“Wait a minute!” interjected donor Paul McRae as I thanked the twenty Farm Radio supporters who attended our reception in Vancouver last week. I didn’t know what was coming next.
“I give to a number of charities,” he continued, “and this is the first time one of them has invited me to come and ask questions about their work. Thank you for coming here.”
Of course, I didn’t need to be thanked. I was the one to be thankful for having supporters so loyal that they missed (or at least PVR’ed) the highly entertaining third US presidential debate and braved the rain to attend Farm Radio’s first-ever donor reception in Vancouver.
It all started with an invitation — and a paid airline ticket — from the Walrus Foundation. I had been invited to speak on a panel for the Vancouver edition of The Walrus Talks Africa’s Next Generation at the University of British Columbia.
When the Farm Radio staff in Ottawa heard about my plans to go to Vancouver, barely a second passed before I was told: “Great! And the day after the Walrus talk, we’ll have a reception for supporters in Vancouver— and you can speak again!”
And so, on the evening of October 19th, I met with a small group of Vancouver-based donors for an informal conversation about how radio is improving lives in rural communities.
Vancouver-based donors Bob and Almaz Carruthers offered up their home for the event and even brought out their precious Ethiopian china for our guests. Board member Liz Hughes helped get everything organized in the three short weeks we had the plan the gathering in her city. And Lydia Treadwell and Brenda Jackson burned the midnight oil at the office in Ottawa calling west coast donors to invite them to attend. It all came together in very short order!
And I had a ball.
I never tire of telling our “foundational” tale about George Atkins at an African workshop on farm broadcasting in Zambia forty years ago. When a colleague from Sierra Leone mentioned to George that his next program included a script telling farmers how to fix the gap in their spark plugs, George had the common sense to ask, “But how many of your listeners actually have a tractor?”
The answer? Ten out of 800,000.
In that instant, George realized how impactful agricultural radio could be in developing countries if it was actually tailored to the needs of its listeners. He founded what we now call Farm Radio International, an organization dedicated at that time to providing radio scripts that offered the world’s poorest farmers low-cost and no-cost ways to improve their farms and feed their families.
I love to talk about how that idea has evolved over the decades: How we train African farm radio broadcasters to share information that is really useful to listeners and to put farmers’ voices on the air so that they can share their own knowledge, experiences, and questions. And how mobile phones — as omnipresent in rural Africa as they are in Canada — have more than doubled our effectiveness as a development organization.
With mobile phones, radio is no longer a one-way communications tool. Using their phones, farmers can respond to radio program polls and tell the station — as well as development organizations and politicians — what is really important to farmers.
And by establishing women-only call-in lines, radio stations can now ensure that half of the calls they put on the air come from female farmers — even though women in Africa have less access to mobile phones than men.
Those are some of the points I made last Wednesday evening as I shared stories that demonstrate the power of radio to create real and meaningful change in people’s lives. I also told our donors how we increasingly need their financial support to expand our services to the myriad rural broadcasters who want them.
Following that, I was inundated with very pertinent questions about how we work, and that kept our discussion going until well after the snacks and drinks ran out!
Paul McRae was right. These receptions do have value, both for us and for you, our supporters. Rest assured that we will host more of them. We hope to see you at one soon!