From soap to sustainability: How Malian radio stations are getting their hands dirty to keep their listener groups employed

From soap to sustainability: How Malian radio stations are getting their hands dirty to keep their listener groups employed

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Over three days in August 2023, a group of around 25 women gathered at Radio Fouta to learn how to make soap. Under the hot August sun, they made colourful blocks and balls of soap on blue tarps outside the radio station, which broadcasts from Yanfolila Cercle in Sikasso Region in southern Mali.

Led by an external trainer, the women learned the process for making liquid and dry koulikoro soap, medical soap and beseya soap. Koulikoro and beseya soap are both types of traditional soaps from neighbouring Koulikoro Region (beseya soap contains more oil).

During the three-day training, the participants produced 420 pieces of soap. Every woman walked away with a certificate, as well as the equipment, materials and know-how needed to make more soap. The women sell the soap in stores, during meetings of women’s groups and in their villages. One piece of soap sells for 300 West African CFA francs, or approximately 68 Canadian cents. Though this might not seem like much, in a country where 49.3 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1.90 per day, every bit counts.

The women are members of Radio Fouta’s community listening groups for the “Hérè – the well-being of women in Mali” project. This five-year project, funded by Global Affairs Canada and run by a consortium led by MSI Reproductive Choices, tackles critical issues like gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Farm Radio International-supported radio programs are addressing challenging topics like early and unintended pregnancies, menstruation and sexually transmitted infections. That’s why it’s so important that members of the project’s community listening groups have the skills and financial resources to keep their group going well into the future.

So what does that have to do with soap?

“The training on soap-making was a blessing for us. We thank the promoter of Radio Fouta and Farm Radio International who put us in contact,” said Awa Coulibaly, facilitator of the Lanayaton community listening group. “Thanks to this training, we now all know how to make soap. The training allowed us to increase our revenues. Thanks to the sale of soap, I no longer worry about taking on certain tasks for my family.”

Community listening groups are a key feature of many of our projects. They provide a dedicated audience for radio programs and ensure the programs meet the needs of communities. Members listen to episodes together, discuss them, and send questions and feedback to the radio station using our Uliza Interactive platform.

Though these groups are voluntary, they often play a significant role in raising awareness about the radio programs in their communities. For example, in this project, members of community listening groups send episodes to residents of other villages via WhatsApp.

Young people also discuss the topics with their friends, often at what’s known as a grin. In Mali, a grin is a social gathering, often of people of the same generation, involving tea, informal conversation about various topics and perhaps board games.

We often work with radio stations to set up community listening groups at the beginning of a project, supplying them with a radio set and training on how to call into the radio programs.

But some groups are so popular that we’ve even had radio stations add extra groups at their own expense — and furnish them with radios and mobile phones. Instead of the six listening groups required for the project, stations may have eight, 10 or even 12 groups. This was at the demand of villages that weren’t happy about the lack of community listening groups in their community. Dedicated to their audiences, radio stations’ management took the initiative to set up more listening groups.

Besides the soap-making workshop, Radio Fouta organizes a “community listening groups day” at the end of each series of episodes. The event brings together its six community listening groups to involve them more in the radio programs. The station asks how it can improve the quality of episodes and brainstorms with the groups on how to ensure a sustainable impact from the project.

“We feel the results of this meeting, this discussion and exchange of ideas directly between the broadcasting team, members of the community listening groups and civil society,” said Moro Diakité, promoter at Radio Fouta.

For him, the meetings are all about improving the quality of the episodes — and that means ensuring active participation by both women and men.

Even outside the listening groups, the Hérè radio programs are popular.

Between the second and third series of radio programs for the Hérè project, dozens of listeners made the trek to their radio station. They wanted to complain about the six-month gap between episodes.

Many of these listeners were women. They took advantage of market days, busy commercial days in Malian cities that attract many people from surrounding areas. The women would have journeyed to town with their husband by motorcycle, bicycle or even cart. Some of them travelled very far from their village.

The listeners who went to complain were leaders or members of community listening groups — women and men, young and old — but also heads of villages, which illustrates the significance of the radio programs in communities. We heard about this happening at six of the 12 radio stations participating in the project.

The listeners wanted to know why there had been a gap and when the radio programs would be back on air. They even wished to speak to Farm Radio staff directly, except that our Mali office is located all the way in the capital, Bamako.

“The episodes for the Hérè project are so popular that it’s breathed new life into our radio station, which didn’t have any development programs,” said Modibo Cissé, a broadcaster at Radio Bediana in Bougouni. “I am more confident and all my episodes are produced according to Farm Radio International’s [radio] magazine format.”

We learned from the experience and ensured that there was less of a gap between future series.

The radio programs are so popular because they address topics that are not normally discussed in Malian culture. This means that the programs are sharing essential information that listeners may not have heard before, including around personal hygiene.

For example, one woman reported improved trust and communication with her husband after an episode about sexual health, which explained that certain illnesses are spread not only through sexual contact, but also through improper sanitation.

Farm Radio provides funding for community listening groups through our projects. This often means that listening groups are equipped with a radio set, a mobile phone, credit for that phone and any other required equipment. But what do you do when the funding for the project runs out?

As radio stations look toward the end of the Hérè project in 2026, they are coming up with ways to ensure their listening groups can keep supporting themselves — hence the soap-making workshop.

Community listening groups are also coming up with their own solutions, like setting up tontines. In Mali, as in other West African countries, a tontine is a form of group savings. The group meets regularly, with each member contributing a certain amount of money. One of the members, whose name is drawn randomly, gets to bring the money home.

The tontines for the community listening groups work similarly, except that they use the money for common activities, like starting a garden or renting out wedding furniture to their community — activities that themselves generate more revenue for the group. The group can also decide to lend money to one of its members. This practice contributes to the group’s financial and social sustainability. The money acts as an incentive to bring the group together.

And about the community listening group members that learned how to make soap? They continue to produce at least 1,000 pieces of soap per month, which they share amongst themselves to sell. The revenue is shared between the group and the sellers, allowing them to help each other, achieve a certain financial independence, and strengthen their group and its ties with Radio Fouta.

It’s these kinds of creative initiatives that ensure that radio programs can continue having a positive impact in communities, well beyond the end of a project.

The initiative “Hérè — Women’s Well-being in Mali” aims to improve the well-being of women and girls related to sexual and reproductive health and to strengthen the prevention of and response to gender-based violence in the regions of Sikasso, Ségou, Mopti and the district of Bamako in Mali. The project is implemented by the consortium Hérè — MSI Reproductive Choices Mali, in partnership with Farm Radio International and Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) thanks to funding from Global Affairs Canada.

The opinions expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of MSI Reproductive Choices or the funder.