In Kenya, a new twist on old tech means ‘information is power’

Group of people posing for picture (© Fly Sister Fly Foundation)
Vane Aminga (front center) with Fly Sister Fly colleagues and Samburu community members (© Fly Sister Fly Foundation)

The Samburu are people of northern Kenya who live in remote, difficult-to-reach areas where electricity and outside communication are scarce. That changed in May when the Fly Sister Fly Foundation first distributed solar-powered radios. Now a community there has access to educational and informational broadcasts in a way they never had before.

The day Fly Sister Fly gave out the radios was the culmination of five years of work that got a boost in its last eight months from TechCamp, which helped the group realize an innovative approach to its work.

Vane Aminga started the Fly Sister Fly Foundation five years ago as a way to highlight the importance of educating girls in her native Kenya, specifically those of the Samburu, a semi-nomadic people.

“One of our biggest challenges is that although we’re able to do advocacy campaigns and get kids in school,” Aminga said, “when we go back to find out if those kids are still in school, we find they’ve moved.”

Aminga, who is based in Nairobi, was looking for a way to stay in contact with these communities, however far away they were. In fall 2015, she attended a TechCamp in Pretoria, South Africa, which brought tech experts together with young African leaders to share low-cost, easy-to-implement tools to help civil society groups and other organizations work more effectively. All participants at TechCamp Pretoria are members of the Young African Leaders Initiative Network, which, like TechCamp, is run by the U.S. Department of State.

People looking at radios (© Fly Sister Fly Foundation)
Fly Sister Fly distributes solar radios in Samburu on May 30. (© Fly Sister Fly Foundation)

Aminga worked with Franklin Huizies, an expert on community radio who served as a trainer at the TechCamp. Together they developed a plan for bringing educational content to Samburu communities using radio.

Relying on solar-powered radios

But ordinary radios wouldn’t do for a community like the Samburu. Huizies told Aminga about portable, solar-powered radios that, if provided to even a few members of a rural community, could be enough to allow community radio broadcasts to reach hundreds of people.

“I was listening,” said Aminga, “and I thought, ‘Ah, yes, this can work for me!’” Huizies encouraged her to apply for a TechCamp grant that would allow her to make the project a reality and offered to serve as an adviser.

Her proposal was awarded the grant money and, with Huizies’ help, she was able to find solar-powered radios that also could be charged with a wind-up crank. Better still, these radios had a light that would allow reading after dark, a memory slot for prerecorded material and a port that would let the radio serve as a power bank.

By the end of 2016, the group hopes to distribute nearly 100 radios to Samburu communities.

“Being able to provide the Samburu people with simple technologies like radio sets is a great milestone as we try to ensure that people have access to information they can use to better their lives,” Aminga said. “Information is power.”