The U.S.-based NGO Developing Radio Partners is playing a crucial role in socioeconomic development in several African countries by using local radio to address their communities’ greatest needs.
In Malawi, DRP is closing the knowledge and information gap on sexual reproductive health with a project that helps young people know their health rights. The project, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, has trained more than 400 young people ages 14 to 19 to produce weekly radio programs on diverse topics related to reproductive health.
The project is aimed at making sure boys and girls understand their health rights and are aware of the reproductive health services that are available to them. DRP’s project includes partnerships with nine community-based radio stations that are focusing their weekly radio programs and public service announcements (PSAs) on topics aimed at ending child marriage and reducing rates of teen pregnancy, HIV infections and COVID-19.
The programs also encourage girls and boys to stay in school and complete their education.
In Burkina Faso, DRP trained community health workers and radio reporters to produce a weekly program that was broadcast by a community-based radio station. They believed that if local health workers delivered messages about COVID-19, the communities would pay attention and take preventive measures.
Charles Rice, DRP president and chief executive officer, says radio is how most people in Malawi and Burkina Faso get their news and information.
Internet is often nonexistent or very limited in rural areas, and television can be expensive and require electricity. Radio, on the other hand, is relatively inexpensive, and a radio set can be powered by batteries or by solar.
“We have found radio to be the best option to reach a lot of people all at once. In Malawi, for instance, our potential listening audience among the nine radio stations we work with is about 6.5 million people,” Rice said.
“We work with community radio stations because they are part of the community; they are operated by the community. They are often trusted, and the stations we work with often focus on stories that affect the community – whether it’s related to farming, public health or the environment.”
Chiko Moyo, DRP’s coordinator and trainer in Malawi, works directly with the mentors, the youth reporters and the radio listening clubs at the nine partner radio stations.
“Just as an example, the youth are taught how to hold public officers accountable and they see the fruits that come out of such actions; public funds for SRH (sexual and reproductive health) are put to good use, youth arise to monitor how officers are conducting youth friendly health services, and many other things that help communities to be served better,” Moyo explains.
DRP conducts trainings on a monthly basis and sends weekly tip sheets to help youth reporters focus on specific topics for their weekly programs and PSAs. The Weekly Bulletin is researched, written and fact-checked in Malawi; it provides background on specific issues as well as questions for the reporters to use in their programs and contact details for people to interview.
“Station partners have told us that they rely on these bulletins because they are accurate and timely — and we believe this is why their weekly radio programs are popular. Listeners know that the information they are hearing is accurate” said Mercy Malikwa, who writes the Weekly Bulletin.
DRP has been producing the Weekly Bulletin on sexual reproductive health since May 2017. It started a special weekly bulletin on COVID-19 in March 2020 and it is still being produced.
The radio programs, both in Malawi and Burkina Faso, have proven to be popular with listeners as well as health officials.
“The project has tremendously improved youth reproductive health awareness and rights in the sense that we have better information dissemination through radio, and that has improved the lives of youth and changed their behavior,” said Jossein Chazala, the Youth Friendly Health Services Coordinator in Malawi’s Nkhotakota District.
In Burkina Faso, the radio program led to the creation of a health association covering 16 villages in the listening area; it comprises community leaders and local health workers who work closely with villagers to ensure everyone gets regular health checks and observes COVID-19 preventive measures.
The Malawi stations often use peer-to-peer storytelling to change behavior, and that was dramatically illustrative for Florence Deusi, who was a child bride at 16 but says the weekly youth program on her local station (Mudzi Wathu Community Radio in Mchinji in central Malawi) helped her escape her illegal marriage to a much older man.
“Whenever I was alone I could tune in to the youth program and that’s where I gathered courage to get out of the mess that I was in.”
Now 19, Florence has told her story on the program, “and I encourage girls who are in situations like me to get out of such marriages and go back to school.”
The Malawi stations have other notable successes, including a yearlong campaign by youth reporters at Chirundu Community Radio in Nkhata Bay to have an abandoned hospital converted into a vocational school teaching such skills as bricklaying, welding, and plumbing.
Also, data tracked by DRP and the stations suggests that programs and PSAs at the Mchinji station from January to March 2021 led to an eight-fold increase in the number of young people seeking HIV testing and counseling services. The station manager launched the programs after noticing a huge drop in visits related to HIV testing between October and December 2020.
After Gaka FM in Nsanje in southern Malawi began partnering with DRP in January 2021, visits to the local youth health clinic climbed 81% between January and March compared to figures from July-December 2020.
Data from the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare also suggest that there is correlation between the reduction in child marriages and the radio programs and PSAs produced by DRP-partner stations.
“Based on the data, we believe the radio programs are having a significant impact by reducing child marriages in the districts where we work and increasing the number of COVID-19 vaccinations in those districts where DRP is operating” Rice said.
The author, a public policy analyst, has served as a consultant with the United Nations and the World Bank. He has authored and coauthored numerous books and is a TEDx fellow.