2010 Young Laureate, Applied Technology
Nigeria, Born 1982
In Nigeria, an estimated 90 million people till the soil for their livelihood, but farming in this West African nation is an insecure and arduous job: farms tend to be small and isolated, and farmers rely on traditional farm practices and the vagaries of the weather for good crop yields. In a bad year the farmers grow barely enough to feed themselves and in a good year surplus crops often go to waste, as farmers are cut off from the basic tools of agricultural commerce, such as storage facilities, markets and bank accounts.
The Seeds of Smallholders
Social entrepreneur and 2010 Young Laureate Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, 27, is dedicating his life to transforming the lives of these farmers. Working on a farm as a youngster, he developed a love of the soil and an understanding of the problems the farmers face. He realized that their stumbling block was a lack of information, so he made it his life’s mission to fill the gap. “From early on, I had a very strong belief that I was a change-maker for my generation, I just needed to find the right opportunity. I wanted to help improve farmers’ livelihoods and to protect the environment. But I also thought I wanted to be a great journalist; when I was growing up, our only contact with the world was a battery-operated transistor radio which I listened to with my father and brothers. I listened to the news broadcasters and dreamt of people listening to my voice on the radio one day!”
In 2003, Ikegwuonu, then aged 21, came up with a solution that enabled him to follow his passions and fulfil his dream. He set up The Smallholders Foundation, a social development organization he envisaged would use radio to give farmers easy access to market information and contemporary farming techniques. “Radio is still the main tool for receiving information in Nigeria’s rural areas,” he explains. “It is the most pervasive, accessible, affordable and flexible medium for mass communication and the best way to penetrate rural communities.” He hoped to set up a radio station to broadcast programmes to farmers in his home state – Imo State, in Nigeria’s south east.
Desperate for Funding
But it was only in 2007 that he was able to secure funds to set up a radio station. “The first four years were very difficult,” he recalls. “I was desperate to get funding, but I did not want to neglect the farmers and I was constantly going out to rural communities, meeting farmers, distributing seeds and building networks. What I did not realize at the time is that I was laying the crucial foundations for my radio programme.”
And so was born the Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio which uses interactive technologies to improve farmers’ agricultural practices and economic capacity. “Our farmers have huge indigenous knowledge, what they lack is knowledge of modern practices. Broadcast information covers techniques in crop production, livestock rearing, sustainable environmental management and conservation, local and international markets, export processes and business skills. Farmers and their households can use the broadcast information to decide on their production: what, when, how and for whom.”
Programmes are broadcast in Igbo, the main language in Imo State. “There is no way I would allow an international language to be broadcast. Most of our farmers are barely literate, so speaking to them in English would be pointless. When we expand into other states, we will only broadcast in the languages spoken there.”
Interactivity from the Field
What makes Ikegwuonu’s scheme truly innovative is his introduction of the AIR (Advancement through Interactive Radio) device, an interactive mobile radio. Developed by Microsoft Research Fellow Dr Revi Sterling of the University of Colorado, these small, solar-powered machines allow listeners to send voice messages, free of charge, to radio stations, which can, in turn, broadcast them. “Radio tends to be one-way communication which, for my purpose, is not sufficient,” Ikegwuonu explains. “Two-way communication helps to deepen knowledge by allowing farmers to have their voices heard. I investigated various options to facilitate this interactivity, including mobile phones, encouraging physical visits to our station and inviting farmers to write letters, but these options were only minimally successful. I needed a tool that farmers could use to communicate with us easily and without expense.”
To further facilitate the exchange of information, Ikegwuonu encourages farmers to join radio listener clubs, which see a minimum of 60 farmers getting together to use an AIR device. Not only do the clubs improve community networking, they also allow the foundation to monitor programmes’ impact: “Our listener clubs are important as they promote active participation and generate immediate feedback. They are the cornerstone to our success.”
Increased Yield and Income
One of the 250,000 farmers who listen regularly to the daily 10-hour broadcasts is 74-year-old Jonathan Isiguzo. Implementing lessons learnt over the airwaves, Isiguzo recorded remarkable increases (up to 40 per cent) in his annual agricultural output. The radio programme also instructed him on how to open a savings account which he did at age 73. This, and his radio-acquired knowledge on how to sell surplus goods, increased his household income, allowing him to send two of his children to school.
Ikegwuonu estimates that 65 per cent of listeners have increased their production as a direct result of the radio station. In a nation where the vast majority of people survive on less than US$1 a day, this increase in household income is meaningful: “Most of our listeners now earn about US$1.50 a day, which is quite a significant increase. I anticipate that every year our listeners will continue to see an increase in crop yield.”
With his Rolex Award, Ikegwuonu will expand the audience for his informative and educational broadcasts to 3.5 million farmers in almost 5,000 villages in Imo State. A 3,500 watt transmitter will replace his existing 50 watt transmitter, and he will buy 30 more AIR devices. He hopes to extend the service to the rest of Nigeria and neighbouring countries. “I am very confident that this model can be replicated across the African continent. Knowledge, which builds the capacity for self-sustaining growth, is the only true gift a person can give another person, and, in the long term, is far more beneficial than food or financial aid.”
Alexa Schoof Marketos
Published in 2010