Surfing the Radio Waves for Sustainable Agriculture

Friday, September 9, 2011

While the use of mobile phones is rapidly surging across Africa, access gaps persist between urban and rural users. But a new generation of social entrepreneurs is remedying this problem by combining new and old media to reach rural populations.

Twenty-nine-year-old Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is one of such entrepreneurs who sees the mobile telephony gap as a call to innovate. His organization connects rural farmers with the information they need through a combination of mobile telephony and radio, which is widely used in rural areas.

“Where the four-wheel vehicle stops, that’s where the radio wave starts,” said Ikegwuonu.

A Rolex Laureate and an Ashoka Fellow, Ikegwuonu is founder of the Smallholders Foundation, a multi-technology platform that promotes environmentally sustainable agricultural activity in rural parts of Imo State, Nigeria. The foundation primarily runs a radio station that broadcasts daily programs on agricultural and environmental management, market information, financial planning and business skills to over 250,000 small farmers 10 hours a day. The foundation collects daily commodity prices from the major markets in and out of Imo State and makes this information available to farmers.

“We tell them, for example, ’If you take this bag of garri (a popular staple food) about 10 to 15 kilometers out of this village, you are going to sell it for 6,000 naira. In their village a bag of garri is 2,000 naira, so they have the opportunity to make 4,000-naira profit,” Ikegwuonu said. “We also advise them on actual agricultural activity: how to grow plantain, the market availability of plantain, where to obtain seedlings to grow cocoyam, and so forth.”

Interactive Radio

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu presents a radio programme in the Igbo language on sustainable agriculture.

The Smallholders Foundation’s technology platform uses mobile technology to allow rural radio listeners, particularly small farmers, to participate in the foundation’s agricultural radio programming.

“I wanted to develop an innovative and interactive platform,” said Ikegwuonu, referring to the rural farmers’ need not only for feedback, but also for the kind of feedback that is timely, relevant and well adapted to the content being broadcasted. Ikegwuonu worked alongside researchers and developers at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the United States to introduce a system called Advancement Through Interactive Radio (AIR) to rural communities in Imo State. The mobile device, a solar-powered handset, allows smallholder farmers to participate in the radio discussions using its push-to-talk function.

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