Thunder is rolling over the horizon at the start of the rainy season in Suke, a small village in Ghana’s arid north.
Suke is remote, a two hour drive from Wa, the nearest major town. One major road closed for repairs creates a ninety minute diversion along dirt tracks that have collapsed into ditches, some of them barely passable by four-by-four or motorbike.
The village’s women gather in a semicircle in the shadow of a large tree to demonstrate their Talking Books—coloured plastic boxes with 10 buttons, all marked with basic symbols, which they hope could provide a lever to mitigate the fragility of their rural livelihoods and help them to achieve the social and economic empowerment that many women in the region lack.
The challenges of distance and infrastructure in Ghana’s Upper West region mean that even in a country that has ostensibly ‘graduated’ into middle income status, many people remain economically isolated, making a living through smallholder agriculture and small-scale trading. These livelihoods are vulnerable to external factors—out-of-pocket expenses, such as health emergencies, can push families over the edge. Worse, the climate here is already changing. The rainy season has been late and weak two years in a row, and yields are low. Poor crops mean no surplus to sell.
Women use Talking Books in Suke, Ghana © Peter Guest
Drought-tolerant varieties are available, but they are poorly distributed. Government agricultural extension workers used to travel out to remote communities to educate farmers on when to plant and how to use improved seeds and fertilisers, but years of cutbacks mean that the few people still on the payroll are thinly stretched—and often lack the funds even to put petrol in their motorbikes.
In such communities, it is often women who are the most economically disenfranchised. Although primary schooling is compulsory in Ghana for boys and girls, it is not free. In a traditionally patriarchal society, it is boys that are educated when funds run out. Girls are far less likely to move onto secondary education, and often remain in agriculture — which employs more than 60 percent of the population. Labour surveys show that women are far less likely to work in formal, salaried employment.
Combined, this means that the challenges of rural development are more acutely felt by women and girls. Giving women in these communities even basic information on efficient agricultural practices and healthcare can have an enormous multiplier effect on their standard of living—and, crucially, ensure that they have the resources and self-confidence to make sure that the next generation of girls is educated and economically empowered.
The brainchild of American entrepreneur Cliff Schmidt and local technologist Andy Bayor, the Talking Book devices aim, in a small way, to fill the gap left by the absence of government services in these remote communities.
Each can carry up to 150 hours of content, ranging from agricultural advice, public health announcements and audio dramas with social messages that inform women of their rights to property and to a voice within their communities. When Ebola hit in West Africa, the devices were updated with hygiene advice.
Literacy Bridge, their NGO, works with other charities and development agencies to produce the content because, as Bayor admits: “We don’t know much about health and we don’t know much about agriculture.”
The project has been shortlisted for the WISE Award, an educational prize given out annually by the Qatar-based World Innovation Summit for Education.
It is a deceptively simple device, costing around $30 per unit—although Bayor hopes that producing at volume could bring the price down to $10 apiece—but its potential social and economic benefits are huge, given the vacuum in which it is operating.
In partnership with Mennonite Economic Development Associates, a Canadian NGO, women in Suke have been planting soybeans, supported by instructions on when to plant and how to treat the crops on the Talking Books. It is a trial programme taking in 30 communities. Women take the device home for a week, listen to the content, then pass it onto their neighbours.
“This [device] teaches us how to farm,” says Bagiro Abena, a local woman who has been using the Talking Book in Suke. “We’ve learned so much about how to apply these messages. We have more money, our children are healthy.”
With more economic power comes a greater social role, and Abena says that her husband now asks her for money—a reversal that gives her greater status. Her daughters are in school, and she intends to send them onto secondary education.
“It didn’t use to be like that,” Abena says. “Now we have much more control over the money in the household.”
Development agencies have often used radio to disseminate health and social messages, but as a medium its effectiveness is limited by scheduling. On-demand content better suits the needs of a rural community. However, as Schmidt says, the technical aspects of reaching remote communities with affordable, flexible devices has been challenging.
“Having this on-demand aspect, especially in a village without electricity, wasn’t something that technology was able to do at any reasonable price until relatively recently,” he says.
Schmidt first visited the region in 2007, travelling with a local NGO and looking for solutions to its perennial challenges of education and literacy. The idea for the Talking Book came out of conversations with agriculture and health experts, who saw potential in using literacy aids for children to spread other content to hard-to-reach communities.
At the time, thousands of man-hours were being poured into development projects that used cellphones as platforms, riding the wave of enthusiasm that accompanied the rapid spread of mobile telephony across Africa. Most of the devices that have reached the areas where Literacy Bridge and its partners work, however, are very basic feature phones, whose utility to spread on-demand messages is limited.
Although more advanced solutions—such as equipping one person in the village with a smartphone to update the Talking Books remotely—are in the pipeline, Schmidt says that Literacy Bridge is more focused on understanding how the devices and their content is used to improve their effectiveness.