South Sudanese Engineers Share Stage with Radio Experts around the World

The difficulties of running a radio station in South Sudan are immense. Even leaving aside the obvious security risks and constantly changing political dynamic, radio stations require a consistent electricity supply, and reliable internet.

Equipment has to be imported and transported to remote locations – often inaccessible by road – and once it gets there it must be regularly maintained against the harsh environment of both beating sun and tropical rains. 

In South Sudan, the only electricity supply comes from the radio station’s generator and the nation faces chronic fuel shortages. Internet is expensive and only available by satellite. Travel to stations for maintenance visits can take many days, and it is not unusual for a helicopter to be the only feasible transport option.

In addition, technical education and training in South Sudan is limited and qualified broadcast engineers are hard to find. Independent radio stations have only been functioning in South Sudan for the last 7 years – so the culture and understanding of how radio works is still new.

This is the environment two of South Sudan’s radio engineers have been working in since well before the country gained independence from Sudan in 2011. James Kwaje manages the engineering team for the country’s first independent national broadcaster – Eye Radio. Steven Lemmy is the engineer for a network of community radio stations supported by Internews, called The Radio Community (TRC).

Heat, dust and shortages of equipment along with political instability and fighting have made their jobs difficult – but very rewarding when they consider the many successes they have to date. As radio engineering pioneers they have had little to compare their achievements to – having learnt their craft and built their stations in the relatively isolated South Sudan.

But now, they have joined the family of the world’s best radio technicians, debuting the engineering feats required for South Sudan radio at TechCon, one of the premier events in the world of radio engineering.

“The trip was planned so James and Steven could see how radio engineers tackle problems in another country,” says Ann Charles, Internews’ Technical Trainer, “but also to extend their professional network so they may access international support, and to inform manufacturers of the radio technology needs of the burgeoning radio market in East Africa.”

The highlight of the trip was a presentation by the two engineers at London’s TechCon. The annual event is part of the Radio Academy’s Radio Festival, and is one of the most anticipated tech events for radio engineers in the world.

Equipment manufactures and industry professionals were fascinated by Kwaje and Lemmy’s discussion about how they work and their technical needs.

“It costs $15,000 per month to keep our generators running,” Kwaje explained. “We are hoping you will design solar equipment which will work for us.” For Lemmy, a major concern was the transition to digital broadcasting. “We see our future as digital,” Lemmy said. “Please do not send us your old analog equipment from the 1990s. We want to take this young nation forward!”

The response to the presentation was immediate. A broadcast equipment manufacturer offered a free trial of its latest software along with remote support to staff at the community radio stations. A supplier of outside broadcast equipment invited Kwaje and Lemmy to its London offices to discuss how they could meet the challenges faced in South Sudan.

Visits to radio stations gave the two engineers a chance to see the potential for radio in South Sudan. They visited BBC radio in London as well as the UK’s largest two commercial groups (Global and Bauer). They also visited BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service), who like the South Sudan stations, broadcast in hostile environments with weather extremes. 

At the Radio X studios in London Lemmy was impressed with the studio layout with its windows to the outside as well as the technical and presentational skills of The DJs. “We can design our studios like Radio X so the community can see what goes on and not be intimidated by being on the radio,” Lemmy said.

In South Sudan Internews is also supporting the establishment of industry bodies and regulatory authorities. To understand how this works in the UK, Kwaje and Lemmy visited the UK parliament, the broadcast regulator Ofcom and the company that manages all transmission – Arqiva.

Now back in South Sudan, the pair have a renewed enthusiasm for developing their stations. “This trip is not just for us, it is for all of South Sudan,” said Kwaje. “I will pass on what I have learned to other engineers in the country.”

The pair plan to keep in touch with the people they met. It is hoped some UK engineers will travel to South Sudan to mentor them, and both are working with technical manufacturers to source sustainable technical equipment.

Perhaps most excitingly, after taking part in The Radio Academy’s technical conference, they want to establish an association for broadcast engineers in South Sudan. “It will be a place where we can exchange knowledge,” says Lemmy. Kwaje adds, “In the UK, the engineers are like a family. I truly feel we have joined that family and there are more people looking out for us.”

Internews’ work in South Sudan is funded by the US Agency for International Development.