Issa Kassimu, an electrical engineer, came up with the bright idea of setting up the country’s first solar-powered local radio station, Mayardit FM. Since March 2016 the station has been running on sunshine.
The devastating impact of information darkness
Mayardit FM is not only changing the media landscape, it is also transforming people’s lives. Vulnerable populations in South Sudan are very isolated and any kind of information darkness can have a devastating impact.
Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011 more than 2.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict. The majority of them, almost 1.6 million, are internally displaced and reliant on word of mouth and radio to find out how to access food, water and shelter.
Sunlight vs information darkness
Based in Turalei, in the northeast part of South Sudan, Mayardit FM is fitted with 84 solar panels and 48 batteries and can broadcast for 24 hours using reserve energy built up from sunlight. Kassimu says that so far $172,000 was spent on switching to solar power, but those costs will be covered within five years and will eventually save them money on fuel, equipment and repairs.
“We used to spend $22,000 a year just to maintain the generators. In those remote locations, fuel is two to three times more expensive than the cost in Juba, so I thought of something that could at least be sustainable,” he said.
Dependency on generators
While Mayardit FM relies on solar power, most radio stations in South Sudan depend on generators for electricity — because only 1% of the population has access to the country’s electrical grid. These generators regularly break down due to the unstable energy they produce.
Kassimu is one of a select few in the country who knows how to repair them. He spends a lot of time travelling, single-handedly fixing generators. Remember, South Sudan is the size of France so there are large distances involved and people often wait for days in information darkness.
“Once a generator breaks down, it would take me up to five days to fly to the location and fix it. And the radio would remain off air,” Kassimu says.
Reaching remote areas with local radio
For remote parts of South Sudan radio is often the only link to the outside world. Kassimu is part of a network of six local radio stations called the Radio Community which aims to bring radio to the entire country, broadcasting in local languages and reaching up to 2.1 million listeners. Two of the stations are off air because of the volatile situation in those areas.
The project is run by Internews, an NGO funded largely by USAID that aims to empower local journalists and develop the capacity of media outlets. South Sudan is one of Internews’s biggest projects.
“The illiteracy rates in South Sudan are incredibly high,” says Steven Lemmy, the Radio Community’s Senior Broadcast Engineer. Adult illiteracy rates are around 30%.
“So, if you use one language to broadcast to all the people around the country who speak different dialects, they will not understand. The only thing you can do is bring these standalone radio stations to different, often remote, localities,” he says.
The risks of working in war-torn South Sudan
The Radio Community say they’re not political. But the conflict in the country has affected them. In July 2016, their station manager in the city of Leer was killed in Juba. According to reports, he was targeted because he was a member of the Nuer tribe.
Kassimu and Lemmy maintain that it is not a risk to keep the local stations on air and would rather emphasize peace and cooperation in South Sudan.
However there is no escaping the fact that the situation is dangerous. Seven journalists were killed in South Sudan in 2015 alone.
“This is one of the countries where our colleagues are exposed to tremendous risk and some of them lost their lives in the past 10 years. Sometimes its not easy and its quite risky to be a journalist,” says Ratomir Petrovic, the chief of the UN Radio Miraya in South Sudan, the country’s largest national radio station with the widest geographical reach.
How radio is saving lives
“Whenever we open a radio station we employ the locals,” Lemmy says. “We bring them out, we train them, give them the skills they need in broadcasting. And the editorial part of it is managed by the Radio Community.
“When you know that you can impact other people to such a great extent, you start to think broader and work harder to make sure these radios are broadcasting. It is the radio which is telling people there is an outbreak of cholera and you need to do A, B, C, D.” Kassimu says.
“At the end of the day it (the radio) saves lives.”