Rural community radios in Mali

Mali is a large, sparsely populated country with a thriving rural community radio sector serving a large majority of the rural population in local languages. Mali has tried different ways of introducing ICTs into rural areas, including the rural telephony, Internet, sound and television broadcasting. Of all of these attempts, the greatest impact both socially and economically has been through the establishment of local rural radio stations.

As in most West African countries, broadcasting in Mali has traditionally been a state monopoly, with the ORTM (Office de Radiodiffusion au Television de Mali) broadcasting primarily French-language programming produced in Bamako to the entire country.

The country’s first independent radio station was established in 1988 in the remote community of Kayes, a product of a presidential decree. Start-up financing for Kayes Rural Radio came from an Italian NGO, but the station’s sustainability was met by local sources and by a strong relationship with Malian expatriates living in France who regarded radio as a vehicle for their own communication with the community.

Following the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1991, Mali formally allowed private radio and television stations to operate and adopted one of the most democratic broadcast laws in Africa. Within a few years dozens of private radio stations, both commercial and community, were established, most of them local stations.

Mali now has one of the strongest and most diverse radio systems in Africa. Fifteen years ago, the ORTM broadcast programming via repeater transmitters across the country. Now there are as many as 300 radio stations broadcasting local programming throughout the country in more than a dozen local languages.

Rural community radio operations
One reason for the sector’s growth has been the absence of bureaucratic and financial hurdles in procuring a licence; if an individual or community has the funds for equipment, they can start and operate a station. There are no license fees to establish a radio station, and the only requirements are citizenship and that a simple form is filled out to check for frequency availability and technical integrity of the application. If the proposal is technically sound and the requested frequency is available, the radio station is granted a license to use that frequency. Otherwise, a new frequency is allocated. Each year, a frequency allowance of about USD 20 is paid by each radio station.

URTEL (l’Union des Radios et Télévisions Libres du Mali) is an organization that offers training and advocacy services to its 168 member stations throughout the country, including 121 community stations, 38 commercial stations, and nine religious ones. URTEL also offers advice to new stations; for example, it recommends a suggested package of studio and transmission equipment for a 250-watt station costing approximately USD 11,000.

While many of Mali’s stations have received support from donor agencies, most of them are self-sufficient. The Netherlands, the FAO, USAID and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie are agencies that have provided support.

Even though the stations have received external support, local people have been involved at all stages, including with the projects’ initial designs. In many cases the villagers themselves constructed the stations’ buildings. Management is overseen by boards of directors and committees elected by the communities. Staff is hired locally, and women are actively involved at all levels.

Language is an important issue in Mali. While French is the official language, many people, especially in rural areas, do not speak French. In 2004, some 90 per cent of the radio stations in Mali broadcast in local languages.

Success factors and ongoing challenges
The success of rural radio can be explained by the accessibility of this medium; illiterate or preliterate, much of the population can listen to broadcasts in their own language. In an area of very high illiteracy, only oral means can ensure effective communication.

Local stations have largely met the challenge of language barriers. On many stations, programmes are broadcast not in Mali's official language (French) or in the widely spoken language (Bamana), but rather in the local language of that specific small area.

The government’s deliberate policy to encourage the emergence of local broadcasters has also been important, especially in minimizing financial and bureaucratic hurdles.

The rural population can recognize the importance of community radio stations. Rural radio has helped lower cultural and religious barriers. The rights of women and children are now openly discussed, and local radio stations have played an important role in this change by providing debate in local languages on the status of women. Formerly taboo subjects, such as schooling for young girls, are now more openly discussed. Education about malaria and its causes has also been increased through radio, and the rural population has now come to understand that mosquitoes spread this disease. Local radio stations have also disseminated information about the AIDS epidemic.

However there are shortcomings of the community radio movement in Mali. For example, many of the radio broadcasters lack professional expertise. Also, many stations make do with archaic technical equipment, which constitutes a significant problem since they do not have the funds for replacement parts.

Sources: “Development: Putting Community Radio On the Map in Africa”, AllAfrica, April 26, 2005;
“USAID Case Study”; “ICTs link rural Mali to the outside world”, Swissinfo, December 1, 2003;
 “Mali: The Radio Revolution”, Daily Trust (Abuja), May 22, 2006;
“The Malian Experience In The Field Of Rural Radio”, Moussa Keita - Secretary General, Union Of Radio And Television Broadcasting (UREL, Mali).;
“Community radio: a voice for the poor”, Africa Renewal, Vol.19 #2, page 4, April 2005;; “The Hard Lesson of Autonomy”, Pascal Berque.

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