As advertising disappears amid the coronavirus pandemic, radio stations helping farmers adapt to climate shifts could disappear
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By Kagondu Njagi
KANGEMA, Kenya, Aug 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In these hills a two-hour drive north of Nairobi, the weather can shift quickly and sometimes violently, as recent landslides along the winding highway make clear.
To keep up with weather alerts, farmers and traders have since 2008 turned to the Kangema Radio and Internet (RANET) communications system, a local radio station established with the Kenya Meteorological Department.
"Many people have been displaced around here because of landslides. Heavy rains can happen without warning and cause the earth to move," said Moses Mwangi, a local farmer.
"This is why the weather feeds from Kangema RANET are very important to us," he said, as he demonstrated how to tune his mobile phone to the radio frequency.
But the non-profit station - and four others like it across Kenya - are now at risk of closing as a coronavirus-linked economic downturn dries up funding sources.
The Kangema station's normal funding has fallen by about 90% since the start of the pandemic in March, said Philip Ndegwa, its administrator.
"We used to raise money through advertising from local traders, banks, hospitals, colleges and schools," he said. "But that is now all gone because of COVID-19."
Around the world, economic downturns associated with the pandemic are putting at risk efforts to build greater resilience to climate change threats, including increasingly extreme weather.
In Africa, systems that aim to provide accurate, locally tailored weather and climate forecasts to farmers, who increasingly depend on them to make smart growing decisions, could be among the casualties.
"Community radio stations provide real-time content because they interact directly with people facing the pressures of climate change like floods and drought," said Tom Mboya, coordinator of the Kenya Community Media Network (KCOMNET).
But the stations - which also carry news, and educational and entertainment programming - receive limited government funding and now may close if advertising revenue dries up, he said.
The Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) helped set up a weather station in Kangema when the radio network began, and analyses data collected on temperature, moisture and wind speed, turning it into local forecasts the radio team can broadcast.
But Ali Ramtu, senior acting director in charge of aeronautical and meteorological services at KMD, said the information service was at risk unless Kenya's government can find more money to support it.
Journalists at the Kangema station, like Joyce Wachira, a producer, say the funding threat comes even as their workload is heavier than ever, as the station pumps out coronavirus news and information as well as regular programming.
"I have to leave my family and be at the office before dawn to prepare awareness materials to be aired about COVID-19," said Wachira, who has worked at the station for eight years.
One way community radio stations are trying to stay afloat is by broadcasting paid educational messages about the coronavirus produced by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Ndegwa said.
The Kangema station also has received 150,000 Kenyan shillings ($1,400) in grants from the Media Council of Kenya since June, aimed at helping it stay on the air, he said.
In early June, David Omwoyo, chief executive of the media council, told journalists it had given 129 community radio stations and 25 television stations about 100 million Kenyan shillings ($925,000) in temporary support during the crisis.
His deputy, Victor Bwire, said the council was in the process of trying to establish a media fund to provide longer-term financial support for struggling Kenyan media, such as community radio and television stations.
But the money isn't likely to be large or steady enough to help the Kangema station meet growing demand for its programming, Ndegwa said.
"At the moment we need to invest in digital equipment and more staff because there is a lot of demand for our broadcasts not just here in Kangema but in the entirety of central Kenya," he said.
The hilly terrain interferes with the station's signal, Ndegwa said, noting it needs a more powerful antenna and the installation of boosters to expand its reach.
Kangema traders, such as Lucy Wanjiku, who provides natural gas containers to clients, said getting accurate local weather forecasts is crucial to keeping businesses on track, particularly amid more climate-driven floods and droughts.
"When it rains the motorbike taxis are not able to distribute LPG cylinders to my customers. So I rely on weather alerts from Kangema RANET to plan my business," she said.
(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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