In South Sudan, Solar Power Brings a Community Radio Station Back on Air

A man installs a solar panel
Because Freedom FM in Magwi was having difficulty operating due to high utility costs, Internews installed 22 solar panels and set up a new electrical system. (credit: Internews)

Voice of Freedom FM, a community radio station in Magwi, Central Equatoria State, South Sudan, covers everything from local and international news to original programming on conflict resolution, the rights of children, women and persons with disabilities. Or at least it did, until basic maintenance issues forced the station to close in early 2015.

Situated on a 100 x 100 meter plot of land and with a 60-meter mast donated by the county commissioner, Voice of Freedom, which broadcasts in five different languages, has largely been dependent on resources donated by the community – such as volunteer time and story leads.

Entirely dependent on generators and expensive fuel to run their station office and broadcast equipment, the program hours were often limited and irregular. At times, if someone plugged in an extra laptop or other device it would overload the electrical system and cause the entire station to reset.

Because Voice of Freedom is the only local language media outlet available in much of its broadcast range, the community surrounding Magwi was often left in an information blackout.

In early 2015, the station encountered numerous technical issues with its generators and, with no technician or qualified staff to repair the problem, the station was almost completely off-air.

To get the station back up and running, in April, 2015 Internews issued Voice of Freedom a grant to cover operational funds as well as a few infrastructure upgrades to the station, primarily the purchase, installation and setup of solar panels.

As with all grants that Internews provides, the funds come with technical support and capacity building. In this case – an entire team of technicians and expert engineering support. In August, 2015, the Internews team of technicians visited Radio Magwi to install the 22 solar panels purchased for them and to set up the new electrical system to support it.

“Solar is such a great solution for us in South Sudan,” says Internews technician Issa Kassimu. “They can now bring information to their community with just the power of the sun!”

Issa trained the local team in basic maintenance of the system, and has taken away valuable learning lessons to apply to more stations in the country.

“I want to look at solar systems for all our community stations,” he said. “We are already making plans!”

With the solar panels installed, Voice of Freedom has been able to resume normal broadcasting operations, with none of the same regular interruptions as before. The station is back on air, 14 hours a day, providing a vital community service for listeners across Magwi couty.

While they still use generators in addition to the solar panels, station operations costs have decreased dramatically with the corresponding need for significantly less diesel fuel. Voice of Freedom has been able to recruit local journalists from the community to work at the station, rather than relying solely on volunteer efforts.

“We want our community to benefit…they have been scattered so they need the radio to benefit,” said Station Manager Paul Achire Ad. With the additional funds recovered from the decreased operational expenses, Paul says he wants to continue to develop his staff’s journalistic capacity to ensure that the communities surrounding Magwi can continue to depend on the radio station for their daily information needs.

For Internews Media Initiatives Manager Rafiq Copeland, the partnership with Voice of Freedom represents a major impact in the region. “What is most impressive about Voice of Freedom is the dedication that they have from their community – they have loyal listeners, committed volunteers and a very impressive community board,” says Copeland, “so in terms of sustainability, when it comes to support from the community they were already there. What they needed was some assistance on the technical side, to allow them be sustainable on that front as well.”

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