By Nervious Siantombo, September 24 2013      For over five decades, the people of Sinazongwe District in Southern Province have grappled with numerous socio-economic developmental challenges, top among them low agricultural productivity due to unfavourable weather conditions, which include an average annual rainfall of below 800 millimetres, with occasional droughts and floods.

This has been coupled with their limited access to information and platforms for multi-stakeholder engagement to address these challenges.

The inhabitants of this drought-prone area bore the biggest brunt of the construction of Lake Kariba from 1957 to 1958. Back then, about 57,000 people were displaced from their ancestral lands in Gwembe Valley on the fertile banks of the Zambezi River to pave way for the construction of the world’s largest artificial lake. Their relocation to hilly, dry and rocky areas effectively condemned them to perpetual poverty, making it difficult for them to reconstruct their lives and regain the livelihoods the lost lands offered.

The many unfavourable weather conditions have confounded most community members doing peasant farming, mainly cultivating sorghum, millet and maize for household consumption, with a little bit of livestock ranching and cotton farming. Recurrent crop failure has resulted in the overexploitation of natural resources like fish and forests.

The poor reception for radio signal has forced community members to occasionally rely on foreign broadcasts available on shortwave, resulting in them being out of touch with local developments. Newspaper readership in the area is still low. This has deprived them of access to information on agricultural produce and markets, weather reports and flood warnings, among other things.

Touched by this plight, a group of volunteers from the Austria-Zimbabwe Friendship Association (AZFA) sourced equipment to support the establishment of a community radio station that would advance a pro-poor development agenda and support economic growth in the district.

The consultative process resulted in Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) also partnering with the AZFA and Sinazongwe community in establishing the station. This was in order for the project to build on PSAf’s successful establishment of two other community radio stations in Zambia: Kasempa and Itezhi-tezhi community radio stations, with core support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) through the Support to Media in Zambia, Phase Three and Exit project and additional capacity enhancement support from the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).

Although the establishment of Zongwe FM - as the station will be known - is still work in progress, the prospect of a local radio station has already brought hope that the community will have a platform to raise their voices on development issues in the area. The new station is expected to help the community galvanise individual and collective capacities and the area’s economic potential in irrigation and husbandry in small ruminants, particularly goats, to turn their fortunes around. The station will also provide a platform for cultural renaissance, where community members will be able to share insights on customs and traditions.

All of this will be achievable through access to vital information required to make informed decisions and engage duty bearers in informed development discourse, and also share ideas on socio-economic issues requiring local solutions. Community members have taken the challenge to mobilise themselves, working with the local leadership to see the dream of a radio station come true. Chief Sinazongwe is the patron of the project and has expressed unwavering commitment to see it succeed, while the district commissioner has also supported the various steps taken so far to establish the station, calling it a blessing to the area.

As a watchdog, gatekeeper and agenda-setter, Zongwe FM is expected to become part of the district and country’s governance processes by raising awareness of citizens on socio-economic issues and empowering citizens to hold duty bearers to account.

It is envisaged that the radio station will significantly support efforts by government and other development actors through initiatives like the Gwembe Tonga Development Project (GTDP) to help the people of Sinazongwe manage to drive the district's development.

Nervious Siantombo is PSAf regional programme manager for environment and natural resources management. This article was first published in the Zambia Daily Mail on September 21 2013.