Communications Network is Born in the Desert

The need for a drought communications system tailored to the realities of rural Africa was initially articulated to the RANET implementing partners by a nomad in the desert of southeastern Algeria as he declined the gift of a radio offered by a young meteorologist researching desert locusts near Djanet. The nomad maintained that information was vital to his survival. "Just tell me where it has rained. I will know where to take my flocks." He explained that he knew every rise and fall of the terrain, and would lead his flocks to the lowest point to meet the water as it moved through the landscape in seasonal streams. After drinking, they would make their way uphill to meet the new grass where it grew. But as much as the nomad needed information, a radio in the Sahara becomes little more than a burden once its batteries lose power.

It was not until 10 years later, as the Director of the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD), that the meteorologist discovered the Freeplay wind-up radio. Subsequently modified to incorporate a solar panel and other improvements suggested by rural listeners, the Freeplay radio was to become the front line of the RANET communications interface for remote communities.

Continuing the trend of community-driven innovation, the women of the dusty village of Bankilare in western Niger, delighted with the concept of wind-up radios, further challenged ACMAD to modify the technology so that they could create information as well as receive it. ACMAD came back with the Wantok solar-powered FM radio transmitter. So compact that it ships in a 28-kg suitcase, this low-cost and fully portable FM radio equipment proved strikingly durable in the harsh, dry conditions of the pilot site in Bankilare. Residents described the community radio station as having transformed Bankilare into an information oasis. Once the town had been like a well that compelled them to come to its center to draw the information they required. But the radio brought information to them where they needed it in their homes, in neighboring hamlets, and in the pastures with their flocks.

The addition of WorldSpace digital satellite radio provided a vital link with the outside world, permitting access not only to drought information, but also to a host of other information relevant to development. Unlike familiar satellite dishes, the WorldSpace digital satellite radio receiver is comparable in size to a standard radio and its small antenna can be easily held in one hand. The WorldSpace satellite broadcasts over 100 channels of clear digital radio signals across the whole of Africa. Voice transmissions can be rebroadcast directly over community-owned FM radio or interpreted by community radio animators and incorporated into locally produced programming. Because the WorldSpace system is digital, it can broadcast data files as well as voice transmissions. When attached to the WorldSpace receiver with a special "modem," known as an adapter card, a common 486 PC saves the transmissions for display in a format that looks like a web page - a format ideal for transmitting drought and environmental information, so much of which is graphical.

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