As the RANET system is replicated in other African countries and as potential expansion to Asia and the Pacific is considered, it is important to explore the advantages and limitations of RANET as a technology and as a drought-communicating framework. Experiences with RANET in Niger and Uganda reveal the system's successes and challenges in two very different African contexts.
RANET's powerful radio-Internet communication system risks breaking down at two critical junctures: the computer-enabled multimedia link with the outside world (the main challenge for Niger) and the dissemination of climate information by word of mouth and radio (the main challenge for Uganda). In Niger, RANET's efficiency is hindered by the difficulty of installing and maintaining computer systems in hot and dusty conditions. Technical problems frequently include insufficient knowledge to hook up parts of the solar power systems, inadequate battery storage, power surges that burn up computers, sudden losses of power that unexpectedly shut down the computers, necessitating reinstallation of the WorldSpace software, and minor malfunctions in FM station equipment such as tape recorders, microphones, and lights.
Although the RANET field sites in Uganda have had much more success in installing rural computer systems and maintaining multimedia capabilities, about 20-30% of the multimedia field sites in Uganda were sometimes not operational due to the complications resulting from solar power fluctuations (Pratt and Stewart, 2002). Other sites suffered from serious malfunctioning or damage due to improper installation of the solar and computer equipment, such as hooking up batteries in series rather than in parallel.
Technical solutions, such as new software that will not require reinstallation after power outages, are being developed to address specific technical problems. Other areas of technical improvement include reconfiguration of solar power systems, installation of relay antennas for augmenting the reach of radio programing, and strengthening the vital digital information link with the outside world by introducing voice transmission of drought information over the WorldSpace satellite system. The most pressing technical issue, however, continues to be the need for ongoing training and technical support.
HARNESSING RADIO AND INTERNET TO MONITOR DROUGHTS 281 Conclusions
RANET is a climate and weather information and communications support network based on the needs of remote communities and the realities of rural living in Africa. The RANET system, named for its innovative linkage of radio and Internet, brings new communications and information technologies together with the oral traditions of Africa to deliver drought information over a distributed network owned and managed by local communities.
RANET combines data from global climate data banks in the United States, seasonal rainfall predictions from the international scientific community, and forecasts generated in Africa, along with food security and agricultural information to disseminate a comprehensive information package via a network of digital satellite, receiving stations, computers, radio, and oral intermediaries. These new technologies are bringing drought and development information to rural Africa through the RANET communication network. The key to RANET's early successes lies in its dual nature as both a technological and a human communications system. Its human and technical elements depend on each other for their combined strength, but at the same time they expose the system to potential pitfalls. Because RANET is, fundamentally, a network of people supplying, interpreting, and utilizing drought and development information, the tremendous power of RANET's technology is completely dependent on the network of people that manages and maintains RANET's infrastructure and supplies, interprets, and utilizes RANET information.
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