Beaming News to South Sudan

People were buzzing with excitement. In rural South Sudan, a beloved community radio station was doubling its broadcast hours. The enthusiasm could even be described as electric – but in this case, the power came completely from the sun.

Mayardit FM in Turalei expanded from four hours in the morning and four hours at night to a full 16 hours of broadcast time, bringing news, information, music and sports to the area, and all powered by sunshine.

A man installs a solar panel in a bank of panels.
Solar panels are installed at the Jamjang radio station by Issa Kassimu. Credit Internews

“Before, we had problems with fuel because sometimes we ran out and the station had to shut down,” said Aguer Atem Barac, Acting Editor of Mayardit FM. “Sometimes there was a mechanical problem with the generator, and we had to shut down. During the rainy season, the price of fuel traditionally shoots up, or we just can’t move fuel from where it’s stored to where we need it.”

In a country where radio is often the best way to reach citizens, because of low literacy rates and a broad diversity in local languages, renewable energy was the solution.

Solar contributes to sustainability

In Magwi, Central Equatoria State, local and relevant information can be hard to access. But the town has been fortunate to have Voice of Freedom FM, a community-run radio station that broadcasts in five local languages, covering local and international news as well as original programming on conflict resolution and peacebuilding, the rights of children, women and people with disabilities.

Sign in front of the radio station says,
Solar power kept Voice of Freedom on the air. Credit Internews

However, in early 2015, the station was forced to go almost completely off the air due to technical issues with costly generators, which, in the absence of a reliable electricity grid, are the default power source in South Sudan. Internews provided Voice of Freedom FM with a grant to install a solar panel system and the electrical setup to go with it. The station was able to resume normal broadcasting operations, providing a vital community service for listeners across Magwi county.

“What is most impressive about Voice of Freedom is the dedication that they have from their community – they have loyal listeners, committed volunteers and a very impressive community board,” says Rafiq Copeland, former Media Initiatives Manager at Internews in South Sudan. “So in terms of sustainability, when it comes to support from the community, they were already there. What they needed was some assistance on the technical side, to allow them to be sustainable on that front as well.”

Sustainable power isn’t the only benefit of solar. Since they were able to save money by using the solar system, Voice of Freedom FM was able to hire local journalists rather than rely on volunteers, improving the professionalism of the station and delivering more reliable information to their listeners.

A mission to innovate and expand solar

South Sudanese electrical engineer Issa Kasimu was behind Mayardit FM’s transition to 100% solar power. Two other stations in The Radio Community (TRC), a network of community radio stations across South Sudan supported by Internews and funded by USAID, have since gone solar with Issa’s help, and two more will convert to solar this year.

Since 2013, Issa has traveled throughout South Sudan designing, installing, and maintaining electrical systems for Internews-supported radio stations. When Internews received a donation of some solar-compatible batteries from the United Nations Development Programme, Issa persuaded TRC management to trial solar power on a grand scale, as he passionately believed it would bring stability to stations as well as savings benefits – essential if TRC is to be sustainable in the future.

“Solar is such a great solution for us in South Sudan,” says Issa. “With the country’s location near the equator, [Stations] can now bring information to their community with just the power of the sun!”

A man wipes off dust from a solar panel
Solar power installations require much less maintenance than generators. Credit Internews

Once installed, the stations have found solar power affordable, clean and easy to maintain. It reduces annual operating costs by a stunning 92.8%. The result is more information, for more people, for more time each day. Solar works on the receiving end of information too – in 2017 alone, The Radio Community distributed more than 5,000 solar- and wind-up-powered radio sets to listeners.

Journalists have long cherished the idea that “sunshine is the best disinfectant” – the belief that putting news out in the open empowers citizens to make informed decisions. In South Sudan, community radio is proving that sunshine may also be the best fuel.

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Internews’ work in South Sudan is supported by USAID. Learn more about solar-powered radio in an in-depth guide published by Internews in South Sudan.

(Banner image: The TRC electrician (center) and journalists by new solar panels installed at Mayardit FM. Credit Internews)