With the phenomenal growth of the internet and other forms of digital media, it can be easy for those of us living in prospering economies to forget that access to it is still far from universal. The rapid growth around the world of mobile phone ownership and use may be a precursor greater web access, but for many millions of people in Africa, Asia and South America the greatest source of information is radio.
And no-one benefits more from this vital communication channel than those whose education depends on it – as one young man in Mali recently told Christian Aid, "You can't be president if you're not educated!"
Distance learning through radio broadcasts is well established in many parts of Africa. It enables young people who live in remote areas to obtain educational content and other information that they would otherwise never have a chance to access. This is especially true of those who live too great a distance away from their nearest school to be able to make the most of a formal education. However, it is also true of many who do have a place in a local school, and whose teachers use radio broadcasts to supplement their own learning materials and lesson plans.
Two such schools, Kishermoruak School and Endoinyo Nairasha Primary School, lie in the Masai Mara area of Kenya, where Freeplay's wind-up and solar-powered radios are enabling students to listen to material developed by the Kenyan Department of Education and broadcast by the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, and to record their own content using the radios' integrated MP3 recorder. Meanwhile, in Nairobi, Patmos Junior School's use of educational broadcasts has helped many of its children to make huge improvements in their grades, and in the recent April 2014 school exams the overall mean grade for the school was B-, which is a tremendous achievement for a school in one of the poorest areas of the city.
But such an approach is by no means unique to Kenya. Radio-based distance learning is thriving from South Africa to Uganda, Tanzania to Nigeria, and the BBC has been hailed for supporting literacy and numeracy projects in Sudan, via its World Service.
In parallel with the success of radio schools, distance learning for adults in Africa has also been bringing about significant results. The sharing of information about public health, the environment, agricultural techniques and women's development issues has transformed both communities and individuals, empowering people and improving quality of life.
One outstanding example can be seen in the work of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Dimitra project, which has worked with local communities and broadcasters in Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo to enable rural villagers to improve the quality of their crops, increase their incomes and share solutions to common problems. This has been achieved through developing more than 700 Community Listeners' Clubs, which facilitate dialogue for individuals and groups and have proved to be an efficient way for isolated rural communities to access information and engage in participatory communication which leads to positive action.
So, the rapid growth of mobile phone use in Africa – with the promise of imminent access to the internet and all the educational resources that it holds – is extremely welcome, but it will take some considerable time before coverage is anything close to universal.
In the meantime, continuing to resource radio-based distance learning must remain a priority. The potential that Africa's millions of students hold is vast and funding African radio schools is not just an investment in the continent's present, but is – quite literally - an investment in the future of the world.