There is no doubt, FM radios are the most accessed channel of communication in Uganda, thanks to the liberalisation of the broadcast sector in the early 1990's which led to its rapid growth.
Rural people are increasingly accessing more information from the many rural FM stations spread throughout the country because of the enormous advantages they provide, leading to better decision making. Radios easily transcend barriers caused by isolation as a result of illiteracy, distance to urban centres, lack of power connectivity and general poverty.
In addition, rural FM radio's easily adapt to local language and culture, rural folks can listen to radio in privacy of their homes in a language they are comfortable with, requiring no special skills.
But what type of information do they provide to the rural folk? The former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela once said, "Bad media is better than no media at all." Yes, rural FM stations are doing a great work to empower the citizens through access to information but questions abound about quality.
What is the quality of the information accessed? Are they contributing to the improvement of the household incomes of their target audiences? Do they carry out on-the-job training to their journalists?
Do they involve their target audiences in programme design? What percentage of their time do they use for development messages in comparison to foreign broadcasts and music?
Uganda being a predominantly agricultural country with over 80 per cent of the population directly or indirectly employed in the sector - majority in the rural areas, appropriate use of radio to sensitise rural farmers on market information, seeds and access to loans can easily turn around their fortunes.
Rural FM radio's indeed have the potential to address all these challenges if equitable access to information and better knowledge sharing to enable the rural people exploit the available resources is ensured. A lot of agricultural sensitisation funds are invested in buying airtime and calling experts the usual way; to teach people what to do, the likes of NAADS. Yes, it is good but is it sustainable?
Government agencies, donors and civil society involved in agricultural sensitisation should know that there is need to more than just sensitise (buying airtime and calling experts to teach rural farmers what to do.) Rural FM stations, more than any other media, influence the opinion of rural folk but continue to employ untrained journalists because of the increased commercialisation of the sector.
Journalists and radio presenters continue to receive peanuts because to the radio owners, profits are at the forefront of anything to do with professional journalism and the information needs of poor rural folk.
I have been in the villages of Kabarole District in Western Uganda and listened to their radio stations, the topic is always who is going to win in the elections, which player Ferguson bought the other day, how Bobi Wine is pirating Kafeero's music, etc but not which agricultural products are available for sale in a given village, low interest farmer loans in a given financial institution, improved seeds in a given shop in town.
Imagine what difference it would make for a radio programme that connects buyers and sellers of agricultural products, giving the contact phone of the seller/buyer, place, amount and products needed or available.
If nothing is done, many people especially in the rural areas will continue to produce crops but continue to sell them at a low price to exploitative middle men, hence gaining little from months of hard work and the vicious cycle of poverty shall continue.
The writer works with Toro Development Network