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The power of radio February 14th, 2016 by

Cell phones and FM radio stations can interact as if they were made for each other. In northern Uganda, Radio Tembo FM 103.5 broadcasts in the Luo language from a hilltop above the dusty town of Kitgum. The station combines radio with phones to help farmers get back to business after a long break. The surrounding area is still recovering from the 20 years of war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a conflict that more or less ended only about 2008. Most of the farmers spent much of the war in camps, and have only been farming again for a few years.

Radio Tembo first gained an audience by playing popular music, but then started a farm market program every Friday. The radio broadcaster would tell the listeners what was on sale in the various market towns, and list the prices. Farmers phoned, with information of their own. The market report was soon a bigger hit that the music programs.

radio announcerThe farmers use the radio to attract business. One farmer called to say that he had 20 bags of cassava for sale. Speaking live from his phone, he gave his name and the name of his village, and another listener left immediately, and bought all 20 bags.

Farmers had always liked the weather report, but the market show became so popular that Radio Tembo added an ago-business specialist, Patricko, and aired the market show every Monday through Friday from 11:30 to noon, plus an hour-long magazine program on Sunday evenings.

Radio TemboRadio stations can buy expensive hardware to handle multiple phone calls, but Radio Tembo simply places three cell phones on a desk. As soon as the announcer asks for calls, all three phones ring at once; the callers are eager to get on the air.

Some farmers call to tell their troubles. For example, one farmer rang up to say that buyers came to his house to take his four bags of sesame. They loaded the bags onto their truck, but only paid him for two bags. They said that they could give him the rest of the money in town. He gladly climbed on board the truck, but half way to town, while driving through a village, the buyers threw the farmer off the truck, shouting “thief, thief!” The bruised, humiliated farmer was able to explain himself to the villagers, but he was still hurt, and cheated out of his money.

Another farmer called to say that he had just sold his sesame for one million shillings (about $400). The next day some young thugs came to his house and beat him up and took his money.

Stories like this alert other farmers to the scams being used in the area. There are a lot of unemployed youth who grew up in refugee camps. Many of these youth are unskilled and desperate for money. Now that folks have moved out of the camps and are back on their farms, commodity buyers are returning. But it takes time for buyers and sellers to build trust, and some of the new buyers are dishonest.

Radio Tembo learns from the callers’ stories, and comes up with solutions. The broadcasters advise farmers to sell in groups, for greater safety and for more negotiating strength. The station suggests that farmers open bank accounts, so they don’t have to carry cash. In response to this, one of the local savings and credit cooperatives has begun to sponsor the market show.

Cell phones can combine with radio to allow smallholder farmers to lower transaction costs, to get accurate information about prices, to tell their problems and find solutions. Phones and radio fit together well; they are both based on the spoken word, and both are friendly to local languages. People in North Uganda didn’t invent talk radio, but they are remaking it, in their own style.

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