Article: Using radio to reach smallholder farmers

30 June 2020

Duncan Sones, June 2020

Radio offers significant opportunities to agribusinesses and other organisations to communicate with smallholder farmers. Radio can be used effectively during times when movements and in-person meetings are restricted. In most areas, a high proportion of farming households have access to a radio. Rural people are also increasingly using mobile phones to listen to the radio, so they can tune in even while working on the farm or while on the move.

What are the advantages of using radio to reach smallholder farmers?

Radio can be a good option if:

  • Most farmers do not have phones, or if phone connectivity is a problem
  • You do not have access to farmers’ phone numbers.
  • Many farmers cannot read well (which limits the potential or communicating with them by SMS/text messages).
  • You have complex information to share. Farmers need to be convinced to adopt new practices. This is more likely to happen over time if radio can be used to build a relationship.

How does the price of radio compare to SMS/text and voice messaging?

Radio stations will usually have fixed costs for an hour of broadcast, so it is possible to calculate whether this offers better value for money than SMS or voice messaging. You need to work out how many messages are required to convey the same basic information.

The rates you will be offered by radio stations and communications providers will vary, and usually decrease with the more you buy. As an example, if a radio broadcast costs $100 an hour and text messages cost $0.03 each and voice messages cost $0.08 per minute, then one hour of radio costs the same as 3,300 text messages or 1,250 voice messages.

Clearly you can convey a great deal of information in an hour of radio, but you will have to work hard to make sure that farmers are tuning in and actively listening.

It is not possible to control which farmers are reached by radio broadcasts, but this may present opportunities to collaborate with other businesses. For example, you may work together on a broadcast that is aimed at all farmers in the area – not only the farmers that are contracted with your business – and split the cost.


What are the challenges?

When farmers listen to the radio, they tend to listen in narrowly-defined time slots in the morning and evening. This means that there is likely to be competition from other organisations trying to access these time slots. 

As more radio stations are emerging it is hard to ensure that your chosen channel is the one that farmers will be listening to.

It is crucial to make sure that radio programmes are engaging and interesting to listen to. Farmers often complain that the programs designed for them are dull and don’t excite their interest.

If farmers miss a radio program, there is no way for them to catch up on the information missed. This has impacts on how you present and deliver information. 

While the level of radio ownership is often quite high, rural households do not always have access to electricity or batteries.

The choice of which programs a household listens to is often controlled by men – so there may be challenges to reaching women in farming households. Phone-ins and other interactions often tend to be dominated by younger men who have disposable income.

Establishing how many of your target audience are reached by a radio programme can be complex. Knowing the population of the area covered by the transmitter may be helpful as an indication of the potential audience. However, the only way to establish how many farmers have been reached is carry out market research or perhaps to get hold of evaluation reports from projects you know have worked with radio in the area.

As smartphones become more widespread, more and more farmers can use the internet to access a vast range of radio stations. As a consequence, local radio stations need to work hard to compete for audiences. 


What additional opportunities does radio programming offer?

Radio gives you the opportunity to talk not only to your existing network of farmers, but to all farmers in the area. If you are seeking to start working with more farmers, these radio programmes can be a good promotional activity.

You may find that radio broadcasts are a good way to reach farmers who are particularly busy and who have struggled to attend training or meetings in person.

In addition to discussing good agricultural practices, you can also add dynamic information about weather, pest alerts or market prices. This is information that is valued by farmers. 


Selecting a radio station 

There are large numbers of radio stations across Africa, varying from community stations with a local reach and ambition, to commercial or public-sector broadcasters with a much larger reach. Farmers’ choice of radio station may be driven by language or affiliation to a religious group. The increasing number of stations means that you may need to work with more than one station in order to reach your whole target audience.

Some stations will already carry a weekly agricultural farming program. If so, this is an added advantage, because many farmers will be aware of this and will be used to tuning in at the right time.

If a radio station does not have dedicated programs for farmers, you will need a strategy to promote your programs among the target audience.

The business of running a radio station in Africa can be tough. It can be hard to find good content and it can be a challenge to generate the revenues to keep the business viable. You may find that the radio station you are working with needs to think about how to enhance its output and approach. If this is the case, you could recommend that they look at these resources from Farm Radio International:

If there are no existing radio stations in the area you are trying to reach, one option might be to establish a community radio station – though this is clearly a long-term commitment.

Rungwe and Busekelo Tea Cooperative – Joint Enterprise (RUBTCO-JE), Tanzania

Several years ago, RUBTCO-JE set out an ambitious plan to double the tea production and income of its 15,000 smallholder farmer members. The cooperative’s managers realised that a key constraint to achieving this was the ability to communicate the right information – about agronomic practices, inputs and market conditions – to farmers at the right time.

The strategy adopted by the cooperative was to set up a community radio station, called Chai FM. The station is intended to meet the needs of farmers, providing information not just on tea but also on all aspects of agronomy, livestock keeping and entrepreneurship. The station specifically targets women and youth as well as men, and has covered subjects such as governance of the cooperative and gender-based land issues. While the cooperative has full control over the programming, it sometimes partners with input suppliers to provide information on particular approaches and products.

Setting up the radio station was a significant investment. Around US$33,000 was spent on purchasing the necessary equipment, which was financed from the Fair Trade premium that RUBCO-JE receives from sales of tea. However, after six years of operation, advertising revenue is now almost sufficient to cover the running costs of the station, including the salaries of four full-time employees and nine part-time presenters. Another local radio station has since begun operating in the same district, but Chai FM is estimated to have retained 70% of the listenership because of the value of the information it provides.


When are the best times for radio broadcasts to farmers?

The ‘golden hours’ for reaching farming households have traditionally been considered to be 6 to 8 am and 6 to 8 pm. However, many farmers don’t have regular listening habits, so you have to build awareness of what you are doing. The increasing use of mobile phones allows for listening to radio on the move, which means that you can reach some farmers at other times of day.

Be conscious of holidays, religious observances, and local customs when scheduling broadcasts.

Radio stations in some areas are getting a lot of enquiries from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private-sector companies who are looking to increase their use of radio. You may need to think about why your company should be a priority for radio stations to work with in their limited peak hours. Particular arguments that you may want to make are:

  • You are working in the area for the long term, whereas NGOs may only be implementing short-term projects.
  • You will encourage your existing networks of farmers to listen to the programs, which will boost the station’s listener numbers.

What makes good radio content? 

Radio stations can offer a number of different formats, including: 

  • Radio jingles and adverts
  • Radio spots in which the presenter interviews your staff or includes your content in their existing program
  • Programs dedicated to your content, in which farmers and experts discuss their questions and provide advice. These can either be pre-recorded or broadcast live.
  • Pre-recorded programs using drama or music to get your ideas across. These more creative formats should only be attempted with the help of a drama or music group with experience of working in rural communities.

Even when using a pre-recorded format you can have interactive elements, such as phone-in questions and polls. Questions and poll results received after one broadcast can be discussed during the next program.

When you are introducing radio for the first time, work with simple formats. A pre-recorded program is a good way to work out your messages and test the reaction to the style and content. Once you start receiving feedback from farmers, you will then be able to respond to their questions.

It is very important that the broadcasts are interesting to listen to. Here are some simple tips to maximise engagement:

  • The people who are doing the talking (whether extension team members or farmers) should have clear voices and be able to speak in an engaging way. The people who are best at talking on the radio may not necessarily be the most senior members of your team.
  • Break up the program with phone calls from farmers, as well as with music and jingles.
  • Include more than one presenter. Radio broadcasts work well when different voices share the message.

The most interesting programs are usually those which involve both farmers and experts talking about different aspects of crop production and marketing. Hearing about the success of other farmers, validated by clear farmer-friendly advice from experts, is a winning combination. This complexity adds to the costs and the time taken to produce a program, but it makes good radio. In a time of social distancing this can be achieved by contacting successful farmers by phone and either recording their story or asking them to share their testimonial live, on air. Alternatively, if you have already produced some farmer-to-farmer training videos, then you may be able to use the soundtrack in radio broadcasts.

When several people are involved in a radio program, a key challenge is to keep the message consistent. To deal with this, try to keep the questions in a logical order. This is easier to achieve if the questions are pre-recorded, or if you know what questions people will ask and can call them at the appropriate point during the program.

On a live broadcast, it is very important to have experts available who can correct any information that is off-message or wrong. They need to be highly knowledgeable in the subject area, be fluent in the language being spoken, and be able to communicate in ways that the farmers find easy to relate to. We all look for information that reinforces our prejudices and world views. For example, if a contributor says ‘fertiliser poisons the soil’ and this is not corrected, that will be the take-away message for many listeners. It is important that in trying to make the material interesting, the focus on the core facts is not lost.

Whether live or pre-recorded, you will need to consider who should be involved in writing the script or establishing the running order of the program. Radio stations will have some expertise, but you need to work closely with them to ensure that the content stays on message.

You need to have a consistent identity for your programming. Use jingles and branding within the programs so that farmers are in no doubt that this is your content.

  • Organise the information in ways that will help people remember
  • Try to time the information to be presented to align to the farming calendar. It can be challenging to align radio slots that have to be pre-booked with the arrival of the rains, and you may also have to contend with different cultural practices and agro-ecological zones within the area covered by the radio transmitter. This can be a hard-balancing act.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat, summarise and clarify the key points as you go. The old adage for training is “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.”
  • Do not assume that the farmers listen to every broadcast. You will need to recap the key points from previous programs.
  • Remind listeners of the day and time that you broadcast – and if you are repeating the show later in the week, tell them to encourage their friends and neighbours to listen in.

Building the audience 

Building audiences for new radio services takes time and relies on word of mouth.

If you have direct contact with farmers – such as when you deliver inputs or buy crops – you can spread the word about the program. Even better, give them a leaflet reminding them of the day and time of broadcast.

If you have mobile numbers for some farmers, send them an SMS/text message the day before the broadcast, at least for the first couple of weeks. You can also ask them to spread the word among their neighbours.

Listening clubs

Farm Radio International organises listening clubs, in which a number of households come together and listen to the radio program together. There are two benefits to this:

  • The clubs provide a point of instant feedback on the radio program in real time and can help ensure that the messages received by the farmers are as intended. This can be achieved by phoning some of the group members or the moderator in the village. 
  • The group setting provides an opportunity to intentionally involve women and younger people – so promoting equity and ensuring that key messages reach those who are likely to be carrying out much of the farm work.

Radio listening clubs will only be possible if households can meet within the guidelines for social distancing that are in force in your area.


AgDevCo is grateful to Wilfred Aliganyira of Esco Uganda, Gabriel Lebi of the Rungwe and Busekelo Tea Co-operative – Joint Enterprise (RUBTCO-JE), Peter Msewa of Wakulima Tea Company and Karen Hampson of Farm Radio International for generously sharing their experience and expertise, as well as to Keith Sones for review and editing.

AgDevCo’s Smallholder Development Unit was supported by the Mastercard Foundation and UK aid.