Field Stories

A new lifeline for Zambia’s favourite radio show

Happy with the Lifeplayer

Interactive radio instruction is a popular way to reach those with no access to formal schooling, and thus in the Petauke District of Eastern Zambia, the recent introduction of two new radio models has boosted the popularity of the educational radio programme Learning At Taonga Market (LATM). Launched in 2000, the project was originally aimed at orphans in the AIDS-ravaged countryside; however, over the years, thousands of radio units have been donated by local and international benefactors, thus enabling the project to go national. With two new radio models now in use, LATM has started a new chapter.

By Prue Goredema and Brenda Zulu

Developed and manufactured by Lifeline Energy, a London-based not-for-profit organisation, the Prime and Lifeplayer MP3 multi-band radios which were launched in 2010 are an educational lifeline for poor rural communities.  Kristine Pearson, Chief Executive at Lifeline Energy says that while the Prime boasts AM, FM and three SW bandwidths, the MP3-enabled Lifeplayer (dubbed “an iPod for development”) combines media player, radio, cellular and Internet content. It can also be pre-loaded with up to 64GB content, an asset in areas where radio reception is unreliable. It also records live voice and radio broadcasts for playback later. The radio is the product of years of meticulous research, design and testing in South Africa, and with its sustainable solar panel and wind-up recharge mechanism, it has been an instant hit in nearby Zambia.

Fanwell Besa, Executive Producer at Educational Broadcasting Services (EBS) which runs LATM, says the launch of the radios could not have been timelier as the Ministry of Education has long been struggling with using radio for education. “Zambia National Broadcasting Service’s reception is bad, and that is why we are increasingly turning to community radio stations,” says Besa. He expects 230 Lifeplayer units and 50 Prime units to be received in the coming weeks, and in May, a further 1500 radios donated by Rotary UK will bring much-needed educational sustenance to schools and community centres, thus benefitting thousands of poor children, many of whom are orphans.

The Prime radio in use at a community school in Lusaka

Zambia has a disproportionate number of orphans because of the AIDS pandemic, and thus LATM’s pool of listeners is vast. Gladys Sakala-Phiri, a senior producer at EBS, says that in 2000, when LATM was launched, the AIDS scourge was at its height. In an effort to pave a learning path for this large group, most aged under fifteen and most out of school, the Ministry of Education, working with the Education Development Center (EDC), decided that interactive radio instruction was an expedient way to reach the poor and vulnerable children.

The LATM programme is presently broadcast on Zambia National Broadcasting Services’ (ZNBC) Radio Two during the school term, which lasts three months at a time. Although the educational shows are aimed at young listeners, adults have also taken a liking to the content, and the oldest listener whom Sakala-Phiri has met is a 43-year-old female farmer in Ndola. “From what we have observed, women are more likely to turn to radio for learning,” says Sakala-Phiri. However, following their progress over time is not always possible. “Because people are constantly on the go, the audience is never the same, particularly since their economic activities — charcoal burning and farming — sometimes keep them mobile. Each time we visit the communities, we find different people.”

The new Prime and Lifeplayer radios will find a welcome audience; however, some instruction and supervision are necessary when first issuing these radios to the uninitiated end users. On a field visit, Sakala-Phiri noticed how, bizarrely, fifty solar-powered dynamo radios had experienced a lot of inexplicable breakages, only to find out later that in recharging the units, people were winding them up incorrectly.

Despite the exasperation of such setbacks, Sakala-Phiri is confident of the positive impact that LATM is having on communities. Schools are the obvious places to establish listening centres, but by 2009, LATM started targeting the village markets because, as she explains, “We realised that children are sent to sell produce at the market, and the only way to reach them is to bring the educational content to the market where they have to spend their days. It’s been working out well.”

The content was always going to be a matter of concern, and Sakala-Phiri explains that whilst LATM piloted some early childhood education shows in 2011, the programmes typically follow the curriculum set by the Zambian Ministry of Education. Key personnel such as producers and scriptwriters are provided by the Ministry, and Educational Broadcasting Services then hires actors to liven up the shows. Sakala-Phiri explains that there is a grandmother figure, Ambuya, who imparts life skills and enduring advice, and this character is particularly popular with young listeners. Children who have undergone interactive radio instruction are open-minded, confident and have excellent listening skills, EBS notes.

The low-maintenance nature of the Lifeplayer and Prime radios will be a relief for the cash-strapped LATM project. Sakala-Phiri says that airing radio programmes is a big challenge as a lot of money is needed to buy space on ZNBC. Like Besa, she also sees community radio stations as an option, but she laments their instability. However, one station in particular, Radio Chikuni, has managed to carry LATM’s educational programmes to satisfaction.

Although the on-air facilitators are not paid, all the shows are of a sound quality, drawing in listeners at schools, community centres and village markets. “The radio show is hugely popular”, says Sakala-Phiri.  “We don’t even know who is opening these centres.”  What began, in many cases, as isolated listening posts have grown over time, some becoming community schools, and the people are still tuning in faithfully with their wind-up radios.

Learning At Taonga Market’s popularity has spilled across the borders into Malawi and Tanzania. “They have adapted our model for use in their own environments,” says Sakala-Phiri. And while the Prime and Lifeplayer chapter has only just begun in Petauke District, Sakala-Phiri is already looking ahead. “We’re working on getting our own radio station…and video.”

For Learning At Taonga Market, it seems the sky is the limit.

Photo credits: Lifeline Energy


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