Extending the Learning Community: Rural Radio, Social Learning and Farm Productivity in Ghana

Olumide Taiwo and
Olumide Taiwo Former Brookings Expert
Emmanuel Asmah
Emmanuel Asmah Former Brookings Expert

April 17, 2012


Agricultural productivity remains a crucial factor in poverty reduction and rural transformation in Africa. After a long period of decline and stagnation, there have recently been reports of improved performance by the agricultural sector in many if not all countries on the continent. Mugera and Ojede (2011) provide a good survey of the literature on this subject and show that a variety of changes have made this progress possible. The studies cited in their survey emphasize the impact of remarkable changes in farm inputs such as crop varieties, fertilizer, pesticides and water resources (rainfall and irrigation), and the infrastructural changes that have made these gains possible, such as market reforms and extension services. However, whereas changes in inputs and markets are well captured, changes in extension services are muted in these reports, to the effect that credit is given to the effectiveness of orthodox agricultural extension. To the contrary, a survey of attitudes toward and experiences with orthodox extension services shows that farmers have largely been abandoning those services since the beginning of the last decade.

The implication is that the credit given to extension services is largely misplaced, and the analyses omit a crucial change in the form of the knowledge to which farmers are adapting and the ways in which this knowledge is being disseminated. The literature on knowledge systems clearly distinguishes between formal or explicit knowledge that is based on scientific evidence and informal or tacit knowledge that is experimental and is acquired after a given practice has proved fruitful (Roling 1992). Whereas orthodox extension services focus on application of the former, there is evidence that farmers are instead shifting to the latter. In a survey of farmers’ perspectives on agricultural extension in the East Akim District of Ghana reported by Boateng (2006), two-thirds of farmers surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with orthodox extension services. Among the dissatisfied majority, the main reasons cited were the unreliability of the service (47 percent) and the enormous costs of applying the new techniques (47 percent). In their responses to other questions in the survey, the farmers unanimously declared extension services as unreliable because “they were not involved in the development of technologies passed on to them by the experts” (Boateng 2006, 24). This attitude toward orthodox extension services is not a “new millennium” experience. Conley and Udry (2010) found from a survey conducted between 1996 and 1998 among pineapple farmers in three villages in southern Ghana that only one in three farmers took advice from an extension agent from the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. They found from their data that average fertilizer use is less than one-tenth of the 400 kilograms per hectare recommended by extension officers. Their analysis and findings show that farmers adjust fertilizer use not after the recommendations of the extension officers but following the experiences of other farmers in their neighborhood.

Recent developments in communication and socialization infrastructure have extended the sphere of social learning beyond village borders. In the Ghanaian context, the rural radio phenomenon has successfully moved the borders of social learning from the village to the range of radio broadcasts. “Rural radio stations,” a term used interchangeably with “community radio stations,” are FM radio stations that have been established with the aim to broadcast to a rural audience that is predominantly engaged in agriculture. These new stations are not mere extensions of national FM radio stations to rural areas but are new FM stations that are owned and situated in rural areas. As noted by Girard (2001, 6), “In 1985 the term ‘rural radio’ usually referred to a division within the national broadcaster that produced programs in the capital and broadcast them to the countryside. Now rural radio is local radio.” A study by Chapman and others (2003) suggests that the community element of rural radio encourages the active participation of the audience, the engagement of the community’s intellectual resources, and community ownership of the radio station. In particular, community radio stations are set up with the aim to “enable marginalised communities and groups to generate and share their knowledge and experience” (Quarmyne 2001). In terms of their programs, they focus on livelihood and development issues, transmit most of their events in local dialects and cater strongly to occupational segments such as farmers and fishermen. The main advantage is that the uneducated rural population in those communities can and does participate in these programs. Radio Ada, the first community radio station in Ghana, started operations in February 1998, shortly after the liberalization of the Ghanaian airwaves in 1996. At the end of 2005, there were seven operational community radio stations in Ghana with broadcast ranges covering large swaths of seven of the country’s ten regions. It is estimated that community radio stations reached between a quarter and two-fifths of the country’s area as of that time (Whaites 2005).

The development of rural radio has brought about a change in the content of radio transmission that is accessible to rural audiences. McKay (2003, 4), in his qualitative study of radio participation in a fishing community, cited a fishmonger’s account:

  1. The first [radio we bought] was 16 years ago. Back then we tuned to the radio a little, but we mainly played cassettes. My husband is educated, so he liked tuning to where they spoke English. But if my husband was not in the house, then we put the cassette in the tape player and played gospel songs. Now we listen to Radio Ada, because of the Dangme being spoken.

Whereas learning from neighbors is confined to members of the same village, rural radio stations enable individuals to learn from more distant counterparts. McKay (2003, 3) cited a fisherman who was knowledgeable about the development occurring among fishmongers in his Anyakpor community as saying:

  1. Anyakpor women, when they’ve finished smoking, use a certain grass named lale giving colour to the fish here. With a programme from another community along the coast here, I learned that there’s another grass which is called zue which is used in giving the fish colour and it is better than the lale the Anyakpor fishmongers are using. So the women here are changing to use zue.

In Ghana, rural radio has been used to promote the adoption of a high-yield rice seed named New Rice for Africa. The impact of this promotion, as documented by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2010), is a doubling of demand for the seed among farmers between 2008 and 2009. However, the report shows that the adoption of the seed variety is made possible by having farmers talk to themselves on the radio. Citing a 46-year-old female rural rice farmer, Faustina, who experienced a turnaround on her rice farm, the report makes the case that it is often more convincing to learn about a new yield-improving technology from a farmer than from an extension agent. “Hearing about the rice from other farmers made it more convincing,” says Faustina.

In this paper, we attempt to evaluate the impact of social learning through rural radio on crop yields in Ghana. We lay the theoretical foundation and examine the literature in the next section and follow with a section describing our identification strategy and examining the data. We then present descriptive statistics and our results, discuss the results, and offer conclusions.