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Bringing radio to rural Africa

In rural villages in Africa without electricity, the radio is still a vital source of information, education, and entertainment, yet it is still an expensive status symbol. MSNBC's Petra Cahill reports on  Freeplay,  radios powered by a manual crank-up or solar power.
A young boy listens to a Lifeline radio in Mugumbazi, Rwanda.
A young boy listens to a Lifeline radio in Mugumbazi, Rwanda.Freeplay Foundation
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Go into any rural African village and one of the major status symbols is a radio.

An exciting soccer game might be playing on a hazy black and white TV set complete with rabbit ears and powered by a car battery, but every man in the crowd will still have a blaring transistor radio pressed to their ear.

In places without electricity, the radio is still a vital source of information, education, and entertainment. But, they are considered a status symbol because they are expensive to own and operate – batteries are not free. As a result, typically they are only owned, if at all, by men.

That is why a radio that demands no money to run because it operates on hand-generated power is opening the airwaves to a new generation in Africa.

The technology is the work of Freeplay, a company with headquarters in London and Cape Town. And while the company aims to make money from the radios, it has established a non-profit foundation to bring them to the people who can benefit from them most in rural Africa.

Putting technology to work   
In 1994, just as South Africa was emerging from the years of apartheid and forming its first democratically elected government, a colleague of Rory Stear saw a TV special featuring a wind–up radio.

In the spirit of the great hope and optimism at that time, Stear, a South African entrepreneur, and his colleague, Chris Staines, immediately saw the potential of a manually operated radio to spread information and education in sub-Saharan Africa and bought the rights to develop the technology.

By 1996, the first Freeplay radios were being sold in the United States and Europe and distributed in the developing world.  

“I always liked the analogy that the Renaissance was built on the printing press — radio can do that in the developing world,” explained Stear.

The basic premise of Freeplay products is to use self-sufficient energy — such as a manual hand crank or solar power — to harness energy and store it as electricity.

The technology has expanded to include flashlights, cell phones chargers, while the development of manually powered medical tools is even in the works.

Emergency preparedness market fuels sales
Part of what’s made the private Freeplay company a success is that the same technology that can give out information in a dusty village in rural Africa can turn the lights back on in New York during a blackout.

In the post-9/11 world and after the massive power outage that crippled the U.S. East Coast last August, the market opened for emergency preparedness equipment.

According to Stear, sales “certainly go flying up” every time the terror alert is changed and there is a run on duct tape in the United States.

Regardless of the profitability of making the “Rolls Royce” of emergency preparedness products, the distribution of manually or solar-powered radios to the developing world remains the driving spirit of the firm, according to the founders.

But “getting our radios to the people who can use them the most is still the most difficult thing to do,” said Stear.

Freeplay Foundation
With that in mind, the company established the Freeplay Foundation, a non-profit which aims to distribute the radios in the developing world, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the cost savings of not having to buy batteries, to buy a radio outright would be a considerable expense for most of the people who could benefit from it most.

“Orphans, women, refugees — the poorest of the poor — the least likely to have access to information," are the main target for the radios, according to Kristine Pearson, the executive director of the Freeplay Foundation. Pearson is married to Stear, the Freeplay founder.

With the new generation of child head of households in mind, the “Lifeline radio” was developed specifically to be distributed by the Freeplay Foundation. The radio was designed to be used in the harshest of climates and conditions. Built to withstand a drop from a two-story building, the radios are nearly indestructible.

The Lifeline radio is not sold commercially. The Freeplay Foundation raises funds to purchase radios (at a discount) from the Freeplay company and teams up with local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local government ministries, and various United Nations agencies to distribute the equipment and coordinate education efforts.

For Pearson, the children of sub-Saharan Africa who are growing up as orphans and are required to shoulder the burdens of adulthood at a young age because of the scourge of AIDS or warfare, are like no generation that has ever come before. They need to get an education and information somewhere, if not from a traditional school setting, then radio seems to be the logical answer.

“Kids living on their own want practical information that will help them live better. It could be the time, weather, information about AIDS, malaria, how not to let stagnant water stand and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes," explained Pearson. "They want to know what’s going on politically. In places like Rwanda, they want to know that their borders are safe and that men aren’t going to come and hurt them in the middle of the night.”

Feedback from children
The children's response has been positive, according to reports. The Media Monitoring Project worked on a project with Save the Children Sweden and UNICEF to investigate the representation of children and children’s issues in the South African news media. As part of the study, a number of Freeplay “Lifeline” radios were distributed to children ranging in age from 10 to 17, in a variety of different rural and urban areas of the country.

The children’s comments about the radios are telling and help to explain their pride of ownership. The children said they listen to the "Lifeline" radio every day, keep it in a safe place in their house, and had turned down propositions to buy the radio. The children had a routine of what they would listen to — music, stories, and lessons. They even said how much they loved the wind-up aspect of the radio which made it the “in” thing.

The foundation also teamed up with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund to distribute approximately 50 radios to orphans and child head of households, in Bushback Ridge, a village in Limpopo province of South Africa in December 2003.

According to Tshepo Mdwaba, the project officer for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the children that received the radios were trained on how best to take care of the radios and how to share the radios for educational purposes.

Three months after distributing the radios to great fanfare with the local king, village notables, and government officials present, Mdwaba went back to the village to evaluate the project. Everyone still had their radios and listening to them had become part of daily life.

The children listen to radio programs that compliment the national school calendar by teaching the same lessons, programs about water and sanitation, AIDS awareness lessons, and even lessons about the recent elections in South Africa - so young people could learn who was eligible to vote (citizens over 18) and what the major issues were.

“You could really see the effect. They were grateful from the onset…This really brought a change. [The children] see you trusting them and that gives them confidence,” said Mdwaba. “One said, ‘We thought, we were scared that the radio would bring more arguments [about what to listen to]. But no, we sit around after doing homework and we listen to it together. And now no one is scared.”

For Stear, that’s really the whole goal. “We as an organization try to uplift people’s lives. The Foundation has a different agenda, but we share the same goal to provide information and uplift and improve lives.”