Combining Local Radio and Mobile Phones to Promote Climate Stewardship

Many thanks to Kier Olson DeVries, Senior Editor of the Communication Initiative, for featuring this work in e-magazine the Drum Beat, and for permission to share here. This case study details a pilot project on the Eastern edge of Zambia that aimed to increase local knowledge of deforestation, and deepen rural communities' stake in reversing the trend, using effective radio programming and mobile phone-based interactions. The case study comes from the Centre for Development Informatics (CDI), University of Manchester, United Kingdom (UK), with the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

According to the report, with support from the Foundation to Promote Open Society, Developing Radio Partners (DRP) launched the one year pilot project, working with three local radio stations in each country. The primary aim of Zachilengedwe Tsogolo Lathu, as the participants named it ("Our Environment, Our Future"), was to empower rural Zambians and Malawians to address key climate change issues, especially local deforestation, by improving their access to information on the subject via radio and mobile phones.

In order to facilitate mass interaction, the project used FrontlineSMS. By connecting a GSM modem to a radio station's computer, FrontlineSMS makes it easier for radio staff to see and respond to messages, as well as to gauge the overall sentiment of participating listeners. For example, after a segment on the impact of deforestation on the climate was presented, radio hosts could ask poll questions or solicit feedback, to see what lessons were sticking with their audience.

Photo courtesy of Breeze FM
Photo courtesy of Breeze FM

The project impact, as reported here, includes:

  • Better levels of citizen information and involvement. "For example, in Mchinji, Malawi, the local Community Oriented Development Programme (CODEP) held Action Events to supplement radio programming on deforestation and its impact on the climate. Action Events encouraged the community to collaborate with CODEP in the future, which also provided the community with seedling trees."
  • Improved journalist capacity.
  • Work by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and stations to engage local government and tribal leaders on key climate issues.

Evaluation at mid-term included the following successes:

  • Sustainability of local radio and mobile phones technologies - "Overall, the innovative use of mobile phones and text messaging with FrontlineSMS was considered a success by participating journalists, especially at Breeze FM, where the software is now used for all radio programmes, not just the environment and climate change programming included in the original project."
  • Close partnerships between local environmental organizations and the newly empowered radio stations and their staff. "One key to the success of this project was the early and ongoing involvement of the participating community itself."
  • Project management style - "clear destination but flexible routing."
  • Strong, local institutional partners.

Recommendations include the following:

  • Build resources and capacity for radio stations as climate information hubs.
  • Move beyond dissemination and interaction to engagement and action - "Radio has a great value in disseminating information and making listeners aware. Adding mobile telephony can turn this into an interactive process."
  • Keep technology "within the envelope.... Don't push so far ahead with ICT [information and communication technology] innovations that you lose your project partners."
  • Recognise the tension between value and challenges in remote, rural areas.

According to DRP, as of April 2012, nearly two years after the completion of the project, all of the stations were still producing programmes about the environment. The topics include: deforestation, reforestation, invasive species, environmental degradation, crop residue burning, soil and water conservation, discouraging the use of traditional cook stoves that pollute, and beekeeping.

-Ryan Jones (FrontlineSMS), Bill Siemering (Developing Radio Partners)