Community Listeners' Clubs, and the Freeplay radios they rely upon, are helping to transform people's lives in parts of Africa that do not have access to a regular power supply.
Set up by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Dimitra project (FAO-Dimitra) with national NGO partners, Community Listeners' Clubs 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 action. Thanks to Community Listeners Clubs' use of Freeplay's solar and dynamo-powered Encore Primary radios, villagers are able to share their concerns, priorities and needs, obtain information that would otherwise be beyond their reach and take constructive action together. The clubs are seen as a tool for empowering people, particularly women, and for giving them a voice and a role in their own development.
The Encore Primary radios are used by these clubs to listen to broadcasts and take part in debates about agriculture, food security and rural development, including health, education, and social issues. This is a great means of enabling communication within and between communities that share similar experiences, concerns and opportunities.
Each Community Listeners' Club – and there are now more than 700 of them in both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is established following a process of consultation and training of women and men chosen by their own communities to guide the process. The clubs are then provided with Freeplay's robust and reliable wind-up and solar-powered radios and strong relationships are built by the clubs with local radio stations, which broadcast programmes relevant to, and with input from, the clubs and their members.
Freeplay, the original designer of self-powered radios for use in 'off-grid' environments, produces a range of products which incorporate both wind-up and solar power sources. Freeplay's latest range of radios, Encore, is smaller and lighter than its predecessors, whilst retaining the company's proven self-power technology and robust build quality. The Encore range even includes mobile phone charging points, lights and an MP3 playback facility.
The impact of the Community Listeners' Clubs in Niger and the DRC has been impressive, and they have provided a driver for change in behaviours, practices and perceptions in rural areas. For example, the clubs have contributed to increased take-up of HIV/AIDS testing and more equitable access to land in the DRC, and to improved agricultural practices in Niger.
The first Community Listeners' Clubs were started in Goma, DRC, with the support of Samwaki, a Congolese NGO active in South Kivu. Samwaki wanted to create a space for exchange and discussion between rural women in the region and this first meeting paved the way for a series of training and collaboration activities which led to the first clubs being formed in South Kivu in February 2006.
In 2009, a similar initiative was launched in two regions of Niger, while other Community Listeners' Clubs were created in Katanga, DRC.
In Niger, clubs were set up through the existing network of local literacy centres set up by an NGO called ONG VIE, and Freeplay solar and wind-up radios were provided to members so that they could listen to programmes broadcast from local radio stations. Whilst collective listening rarely involves more than 20 members, the discussions are open to larger numbers and meetings are held on a regular basis.
Mariama, who lives in the village of Fogou, Niger, explains how her club works: "Our listeners' club meets twice a week. I never miss a meeting. It takes between one and two hours for the listening sessions, which start at 8pm. When we are busy working in the fields and preparing the evening meal, we listen to the broadcast from 9 to 10pm." These are live broadcasts and times are agreed with the radio station, so that they suit the women's schedules, depending on the time of year and the farming calendar.
Another Community Listeners' Club member, Ali Abdoulaye, adds: "Each village has its club. At the start, more than 200 women were trained in participatory communication and community leadership. In a village, not everyone can gather around a single radio set because the homes are scattered. So groups are made up according to distance. And the women get together to listen in a pre-arranged place."
One year after the Niger clubs were launched, observers in the field were already speaking of a small 'revolution', adding that, thanks to Community Listeners' Clubs and their Freeplay radios, many women are playing an active part in their own development. They have gained a new sense of self-confidence and the fact that they have something important to say is increasingly being acknowledged by their communities. The clubs and their Freeplay radios have given a voice to the people and have attracted significant interest within both development agencies and local populations.
Freeplay's Viv Jenkins concludes, "The FAO-Dimitra Community Listeners' Clubs are achieving remarkable results and we are proud that Freeplay's Encore Primary radios are integral to their success – so much so, that opportunities for using our Encore Player radios, which include an integrated MP3 record and playback feature – are now being examined by FAO-Dimitra.
"Our radios are designed specifically to meet the needs of people living in areas without access to an electricity supply – a situation faced by around 1.6 billion people globally. For these people, access to information about health, education, agriculture and a whole range of social issues is vital and the ability to communicate with communities other than their own can speed development and deliver real empowerment.
"As the Community Listeners' Clubs illustrate, Freeplay's radios underpin a whole range of local social action, as well as supporting governments, aid and development agencies and NGOs to work toward achieving many of the UN's Millennium Development Goals.
"Freeplay looks forward to delivering many more products that make a very real and positive difference to people's lives, not just in the DRC and Niger, but elsewhere in Africa and throughout the Developing World."