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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Internet radios aid Africa
By Francis Ayieko of the Interlink Rural Information Service in Kenya
From his office in the rural market centre of Rongo in southern Kenya, Alsen Oduwo is able to access information from all over the world.
Beside him is a special radio connected to an adapter card in a Pentium computer. On the other end, the radio is connected to a detachable micro-dish receiver outside the window.
As the information and training manager for the Community Mobilisation Against Desertification (C-MAD), a development agency that promotes food security and good health in Kenya, he is busy downloading useful information to hand on to organisation members.
It is all thanks to the Arid Lands Information Network - Eastern Africa (ALIN-EA), which has joined up with the digital broadcast pioneer WorldSpace Foundation (WSF) of USA to get information to the remote areas using digital satellite broadcasting.
Currently operating in four countries - Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia - ALIN-EA aims to improve the development practices of community development workers in Africa by helping them share experiences.
"Looking at the current trend in communication technology, we realised that people living far away from major towns and cities can't cope in this era of technology because of the lack of appropriate information," said James Nguo, ALIN-EA regional co-ordinator.
It uses three geo-stationary satellites launched over Africa, Asia and America, providing a variety of programmes that can be accessed through different channels.
Each beam can broadcast more than 40 different channels. WSF has been endowed with 5% of the satellite space to broadcast information on development through the African Learning Channel (ALC). Out of this, ALIN-EA has a 500MB allocation.
"We source information that is specially tailored to meet the needs of our members, format it, then uplink it to the satellite so that it reaches the members no matter where they are," said Mr Nguo.
Through the ALC, local communities in African countries have opportunity to access current social development and educational information.
"The channel focuses on issues like health, HIV/Aids, environment, agriculture, micro-enterprise and conflict resolution," explained Mr Nguo.
Currently, the WorldSpace service is the cheapest way to transmit data globally. It has four Japanese radio models - JVC, Panasonic, Sony and Hitachi - that can be used for digital sound or multimedia service.
Accessing the multimedia service requires a special adapter card or modem, which is then connected to a computer and a WorldSpace radio.
As part of pilot project, 12 digital receivers have been distributed around the region to local groups.
"Our purpose is to help members to go beyond the entertainment the WorldSpace technology offers and instead use the radios to pass on information on development," said Noah Lusaka, ALIN-EA projects officer.
"The radio is aimed at helping development workers to get a lot of useful information that is usually hard to come by."
C-MAD in Kenya is one of the focal points for information sharing and dissemination.
"Our vision of receiving technical information through WorldSpace has been transformed into a reality," said Peter Omondi, C-MAD executive director.
"Our [task] is to assist the communities to decide their destinies by developing themselves. This is only possible in an environment where there is access to rich and diversified information since 'knowledge is power'".
About 25 network members, drawn from 10 organisations are already benefiting from WorldSpace services in region.
"We had just started a programme on HIV/Aids but we didn't have much information. We also didn't know organisations to link up with," said Jacob Otieno, the programme co-ordinator at Animal Draft Power Programme.
"But when we borrowed this radio, we got information on what should be done and how to do it, besides a database of the people and organisations to collaborate with in this field."
WorldSpace radios have been on sale since 1999, but analysts argue that the reception from the market would have been better were it not for their relatively high prices.
For the past year, ALIN-EA has been conducting awareness campaigns on the WorldSpace radios as a development tool.
As from this month, they will move into the second phase that will focus more on generation of appropriate information from partner organisations and communities.
"We are looking forward to diversifying information by involving more partners especially non-governmental organisations and research institutions," said Mr Nguo.
The Interlink Rural Information Service is a non-governmental organisation which works to promote sustainable development amongst communities living in rural areas and urban slums through information.
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