By Birgitte Jallov, founder of EMPOWERHOUSE.

Cholera outbreaks were a recurring problem in Dondo, Central Mozambique, resulting in 200 painful deaths each year. Once the community radio station started broadcasting health programmes in Sena and Ndau, the local languages, people understood how they got ill and changed their behaviour. The next year no one in Dondo died from cholera.

In the age of the Internet and cell phone, community radio remains a powerful way for people to connect, learn and discuss issues important to their lives. Like the name would indicate, a community radio station is built and run by a community.  It usually has a relatively small footprint (up to 60 miles) and broadcasts in the local language.  Community radio station licences are based on not accepting funds from political parties or supporting one political party or candidate over another, and are owned, managed and run by community members. Although they may receive donor funding to start, they have to be sustained by the community in the long term.

Communication Strengthens Grassroots Development

A community radio station is an essential development tool. It provides a vehicle for true empowerment and grassroots development. When the community station is owned and run by local women and men overall community involvement is strong. Gaining access to accurate information and having an opportunity to voice opinions through call-in shows or by working with programme production at the station, the community can use the radio station to address problems and find lasting solutions.  When the radio station is ‘ours’, listeners trust the programming.  There is confidence in what is aired, advice is more likely to be followed, and positive, social change can take root.

Community radio has been used to stimulate social change the world over since the 1940s in Latin America and the US, and in Europe since the early 1970s. Since the early 90s it has increasingly been recognised as a powerful tool for empowerment in communities tackling social, political and economic development challenges, not least in Africa. Hundreds of community stations in South Africa, Mali, Mozambique and Niger, for example, all broadcast locally relevant content – news, health, agriculture & environment, education, rights, announcements, and so forth.

In addition, community radio is effectively used for celebration, preservation and further development of local culture.  For example, many community stations in South Africa broadcast ‘stories of the ancestors’, which is an important cultural component of life. When the radio station airs in the local language, new pride blossoms as I saw in Tanzania with a Maasai community who said to me, “through our own radio station, we got our identity back!”. In Ghana, traditional chiefs have adopted community radio to interact with their people.

Empowering Women by Giving them a Voice

It has taken a while to get women behind the microphones in many communities: women traditionally work in the home, in the field, as well as walk to collect firewood and water. Taking the lead in public is quite foreign to the role of women in a rural African context. But this notion has changed in many communities, realising that, actually, women are at the core of the family and the community. It is women who tell the stories about the past and pass on the traditions to the young ones. Women also want to learn about women’s issues from a woman’s voice.

Women station managers are still not commonplace. But where they are, the stations are often more sustainable. In Terá, Niger, 140 kms outside the capital Niamey, it was Issaka Maïmouna Habibou, who received me in the Director’s office. And all the people working at the station were women. She explained that the station’s money had disappeared along with CDs and equipment. When the radio board had finalised their investigation, letting those with long fingers go, only women were left.

In most African countries, literacy is still a challenge. Large populations are not sufficiently literate to read a newspaper or to use the Internet actively. This is where radio still comes into its own as a communication tool and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Birgitte Jallov is the founder of EMPOWERHOUSE, an organisation that assists communities, non-profits, governments and funders with finding integrated solutions to create and strengthen community radio. Her book ‘Empowerment Radio – Voices creating a community’ will be published soon. To learn more about community radio contact Birgitte on birgitte.jallov@mail.dk. Follow EMPOWERHOUSE on twitter.