The role of Freeplay Energy's radios in assisting isolated rural communities in developing countries to access vital information is widely documented. However, the support that these wind-up and solar-powered products can provide within a broader range of contexts is less well known.
Freeplay Energy's involvement with the Vois Blong Yumi programme in Vanuatu is an excellent example of how the access to communication offered by Freeplay's products can help widely scattered communities to stay informed about political issues and play a full role in the democratic process.
Vanuatu is one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth and has about 113 distinct languages, plus many more dialects. Spread over 82 islands, its geographical diversity can severely inhibit the flow and exchange of information – a major issue for the inhabitants of a country consistently ranked as one of, if not the, most disaster-prone in the world.
Vois Blong Yumi (VBY) aims to improve communications across Vanuatu by supporting the development of an effective and respected Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation (VBTC), and strengthening VBTC's national public service broadcaster Radio Vanuatu. Crucially, radio is the only medium capable of reaching 100 per cent of the population.
In 2012, VBY purchased 500 of Freeplay Energy's Lifeline wind-up and solar-powered multi-band radios for distribution to the residents of the many remote islands of Vanuatu, ahead of the national elections planned for late October.
Stickers were attached to the radios, detailing Radio Vanuatu's SW, MW and FM frequencies so that residents could easily tune in to hear election coverage, news and results. The radios were then distributed throughout the country's six provinces – Torba, Sanma, Penama, Malampa, Shefa and Tafea – and often to a number of islands within each province.
Local community organisations were given the radios and oversaw their onward distribution to people within their areas. Forum's such as the Vanuatu National Women's Council, the Tanna-based Community Radio Society of Tafea, Technical and Vocational Education orgs (TVETs) in Santo and Malekula, the Vanuatu Women's Centre and the Erromango Cultural Association ensured that the radios were made available to those who would benefit most. In addition, they were provided to VBTC's provincial network reporters, who then distributed them locally, and the Vanuatu Meteorological Office delivered them to weather stations around the country. Radio Vanuatu and Paradise FM each ran radio competition giveaways, which not only ensured even wider distribution, but also publicised both the initiative itself and the importance of keeping abreast of electoral developments.
Janet Orah, a VBTC Provincial Reporter for the Shefa Province, based in Port Vila, said, "The Shefa media team and Shefa Provincial Government expressed their thanks to VBY for providing 80 radios. Radios were distributed around Shefa Province through the network of 19 area councils and the feedback I received from listeners showed that they were very happy because these radios
are very powerful and provided clear coverage, even in the remote areas."
Leias Cullwick, the Executive Director of the Vanuatu National Council of Women added that, "Radios were distributed ... to each President representing, North and South Maewo, North, South, East and West Ambae, North, South, Central 1 and Central 2 areas of Pentecost Island. The women send their appreciations to VBY for the radios, as communications are a real problem in the islands, especially for the women."
The Lifeline radios received by VBY are designed for use in off-grid, often isolated environments, and their powerful 4-inch, 5-watt speakers make them ideal for outdoor use and group listening. Their rugged exteriors contain highly efficient solar technology, including a detachable solar panel, and when the sun is not shining, Lifeline radios can be powered using their integrated hand-cranked feature. Since its launch, this iconic product has brought untold benefits and hope to millions of listeners in low-resource settings throughout the developing world, ensuring that radio content can be effectively and reliably heard by people at any time and in any setting.
VBY is funded by AusAID, the Australian Agency for International Development, which has responsibility for managing Australia's overseas aid programme and assisting developing countries to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development. The programme is also supported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), whose ABC International Development department assists the work of AusAID by managing support programmes in the Asia-Pacific region, and by helping media organizations and practitioners develop a positive approach to sustainability and growth.
"Vanuatu's VBY programme is an outstanding example of how a range of international organisations can work together to make a real and lasting impact on the lives of individuals and communities," said Freeplay Energy's Aid and Development Manager, Viv Jenkins. "By bringing together Australian government agencies and broadcast organisations, the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation, Freeplay Energy and local people, the Vois Blong Yumi programme has ensured that more people than ever before have had the opportunity to play an active and informed role in the democratic process.
"This multi-agency co-operation provides an excellent template for encouraging people in diverse and scattered communities all over the world to access the information they need to shape their own futures.
"Freeplay Energy has been delighted and honoured to see its products used to support such a vital process as the Republic of Vanuatu national elections."