Rural communities in Niger and Uganda have begun to use the RANET system to improve dryland management, increase agricultural production, enhanced food security, and reduce vulnerability to natural disasters. The greatest benefits are realized in field sites where both the community FM radio and satellite multimedia link are functioning smoothly together, the multimedia link supplying timely drought monitoring and prediction information and FM radio supporting broad dissemination to food-insecure and disaster-prone communities. Together, RANET multimedia and FM community radio permit rural populations to blend local knowledge and new information according to their needs. However, even in sites where only community radio or multimedia services were established, the communication system has still resulted in vulnerability reductions for rural populations. Some of these benefits were the direct result of access to drought monitoring and prediction information, while others are the fruit of unanticipated positive effects in related areas such as public health, women's empowerment, and democratization.
The RANET system in Uganda, for example, depends primarily on digital multimedia transmissions of drought monitoring and prediction products, without the advantage of a community radio component. Encouraged by the first season of largely accurate forecasts delivered over the multimedia system, farmers in two of three Ugandan field sites visited by a USAID assessment team in February of 2002 expect to reduce seed losses through timely planting and to improve production and food security through use of optimal crops and crop varieties. In seasons when insufficient rainfall is forecast, they expect to conserve seeds and fertilizer. The positive reception of climate and weather information disseminated over the multimedia system in Uganda is part of a wider orientation away from the riskier traditional forecasting methods of "rainmakers," towards a more scientific approach to agricultural production, especially among model entrepreneurial smallholders. The availability of both traditional and scientific information allows farmers to make more informed choices in their efforts to increase production.
Together the Uganda Department of Meteorology and the NGO World Vision have worked with farmers at RANET field sites to explain the information disseminated over the RANET system and develop local applications. Asserting that
"nature is not definite," farmers generally seemed to understand the concept of risk and probability in predicting the weather, as well as the possibility that forecasts are sometimes wrong. They expressed the sentiment that because "the world is becoming scientific," as are their seeds and fertilizers, they would also like scientific information about the rain. However, some farmers admitted that despite the enthusiastic reception that the RANET multimedia system has received, they could become discouraged if future forecasts are not accurate. The close working relationship between the Uganda Department of Meteorology, World Vision, and rural communities is a promising foundation for ongoing applications of RANET information; however, without the addition of community FM radio, RANET's impacts in these project sites remains limited to the number of people that can be reached by word of mouth.
Radio is one of the most pervasive technologies in Africa. Its inclusion in the RANET system helps to maximize the number of people exposed to drought monitoring and predictions while building upon existing communications capabilities. Community-initiated FM broadcasts also promote a range of unanticipated vulnerability reduction measures. In recent pilot projects in Niger, for example, the improvements in local communication made possible by community radio stations improved dryland management and reduced resource pressures. Herders, for example, commonly confined their flocks to an area within two to three days walk from their home village due to security concerns in outlying rural areas. With the advent of community radio, herders picked up news from home on the first two to three days of their walk and could comfortably continue for another two to three days, knowing that they were still within only a few days walk of a report on local security. Community FM radio effectively doubled their range, significantly decreasing pressure on the fragile dryland ecosystem.
Evidence of reductions in disaster vulnerability made possible by community radio abound in Niger. For example, community broadcasters have helped fellow villagers to protect their families by disseminating warnings of brush fires during the dry season and instructions on how to prevent houses from collapsing during the rainy season. Radio advertisement of missing livestock has supported local food security by significantly reducing livestock theft in many villages. Broadcasts of market price information have helped families to economize household expenditures and maximize profits from goods sold. The opportunity to transmit announcements of births, deaths, weddings, and illnesses over the radio has led to significant savings in family travel costs, boosting disposable family income.
Public health applications range from identifying cases of serious illnesses for local health authorities to disseminating announcements concerning HIV/AIDS, nutrition, hygiene, the dangers of early marriage, the value of prenatal care, and the timing of vaccination campaigns. The village of Zinder near Niger's southern boarder arrested the spread of measles by encouraging residents to forego traditional courtesy visits to the sick during the epidemic in favor of wishing them well over the radio. Zinder has also employed its FM station to diffuse tensions between farmers and herders when drought heightens competition over resources.
RANET community FM radio has also had a visible impact on the empowerment of women and youth. Women, the young, and the elderly are critical to disaster prevention, both as vulnerable populations and as sources of knowledge and capacity for preparedness and recovery. Ardent listeners of community radio, women have expressed enthusiasm for the technology and influenced the production of a wide range of programming addressing their needs and interests. Thanks to the inclusion of women's involvement among the initial goals of RANET in Niger, 50% or more of the animators at community FM stations are women, and women are strongly represented among technicians, animators, station administration, and local radio councils. Youth are heavily involved in the operation of stations in Niger as animators, journalists, volunteers and listeners. Youth radio clubs have sprung up in many villages and the stations have become popular places for young people to gather to share ideas and socialize.
The active role of women and youth in developing Niger's local radio stations has shaped the system to reflect their concerns, goals, and aspirations, raising their status in the eyes of their communities and shifting preconceptions about what is possible. On a community level, rural radio stations have enabled people in isolated areas to better communicate with one another, bringing villagers together and giving them a sense of connectedness and a voice that they did not have before. Communication has changed the way that communities understand themselves and their neighbors. Becoming a part of the communication system has unleashed the creativity and capacity of local communities across Niger and Uganda to address a variety of local development needs. In Niger and Uganda, RANET has proved to be much more than a drought early warning system.
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