The Sounds of Solar: Powering Sustainable Community Radio in Africa

Open Spaces – Zambia

The drive from the Zambian capital, Lusaka to Chongwe in the east takes little over an hour, and as one heads out of the city the scenery quickly changes. The urban bustle makes way for a rural landscape and the road stretches past wooded areas and agricultural fields. Charcoal production and small-scale farming are key economic activities in the area while tourism plays a key role in the region too.

The town of Chongwe is a hub that provides retail activity, government offices and access to health care and services. Most of the commercial activity is sprawled down the main road as you enter town. On a visit to the area, I engaged with a local butcher who provides meat to the district. His shop contains several fridges and freezer but none of them are plugged in to keep the meat fresh, the appliances are basically sealed cupboards for any stock in the butchery. Challenges with the supply and reliability of electricity has made cold storage a challenge the butcher is no longer willing to fight. Not only is the state power service erratic currently providing electricity for up to 12 hrs a day due to the drought, but it is also costly too. After dealing with damaged electrical equipment and stock loss, the fridges were unplugged as the option to run a generator doesn’t make financial sense due to the size of the business.

Chongwe Community Radio

The story of the butchery is one which replicates itself in many sectors in the Chongwe district, some more critical than others. In government offices, citizens are often unable to complete the reason they travelled to Chongwe because systems and computers are down due to power issues or erratic internet connectivity. The rural nature of the district also means Chongwe has limited media options meaning that the services that are available are critical for the supply of news, information and entertainment.

Electronic media is particularly susceptible to challenges around electric supply and fluctuating voltage. Community radio requires reliable electrical supply as a key factor to operate and distribute their signal, the lack thereof means they are unable adequately serve their community. The electrical challenges faced by businesses and institutions in Chongwe mirror those of Chongwe Community Radio.

Being a vital element in the social and information ecosystem in the district, the staff at Chongwe Community Radio work tirelessly to ensure quality programming and professional delivery. Not being able to ensure the station remains on-air during critical broadcast hours remained one of the key issues faced by the station. Having been selected as one of nineteen partners in the Open Spaces project run by Internews in Zambia, supported by US-AID, Chongwe Community Radio has been an active participant in media business and sustainability mentoring and training led by the local Internews Team. Through this process, the station was identified as a good recipient for a solar installation to increase the regularity and length of broadcast operating hours.

During a visit on 15 May 2024 from the Independent Broadcasting Authority, Ministry of Information and Media Permanent Secretary Thabo Kawana, Station Manager at Chongwe Community Radio, Penias Tembo shared the importance of a back-up power solution as a broadcasting requirement, and this was echoed by the IBA who urged other radio and television stations to invest in similar back-up solutions. Through strategic donor investment, the community radio sector is leading the industry in embracing solar energy. Tembo says, “the installation of solar has been a game changing for our station, it has done wonders! Loadshedding was a thorn in our necks, and we were badly hit for many years. After the installation of solar we are able to transmit and do business despite the electricity challenges in the area.”

North facing panels at Radio Chongwe in Zambia can generate 4KVA in peak sunlight hours, providing free and reliable electricity for the bulk of the year.

Reliability and Reduced Costs

Community radio sustainability is an intricate journey and the ability for stations to have improved quality and access to their content, news and discussions is vital in strengthening their ability to be more sustainable. When distribution and broadcast times are erratic, audiences are uncertain as to the broadcast schedule and may seek an alternative media source or lose trust in their local community station because they are often off-air. Stations are unable to build sustainable content value chains in these scenarios and solar power underpins a more reliable service.

Solar also has a direct financial impact on the operations of a community radio. Not having to spend money on purchasing electricity or fuel to run generators, frees up cash to invest into other parts of the operation or to improve other elements within the organisation or general cash flow. In the case of Chongwe Community Radio, they are saving a minimum of ten percent per month on electricity.  costs. Generators are also expensive to procure and to maintain, and every running hour has associated costs beyond the purchase of fuel.

The Solar Investment

The average cost to install a solar system to run a community station in Zambia is just under $8000, this includes battery back-up, an inverter system and solar panels.When considering the costs over a three-year period (potential battery replacement time) the cost of installing solar for a community radio station like Chongwe is just over &7 per day..

There is no doubt that investing in solar strengthens local voices and it is with in mind that Internews has been actively supporting partners across Africa in designing and implementing solar installations since 2016.

With lessons learnt in South Sudan between 2016 and 2018, it is clear solar provides a tangible and sustainable investment, for donors, into a critical sector that has immediate benefit to the surrounding communities. The solar model is also not complex to design, fund or implement and there is no ambiguity in solars contribution to a more sustainable operating environment for media.

Community Voices – Radio Kwenje

Radio Kwenje in Chama district located in the Eastern Province of Zambia is another community station, in the Open Spaces programme, that has benefitted from direct solar investment by Internews and USAID. Having previously relied on power from Malawi, the cross-border challenges added to the power challenges faced by the station. With the installation of a 2KVA system and battery back-up, the station has expanded its programming to include more interactive and participatory shows. These programs encourage community members to voice their opinions, share experiences, and engage in discussions on various issues affecting their lives. This interactive platform empowers the community by giving them a voice and fostering a sense of ownership and involvement. Patrick Mkandawire, Programmes Officer, at Radio Kwenje is a passionate community radio practitioner who shares that their solar installation has not been without challenges. Open communication on the needs and expectation of the station are critical and when technical challenges are encountered it is essential for both station and donor to seek the best solution.

The simplistic design of a solar installation rolled out to six partner stations in Zambia. The installation is simple to implement and maintain.

The Liberian Perspective

Learning from previous experiences and project implementations across Africa, Internews builds knowledge and strength while implementing programmes by fostering a community of practice. Having actively contributed to the development of the media landscape in Liberia for over ten years, the current Internews programme in Liberia, the USAID Liberian Media Activity works to create a stronger, more sustainable media environment. With thirty partners, the activity is the largest media development programme in the country.

Local Challenges

Despite significant progress in rebuilding the economy and general infrastructure post war, Liberia continues to face significant challenges in their power sector with frequent electricity outages and limited access to reliable energy, particularly in rural areas.

The terrain of rural Liberia makes the movement of people and goods extremely challenging. Along with prolonged periods of rain, access to rural areas can take days with vehicles often getting stuck in the mud. This leaves remote villages isolated for periods of time with community radio often being the only source of news and information.

Working with Communities

Because of the often-remote locations and real electricity needs in the country, solar has become an excellent tool to mitigate some of the power challenges of the community radio sector. Solar is however a valuable commodity which makes the theft of batteries, panels and electrical equipment a real challenge.

With nine solar sites identified in the Liberian Media Activity the need to work with and educate communities on the collective value of more stable and reliable media is key. Theft and damage to equipment impacts entire communities and the effect on information dissemination can be crippling. Through direct engagement and information sharing sessions on the radio, stations have actively worked to engage and educate their communities on the value of the solar installations.

Current supply to Radio Kergheamahn. Local supply is often erratic.  

Theft of solar equipment can be problematic, and stations try and secure their installations

Technical Capacity and Infrastructure Upgrades

Many community radio stations in rural Liberia are in small buildings within the village or town they service. These structures are often self-constructed using donated materials or from natural timber products harvested from the immediate surroundings. The structures aren’t necessarily designed to accommodate the additional weight of the solar panels, or the number of panels required for an effective installation. Working closely with partner stations, Internews can advise on future development and sustainable growth from a space perspective and can offer technical advice for future solar installations.

With the upgrading of the electrical supply, Internews is also able to train local technicians and deepen their knowledge of electrical systems and the integration of solar into the studio building.

The Voice of Sinoe & Alternative Youth Radio

The Voice of Sinoe in Southeast Liberia is one of the community radio stations that have benefitted from the USAID Liberia Media Activity solar intervention. Prior to their solar installation, the station relied heavily on electricity provided by the GSM operators who run generators to power their masts. The relationship involves the exchange of advertising for electricity. Being able to operate independently creates a greater sense of autonomy and changes the advertising opportunities with mobile operators who are a dominant commercial influence in the country.

James Kwabo, Station Manager at Alternative Youth Radio, in Zorzor City says, “the installation of solar is a significant boost to improving our efforts in serving our community and empowering young people with this innovation”.

Both stations have received 5kVA solar installation at a cost of $ 16 600. When considering the purchase price of a generator, the monthly maintenance and fuel expenditure to be on-air for eighteen hours a day, the initial cost of a solar installation will be recouped in just under fourteen months.

Voice of Sinoe Community Radio in Liberia after benefitting from a solar panel installtion supported by Internews and USAID.

Blended Electrical Solution

The efficiency of solar power can be affected by weather conditions and Liberia encounters a prolonged rainy season. To counter this, a hybrid approach needs to be implemented where grid, generator, battery and solar are combined for the most effective and reliable solution. Continual monitoring of inverters and the adjustment thereof ensures the most efficient solution is delivered at any stage. With effective planning stations are also able to budget for and implement the maintenance of generators during times of extended sunshine and solar generated current.

The integration of solar energy into community is transformative, addressing critical challenges and enhancing the capacity of these stations to serve their communities. By overcoming challenges through strategic investment and capacity-building initiatives, solar energy not only ensures the continued operation of these vital community hubs but also fosters broader community development and environmental sustainability.