The Origin of the Ranet Program

The need for a drought communications system tailored to the realities of rural Africa was initially communicated to the director of the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD; http://

www.acmad.ne) by a nomad in the desert of southeastern Algeria when he declined the gift of a radio offered by the young meteorologist researching desert locusts near Djanet. The nomad did agree that information was vital to his survival. "Just tell me where it has rained. I will know where to take my flocks" (personal communication with Boulahya, Hirir, Algeria, February 1988). He explained that he was familiar with every rise and fall of the terrain and would lead his animals every rainy season to meet the water as it flowed in streams to form pools at low spots in the landscape. After watering his flocks at the pools, he would then lead them uphill to graze on the new grass. But however valuable rainfall information might have been to him, he could only receive it as long as his radio worked. A radio, carried across the isolated stretches of the Sahara, becomes little more than excess baggage once its batteries die.

Inspired by the potential that drought monitoring and prediction technologies hold for improving the quality of life in rural Africa, the meteorologist Mohammed Boulahya (one of the authors of this chapter, who later became the Founder and Director of ACMAD) worked with herders and farmers to design the RANET system (NOAA, 2003). Ten years after his encounter with the nomad, the Freeplay wind-up radio (http://www. freeplayfoundation.org) was designed to operate without batteries. Subsequently modified to incorporate a solar panel and other improvements suggested by rural listeners, the Freeplay radio was to become the front line of the RANET communications interface for remote communities. The RANET program, which soon will be established in five other African countries, is managed by ACMAD staff and faculty at the University of Oklahoma. Management of national-level content is the responsibility of each country's national meteorological service, which may in turn collaborate with other government offices or nongovernmental organizations to develop national RANET content.

Delighted with the advantages of this new technology, women in the dusty village of Bankilare in western Niger continued the trend of community-driven innovation, further challenging ACMAD to modify the technology so that they could create information as well as receive it (NOAA, 2003). ACMAD found the answer to its plea in the Wantok solar-powered FM radio transmitter. So compact that it ships in a 28-kg suitcase, this low-cost and fully portable FM radio equipment proved strikingly durable in the harsh, dry conditions of the pilot site in Bankilare. Villagers credited this new technology with having transformed Bankilare into an information oasis where they could receive broadcasts where and when they needed them—in their homes, in neighboring hamlets, and in the pastures with their flocks (Shapley, 2001).

The subsequent addition of WorldSpace Digital Satellite (WDS; http:// www.firstvoiceint.org) radio provided a vital link with the outside world, permitting access not only to drought information, but also to a host of other information relevant to development. Unlike unwieldy satellite receivers with large dishes, the WDS radio receiver is comparable in size to a standard radio, and its small antenna can be easily held in one hand. The WDS radio has more than 100 channels of clear digital radio signals across the whole of Africa. Voice transmissions can be rebroadcast directly over community-owned FM radio or interpreted by community radio animators and incorporated into locally produced programing. Because the WDS radio is digital, it can broadcast data files as well as voice transmissions. When attached to the WorldSpace receiver with a special "modem" known as an adapter card, a common 486 personal computer saves the transmissions for display in a format that looks like a Web page—a format ideal for transmitting drought and environmental information, so much of which is graphical.

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