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Technology

The power of listening

Like in other African countries, gathering together to listen to stories is an essential part of the oral tradition in Zambia. It is how people learn what’s happening in their community, and it is how many children learn at school. 

But for those who are geographically isolated in the country and across sub-Saharan Africa, it can feel like their heritage is being lost.

That’s why Lifeline Energy – through solar-powered and wind-up MP3 players and radios – is bringing classroom and community listening to the most vulnerable and remote communities in the region.

The power of imagination

When primary school children listen to their lessons on one of Lifeline Energy’s solar-powered radios, the benefits extend beyond the acquisition of knowledge.

The sound of Mrs. Musando – the teacher whose recorded voice is coming from the radio – creates an emotional connection with the children as, even though they can’t see her, they know there is a real person speaking to them.

When asked what they thought Mrs. Musando looked like, the children all had a different vision of her. “To some she was old, to some she was large, to some she was thin, to some she wore glasses. But the one thing they all agreed on is that she wore a dress, and it was a colorful dress,” says Kristine Pearson, founder of Lifeline Energy.

Without Lifeline Energy’s radios, this imaginative connection, let alone the lesson for which it provided a vehicle, would not have been possible.

The recorded lessons help children learn English as well as the local language, gain basic literacy and numeracy skills, encourage reading and develop listening skills. Each radio reaches at least 40 listeners.

Using another of Lifeline Energy’s devices – the Lifeplayer, which has an MP3 feature – Kenyan children are recording their own poems and listening back to them. When there is no radio signal, children can continue to learn by using downloaded material. This device empowers teachers, too. Feeling self-conscious about speaking English with a “proper English accent”, teachers gain confidence by listening to a native English speaker.  

Zambian farmers – listening together

Listening together makes a difference not only to school children, but to Zambian farmers, too. They can use the radios to listen to agriculture programs about different conservation farming activities throughout the year, such as planting and harvesting, or programs related to farming instead of poaching or cutting trees for charcoal. They can even combine older and newer technologies, using WhatsApp to discuss issues among themselves after the broadcast or alert one another to a threat like weevil infestations or floodwaters.

“Everybody in the community receives the same information. So, there's no rumor, no one is disadvantaged because they didn’t have access to that information,” says Pearson. “There's an openness to sharing information, which otherwise might not have been available.”

Built from the ground up

The products that Lifeline Energy offers naturally complement the oral, collectivistic culture of these sub-Saharan communities. This is why they have been so successful with children and farmers alike.

“Our technology is not only cost-effective, but it is building on the rich traditions of oral learning, listening and memorizing,” says Pearson. “We weren't going to be just a supplier of products. We built our products on the ground, for the people who were going to use them.”

Lifeline Energy provides much-needed access to knowledge, not only for educational purposes but in emergency situations, too. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, it collaborated with other organizations and distributed 1,000 power-independent radios to those in need.

Looking ahead, Pearson says that they plan to expand access to knowledge even further for these communities. Spearheading the creation of an audio learning bank, provisionally called Radio Voice Box, it is aiming to build the equivalent of YouTube for audio content. They will then work with Translators Without Borders to translate the content, some via artificial intelligence. This kind of initiative will see Lifeline Energy providing far broader education and information to the underprivileged on a previously unseen scale.

Learning to adapt

The greatest lesson Pearson has learned from her hands-on experience in sub-Saharan Africa is that there is no one technology that fits all learning needs, especially in such poor and isolated areas.

“I have seen numerous instances where computers and tablets have either gone missing, or mysteriously broken, because the teacher didn't understand how to use them, and they didn't want to lose face,” she says. “People are also more likely to take care of devices that everyone shares and benefits equally from, than ones for individual use.”

Pearson believes that while there is huge scope for newer technologies, organizations should focus on providing quality content in a form that is widely accessible to the communities and individuals who need it.

“Just because a device might be great to listen to, it doesn’t mean that people will have the skills to use it. More importantly, if you don't have compelling content, people aren't going to listen, and they're not going to learn. So, it has to be a marriage of the two – great content, provided on a device that adapts to people’s specific learning circumstances.”

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