HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Just the size of his hand, the radio set hung in the busy marketplace stall is essential to Mark Nyabanda.
“I can’t do without it,” said the 25-year old, taking a break from selling fertilizer in Mbare market in the capital, Harare, to listen to a radio weather report warning of possible floods.
Radio bulletins also provide him with information on disease outbreaks, political news and entertainment, he said.
“I don’t trust these new technologies,” he said, referring to social media. “They are full of falsehoods. We saw it during the coronavirus outbreak.”
In many Western countries, conventional radio has been overtaken by streaming, podcasts and on-demand content accessed via smartphones and computers.
But in many of Africa’s 54 countries, with a combined population of 1.3 billion people, traditional radio sets are widely used, highlighting the digital divide between rich countries and those still struggling to have reliable internet.
Radio sets are all over the place in Zimbabwe. Rural livestock herders dangle them from their necks while tending animals while those in the cities listen to their radio sets for news.
When schools closed during the coronavirus pandemic, sub-Saharan African had the highest proportion of schoolchildren who lacked internet connectivity to participate in remote learning online lessons, according to the United Nations children’s agency. Many students relied on lessons beamed via tiny solar-powered radio sets at home.
More than 80% of people in Africa own a mobile phone with access to a mobile phone network, according to Afrobarometer, a leading research institute. But “fewer than half” have mobile phones with internet access. The number of those who have access to computers at home is even lower at 28% of people polled in 34 African countries in a survey on the digital divide published in December last year.
“Closing the digital divide remains a critical issue for most African countries, and for the continent as a whole,” said Afrobarometer.
The lack of internet connectivity means traditional radio “remains king,” said Afrobarometer in another survey last year.
Radio is “overwhelmingly” the most common source of news in Africa, according to the survey. About 68% of respondents said they tuned in at least a few times a week, compared to about 40% who use social media and the internet.
Traditional radio sets are easy and inexpensive to use versus the higher cost and logistical problems of getting access to the internet.
Many small radio sets now come with inbuilt solar panels that allow people to listen to broadcasts even when they don’t have electricity. Especially in vogue are radios that also now come with a cell phone charger and a flashlight — all huge conveniences in a continent where electricity outages are rampant and internet connection spots are often distant.
“People don’t have to worry about network or data expenses. And one can’t be switched off for not paying license fees,” said Stanley Tsarwe, coordinator of journalism studies at the University of Zimbabwe. “The radio set has become very powerful and multi-functional and that becomes critical in Africa where access to power and access to the internet are very limited” he said.
Many people trust information from their radio sets over other sources, said John Masuku, a veteran radio broadcaster of five decades.
“There is a lot of disinformation and misinformation so people still want to check … if it is not said on radio then it is not fact. That is why radio is popular and celebrated in Africa,” he said.
Broadcasts in local languages are also attract radio listeners. Zimbabwe’s state radio and a host of community stations offer broadcasts in Shona, Ndebele and 12 other local languages, he said.
However, the way many in Africa listen to the radio is changing as internet penetration improves. The number of people getting news at least “a few times a week” from either social media or the internet or both has almost doubled from 24% to 43% over the past decade, according to Afrobarometer.
The falling prices of mobile phones that can access FM radio stations is also shifting how people listen to radio in Africa, said Tsarwe of the University of Zimbabwe.
“There is an ongoing convergence between radio and digital mobile technologies, especially the mobile phone,” he said. “Radio is integrating more rapidly with the mobile phone because it is much more accessible in Africa. The mobile phone is the future of radio in Africa.”