Misheck Khumbilo Nyirongo
For Bauti Chipeta, working the land among the rolling hills and lush fields of the Lundazi District in the heart of eastern Zambia, life had begun to feel like an endless struggle. With fertilisers increasingly expensive and the land more and more denuded, cash crops brought in less and less each year and the cutting down of local forests had led to erratic rainfall.
Then Chipeta discovered a local community radio station, Chikaya.
“I started listening to community radio in 2018, when they also introduced us to permaculture and agroecology approaches on how to grow local seeds,” Chipeta recalled. The result has been a transformation in agricultural practices in the area.
“I practice conservation farming, which involves ripping in the field about 15 cm depth and applying organic manure (to) half of the ripped area. And the manure should not be fresh from the kraal, but well decomposed. Aside the balanced nutrient supply, organic fertilizers add organic matter to the soil if a long-term application is practiced,” he said.
For Chipeta and countless other farmers in Lundazi, radio has become a crucial lifeline – and a key part of their lives.
“The farming radio programs are relevant to our own agricultural activities; our language and accents are used, and they contribute to the program content,” Chipeta explained.
A beacon of hope.
In the early 1990s, radio in eastern Zambia took root with pioneers like Mike Daka and Godfrey Chitalu. Daka kick-started the first commercial station, Breeze FM, in the main Eastern Province town of Chipata, while Chitalu embarked on a community radio journey with Chikaya, in Lundazi District.
Chitalu and Daka shared a common goal: “to see communities empowered with information to change their lives.”
Since then, radio has emerged as a vital tool in reshaping the lives of rural residents across the Eastern Province and today boasts nearly one station per district.
Radio remains the most accessible mass medium in Zambia, with an estimated 67% of the population using it. It can be accessed through simple and inexpensive devices, including mobile phones, and consumes less power compared to television. Local language broadcasts make radio highly relevant in the community context.
Chipeta and his fellow farmers now rely on local radio programming not only for agricultural knowledge but also for social engagement and entertainment, as well as for their children’s education. Community radio programs offer a diverse range of content, including sports, music, religion and radio dramas in the local dialect, Tumbuka. In a digital era, traditional ceremonies are live-streamed by radio stations.
Crucially, radio also offers opportunities for literacy and learning programming to access learners. Organisations like the Educational Development Centre (EDC) have supported interactive learning programming, including through the USAID Let’s Read Activity, which has leveraged radio to improve literacy levels. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the EDC helped ensure that children continued with educational activities by supporting local radio.
The World Association of Community Broadcasters described the station as “capturing the essence of radio’s role in Eastern Zambia – bridging the gap between communities and the information they crave.”
The EDC recognises the critical role of community radio stations because they predominantly broadcast in local languages. This linguistic alignment ensures that radio is not only a source of information but also a platform for representing diverse ideas and cultures.
Agricultural challenges and radio as a catalyst for change
For decades, farmers and households in the region faced a number of challenges. Government policies prioritised maize and cash crops, leading to a reduction in crop diversity. The introduction of herbicides, agrochemicals, and localised climate change due to a dramatic increase in deforestation further depleted agriculture and dietary diversity. Many in the community also believed that maize sufficiency could be equated with food sufficiency, leading to severe nutritional deficiencies.
Moreover, access to agricultural information was limited. Agriculture extension services, though available, suffered due to transportation issues and communication barriers – and simply, too few extension officers for so many small-scale farmers.
After Chipeta learned about agroecology through Chikaya, a non-governmental organisation stepped in to provide him and other farmers in his community with seeds for conservation farming.
“Revival NGO gave us sunflower, local maize and also our own pumpkin seeds for intercropping. Intercropping promotes climate resilience through higher plant resource (space, nutrients, and water) efficiency and natural suppression of insect pests, pathogens, and weeds,” Chipeta recalled.
Radio programs employ an ‘entertainment-education’ approach that inspires farmers to cultivate a wide variety of crops, contributing to household food and nutrition security. This includes a range of crops from starch-rich maize and cassava to protein sources like groundnut and beans – as well as traditional vegetables and tubers.
“On radio, we learn a lot of issues like the outbreak of diseases, pest management, and land preparations. For example, I have already applied manure. (I’m) just waiting to plant. Besides, the beauty of radio is that while working in my field, I am able to listen to radio programmes too,” he said proudly.
He also mentioned that the district has benefited from several wind-up radios in the past from organisations like the Education Development Centre (EDC).
Through radio, agroecology practices have been amplified, allowing small-scale farmers to grow a variety of adapted traditional seeds and diverse crops. This approach not only ensures food security but also strengthens agricultural resilience in the face of climate change.
Farmers also learn about the dangers of bush burning and alternatives to chemical fertilizers, such as animal manure and green manure from plants. Agroforestry approaches are promoted to improve soil fertility and prevent erosion while preserving trees.
Peasant farmers are also encouraged to focus on long-term soil fertility and conservation techniques rather than migrating to urban areas for short-term work. Radio broadcasts extend beyond agriculture, covering health, education, business management, water, sanitation, gender issues, and even COVID-19 information.
A transformational journey
No one acknowledges the impact of radio programming on farming and on her family’s health more than Chipeta’s wife, Margret Nyirenda.
“The agroecology practice is good, as the benefits are numerous. Such as, we are able to grow diverse nutritious crops which provide healthy and safe food. For example, eating nshima (porridge) of local maize, with our favourite red beans that produce red soup – ‘nchunga zamu msuzi uswesi’ – is not only mouth-watering but also very tasty and nutritious,” Nyirenda said.
With support from organizations like Revival NGO, the benefits of agroecology have become apparent in the couple’s district in terms of improved food security, nutrition, incomes, democracy, health, and justice, according to Lundazi District Agricultural Coordinator Edward Mchundu, who links the health of the farming community to the health of the soil.
“Organic farming is getting important when people are polluting the soil and environment with harmful chemicals and pesticides. Organic farming provides the option of enriching the soil with organic compost and protecting the soil from chemicals,” Mchundu said.
Without radio, options for farmers would have been limited, according to Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambian Chairperson, Reverend Barnabas Simatende, who also pointed out the crucial role of community radio during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For many, radio has been a key medium to access information,” said Simatende.
“Globally, the pandemic has plagued many countries, and lifesaving information about the virus has been communicated through radio as a trusted medium of communication.”
Radio has not only been a source of information but also a lifeline for rural Zambians, promoting traditional foods and diets and fostering a favourable food policy environment.
As Chipeta tends to his fields, listening to the radio, he knows that his work is not just about growing food; it’s about transforming lives and communities.
bird story agency