Tuning Africa in to wireless
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On the heels of World Radio Day on Saturday, Kristine Pearson, the founding chief executive of Lifeline Energy, an organisation which distributes wind-up radios to assist with education around Africa, talks to Sue Barkly about her work and her latest dream – to “create a Radio Voice Bank, like YouTube, but for radio”
If you are a woman living in a rural area, access to information to make major life decisions can be challenging.
This is what sparked an innovation in radio technology and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across Africa.
It all started more than two decades ago, when Capetonian Pearson took a sabbatical from her high-powered job in the South African banking sector and travelled around rural Mozambique.
She had been asked to set up a charity in Africa and so, equipped with a few of the recently-invented wind-up radios and using an interpreter, she spent time speaking to different groups of rural women.
“When I asked what they wanted to learn about, there were a lot of questions about family, maternal health and HIV and Aids. It was post-conflict Mozambique, so these desperately poor women also wanted to talk about agriculture and farming,” Pearson said.
A long-time advocate of women’s rights, Pearson realised that women in rural settings were “making major life decisions by guessing or by asking somebody else”, and she thought: “if we could get information to them they could make better choices”.
“I also realised that millions of dollars were spent on radio programming for people who had no way of listening to it.”
California-born Pearson had already travelled to many African countries and had long before, made South Africa her home, but the trip to Mozambique changed her life.
On a visit to Rwanda in 1999, she saw that our “big black radios with a crank”, which had been given to a charity in Kigali, were being used in child-headed households.
“Those radios only lasted 30 minutes and the children would stay up all night, winding them up, listening and then winding them up again.
“I wanted to create a brand new radio specifically for children living on their own and for distance education.”
The rest is history: Pearson got funding to develop this new radio, called the Lifeline radio – the first created solely for the humanitarian sector – and launched it in 2003.
Lifeline Energy is a non-profit social enterprise that designs, manufactures and distributes solar and wind-up media players and radios for classroom and groups listening in low-resource settings.
Since 1999, Lifeline Energy has distributed more than 685 000 wind-up and solar-powered radios and media players, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, reaching many millions of listeners.
The organisation has worked across Africa, integrating power-independent MP3 players and radios into communication initiatives in health, agriculture, education, climate change and complex emergencies.
In Niger, she distributed wind-up radios to remote villages in the Sahara Desert, and took part in a “guns for radios” project. In Kenya, the organisation distributed solar and wind-up radios and lights and helped rural women understand their legal rights. In Tanzania, an 18-year-old orphan sat in a Grade 1 radio school class to learn to read and write.
According to Pearson, the Covid-19 pandemic has again put the spotlight on the role of radio in education for billions of students globally.
Ever the innovator, Pearson – a globally recognised social entrepreneur, a Fellow of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship of the World Economic Forum, as well as a member of Catalyst 2030, a global movement of social entrepreneurs and social innovators who share the goal of creating innovative approaches to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – spoke about her latest vision: a concept called Radio Voice Bank.
“If there can be a place – like YouTube is for video – where local language content can be stored and accessed on demand, then learning opportunities for anybody on a variety of subjects can be made possible where they didn’t have the opportunity before.”
The initiative is already at the stage of strategically developing content and distribution partnerships to leverage existing radio content and increase its reach.
“Radio Voice Bank will be the world’s first open source, searchable library of curated audio content for African listeners; a podcasting platform that will enable people to easily search, download and listen to all types of news, factual and drama programmes, via data and internet-enabled devices when they choose,” Pearson said.
“It is a game-changer.”