programming he tells the story of a cassava farmer in one of the villages in the southern part of Tanzania. Her husband was largely absent and she was raising five children while trying to make enough money to feed, clothe and send them to school.
“There were so many challenges she was facing,” said Emmanuel.
She struggled to get decent yields from her cassava plants, which were growing slowly and often attacked by diseases. She often couldn’t bring in as much money as she needed to provide for her family.
So she contacted the broadcaster from her area, saying she was looking for a more resilient, productive cassava variety. The local broadcaster, a Farm Radio partner, connected her with a research institute that provided her with better-quality cuttings.
“Radio remains a reliable, cheap way to give information,” said Emmanuel. “It creates dialogue and brings governments to the equation. Radio is another platform where voices of farmers can be heard by policy-makers.”
Of course radio can only communicate information one way. So Farm Radio started a phone service that cultivates information provided by farmers. Farmers are encouraged to register their cellphone numbers and respond to a list of questions so broadcasters can analyze the information and change their programming accordingly.
Farmers can use this number to communicate what they heard that benefited them and what they would like to hear more about.
“Different challenges are faced in each area,” he said. “We design programs around relevant issues.”
Farm Radio also hosts a number that farmers can call to learn up-to-date details on the weather along with information on how this affects their farming practices.
Being able to communicate and receive input from farmers is a great way to find stories, said Emmanuel.
When he later visited the farm of the woman from the village in southern Tanzania he found that life had improved substantially for her. She had brought the cassava cuttings home and once the new cuttings produced strong cassava plants and good yields for her, she started selling cuttings from her plants to the other farmers.
“I asked her what she does with that extra money and she said, ‘Japhet, I have five kids. I need to buy clothes, I need to buy food, I need to send them to school,’” he said.
“That’s the kind of story that moves me when I meet these farmers.”