Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Walle (DW) is using mobile phones to extend the reach of its "Learning by Ear" programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa. In a continent where Internet access is limited or non-existent, and many countries experience high levels of adult illiteracy, DW has teamed up with mobile phone operators, like Vodaphone in Tanzania, to bring its news service to a greater number of listeners.
Originally a radio series launched in 2008 and followed up with a podcast in 2010, "Learning by Ear" aims to give young people aged 12-20 an insight into subjects like the economy, health, politics and the environment. Through dramas, feature reports and in-depth news analysis "Learning by Ear" tackles issues pertinent to the continent’s teenagers, such as looking and applying for a job in Africa, HIV and AIDS information and a series on women’s rights.
Since September 2011 the mobile scheme has been introduced in Tanzania and Niger, with plans to expand into Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Liberia later this year. Audiences dial a number to access the 10-minute episodes, which can be paused, switched between and revisited for much less than it would cost to have a conversation over the phone for the same amount of time. The service is available to even the most basic mobile phone, whilst smartphone users have the option of downloading a series. Most programmes are produced by African writers from across the continent, and are available in English, Hausa, Portuguese, Kiswahili, Amharic and French. In addition to these programmes, DW has introduced an SMS News Service in Tanzania, used to send updates on breaking international news to consumers.
Mobile phones are of considerable importance to the transmission of news and information in a continent where only 13% of the population has access to the Internet: according to figures released by the GSMA, Africa is the world’s second largest mobile market, after Asia, and the fastest growing mobile market in the world. In 2011 mobile phone penetration grew to 643 million connections, and is expected to stand at 735 million by the end of this year.
The expansion into the African mobile market could also allow Deutsche Welle’s news service to become more interactive. In an interview with Nieman Lab, Naser Schruf, DW’s head of distribution for Africa and the Middle East intimated that the broadcaster was looking to add features that would allow listeners to use SMS to leave comments or respond to polls. It is, says Schruf, part of Deutsche Welle’s aim to give users “a voice in current events.”
No official subscription data for "Learning by Ear" is available, but the series has been recognised with a host of international awards, and its popularity in Africa has prompted DW to develop the service in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although the content has of course been changed and adapted to the political and social issues in the respective regions, the commitment to the education of young people remains.