Aidex Voices

AidEx spoke with Diana Njeru, BBC Media Action Project Director about how a community radio initiative is helping to deliver accessible weather forecasts to target audiences living in East Africa.

Seasonal forecasts are not enough for farmers, pastoralists and fisherman living in Northern Kenya, around the Lake Victoria shores and Uganda subject to recent adverse changes in climate and weather. To improve the quantity and quality of information for these group’s livelihoods, BBC Media Action teamed up with the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa (NECJOGHA) to create Weather Wise.

The project conducted formative research to better understand four key areas:

  1. The knowledge, attitudes and practices amongst the target audience of farmers, fishermen and pastoralists on weather and climate.
  2. Media consumption patterns and information needs when it comes to weather and climate.
  3. Who the target audience’s key influencers are.
  4. What challenges journalists and scientists face trying to communicate weather and climate information.

In-depth interviews and focus group discussions exposed a dysfunctional relationship between journalists and scientists. Whilst journalists struggled with the technical language used by scientists, scientists were also reluctant to explain to the journalists who they believed distorted their message.

An example of this is in the science of probability, often misunderstood and consequently miscommunicated by journalists. Njeru refers to the incident in 2016 when the regional meteorological offices predicted there would be an El Niño in Uganda. The government was advised to prepare for a disaster; hospitals were equipped and the Red Cross mobilised. However, the predicted level of disaster did not materialise, costing money and people’s trust in scientific forecasting.

Scientists said their forecast was prediction-based with a possibility of it not happening, or at a lower scale than predicted. Njeru remarks on how the media is not trained to say this, and therefore struggle to explain the science of probability to their audiences. The erosion of audience’s faith in scientists leads to further misinformation, which is why Weather Wise set out to strengthen the relationship between scientists and journalists.

Changing the language of scientists from technical to audience accessible

Residential workshops were set up in each country to bring together journalists and scientists to work out how to produce accurate, understandable and context specific content. “We encouraged the two actors to seek out clarification where it was needed and simplify explanations about why the weather is changing, what to expect and how to prepare and adapt”, says Njeru.

It was discovered many scientists were unaware of the requirements to produce a media report on the weather, or how they should communicate with audiences. These teamwork exercises enabled greater understanding by providing them with images of potential audiences for instance, and asking questions such as, “do you think this woman who has had no formal education will understand a technical forecast?” This helped them to understand the need to translate 50ml of rainfall to a description of how high the water will rise in relation to familiar objects.

Impactful knock-on effects

With its nostalgic jingle ‘Hali ya hewa’, a Swahili phrase meaning ‘the state of the weather’, Weather Wise partnered with eight local radio stations across East Africa to broadcast weekly features based on the target audiences from November 2018 and reported by passionate journalists, most of whom are volunteers. 

The better informed journalists were by scientists, the more poised they were to approach relevant departmental ministries to then combine contextually relevant information to communicate to audiences. Unifying different disciplines holistically to provide accurate, simplified weather and climate reports built confidence and content. “Journalists have said they’re a lot more confident in covering climate and weather stories,” Njeru states, as “they went from reluctantly reporting on such issues to now understanding how they affect every other area such as security and transport.”

The shift in understanding began at the residential workshops where the relationship between the two actors were strengthened, and then integrated into their performance in the field. Hosting scientists on the shows also meant a listener could call the radio studio and speak to an expert rather than rely on a journalist who is less adept with the technicalities. Importantly, Njeru emphasises, “audience feedback was that the programme’s advice to farm this way generated a positive yield.”