A Problem Shared is a Problem Solved: A learning exchange to enhance health programming in Kenya

By Kelsi Hines

They may be isolated 10 miles off mainland Kenya, but the people of Mfangano Island, in the middle of Lake Victoria, still hope to connect and relate to the outside world. One way to do this is through the use of smartphones, the internet, and new media technology. If used creatively, these technologies have the potential to catalyze culture and revitalize language, and can be used to enhance health, solidarity and environmental preservation—as indigenous groups have noticed in the past.

The Organic Health Response (OHR), a small grassroots organization based on the Mfangano Island, Kenya, is doing just that – using community radio as a creative tool to address health challenges in the region. With approximately 30 percent of the island’s population infected with HIV,[i] (in contrast to Kenya’s current national rate of 6.3 percent),[ii] the 30,000 Luo and Suba people who call Mfangano home belong to one of the poorest and most HIV-prevalent communities in the world.[iii]  Today OHR coordinates a 100 percent solar powered community center on the island, manages the world’s first microclinic program for HIV/AIDS, and broadcasts Africa’s only wind and solar-powered radio station, the Ekialo Kiona Radio (“EK-FM”).

The Role of Community Radio in Health Promotion

Inexpensive, adaptable, and easily accessible, the rural community radio has taken root across Africa over the last 50 years, and is now considered to be one of Africa’s most effective means of communication, popular education, and health promotion. From the hand-built, 56-ft wind and solar-powered tower, EK-FM now broadcasts 12 hours a day to 200,000 people across the lake regions of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. EK-FM promotes HIV prevention and treatment services, enacts emergency response programming, connects over 100 microclinic groups together, and plays a critical role in fostering crucial conversations about health in this marginalized community out in the lake. Produced in the Suba language, EK-FM addresses the specific health concerns of the people by disseminating valuable information in a comprehendible and timely manner.

Sustainability Challenges

EK-FM broadcasts from the middle of Lake Victoria through basic infrastructure: a sustainably powered tower and FM transmitter, an operational studio, a small but dedicated staff, and a devoted listening body. However, to reach a vision of true community engagement and sustainability of their vital health programming, EK-FM must generate the necessary resources to operate from within the community, rather than relying on outside funding sources. 

The Learning Exchange

This year, with support from the first round of the CHMI Learning Exchange program, EK-FM completed a learning exchange with the Kenya Community Media Network (KCOMNET) to develop a long-term model to sustain this vital radio. This exchange enabled this small yet powerful station to:

  1. Understand approaches to sustainability for community radio including sustainable financing and management models;
  2. Develop and implement a sustainability model unique for EK-FM and the Lake Victoria communities;
  3. Improve community ownership of the station through increased stakeholder participation; and
  4. Strengthen the community radio network in Kenya.

Beginning in February 2015, experts from KCOMNET, one of the leading community media organization’s in the country, partnered with EK-FM and completed three sustainability workshops, where they provided knowledge on effective models to 15 staff and volunteers of the station. The series took an in-depth look at the commercial vs. community radio field and explored sustainable income-generating models of regional and national community radios within the KCOMNET network.

In April, 9 EK-FM staff participated in a fieldtrip to Radio Mang’elete, an established community radio in Eastern Kenya to observe a sustainable model in practice.  The exchange culminated in a Sustainability Summit, which featured regional media experts and was attended by representatives of eight community radio stations in Kenya. This summit allowed, for the first time ever, stations to address critical operating needs, highlight successes, discuss challenges, explore solutions, and strengthen community voices in the region.

A Problem Shared is a problem solved

“A learning exchange offers a unique platform to network, bond, and share experiences and challenges faced by similar organizations in the field, and allows a learning opportunity to address these challenges. It’s true that a problem shared is a problem solved,” said Robinson Okeyo, OHR’s Project Coordinator.

Regardless of geographic location, age or success, sustainability continues to be one of the biggest challenges preventing communities from using their voice to enhance community health and wellbeing. Through the learning exchange, the Ekialo Kiona Radio was able to collaborate and address common issues and challenges as a community radio network.   

The Learning Exchange helped kick-start conversations, share and problem solve—ultimately saving this vital resource and making a significant impact on the people of the Mfangano Island, a tiny island out in the middle of Lake Victoria.

The Author:  Kelsi Hines is the Director of Operations at Organic Health Response.

[i] (2013) Kenya, County HIV Service Delivery Profiles. Ministry of Health, Republic of Kenya.

[ii] UNGASS 2010. United Nations General Assembly. Special Session on HIV and AIDS. Country Report - Kenya.

[iii] Fiorella K., Hickey M.; Salmen, C.; Bukusi E., Cohen C., et al (2011). The Mfangano Health Baseline Survey: Associations between social support, food security, HIV testing and HIV status among randomly selected households within Mfangano Island, Suba District, Kenya; 2011; San Francisco, CA.