Pioneering new models of community radio in a changing yet closed Zimbabwe media space

Nkabazwe community radio station in Zimbabwe takes a community-focused approach, using online platforms to broaden access and allowing audiences to influence content.

“When people started wearing face masks in 2020, many of our members were asking what was happening,” says Nyasha, a disability representative of Nkabazwe community radio station (CRS). Nyasha was referring to the exclusion of special needs communities with hearing challenges when the Covid-19 pandemic was ravaging the world and awareness messages were mostly audio shared on radio. Visual awareness materials were slow to come even as the Zimbabwe government was taking measures to stop the spread of the virus. It took time to develop the Covid-19 sign language messages that those with hearing challenges could understand.

In response to this immediate need and before the hard lockdown was imposed, Nkabazwe held a number of community meetings targeting those with hearing challenges that were affected by the limited access to information on Covid-19. Nkabazwe says it had to take immediate action to explain why everyone had to mask-up among other measures to protect oneself and mitigate the spread of the virus.

Based in Zimbabwe’s midlands provincial capital city of Gweru, Nkabazwe CRS is not a typical community radio station, as it is not licensed nor operating as a conventional radio station. Nkabazwe has a small office and recording studios that are not transmitting but are used for recording dialogues and interviews for broadcast on WhatsApp and social media.  

The station is still pushing for a license, but rather than sit and wait, Nkabazwe is broadcasting using social media, mobile SMS and WhatsApp as well as information sharing community meetings. The Zimbabwe government licensed 14 community radio stations, but half are under the control of quasi-governmental and ruling party structures with the remaining half likely to operate under the hawkish eye of the ruling party. In this regard, Nkabazwe CRS is pioneering an innovative approach that raises new insights into whether CRS, and radio as we know it, have reached a point where new models are needed.

Radio in many parts of Africa remains station-based, transmitting via digital or analogue airwaves to radio sets and now mobile phone handsets under license from the state, with notable limitations in community participation and feedback. Another factor is that licensing of radio stations in Zimbabwe is done from a political lens, with the licensing authority banning CRSs from airing political news. The government has legislated times in which it takes over the stations to broadcast what it calls “public messages”. If the government time is not used, it is accumulated to be used in the future. In essence, CRSs, all under tight control of the state, can be taken over or stopped from broadcasting for breaching any of a plethora of regulations. Nkabazwe stands out as a different model, operating without a license or an allocated transmission frequency but very much present in communities.

Nkabazwe is pioneering information sharing platforms that are mostly digital but mixed with community information meetings where issues are discussed in depth, recorded and sometimes involve duty bearers. This approach is a combination of information, awareness and consciousness building. Experiences in Africa shows that many CRSs fail, not out of a lack of relevance but because of sustainability issues, strict rules imposed by the state and dominance by public officials, to the extent that CRS remains only in name.

“Ours is a low-cost model based on ensuring accountability on public service and our content speaks to the community needs in a more practical way. We do not only broadcast on social media, but we hold consultative meetings, we develop solutions and we reach out to duty bearers such as members of parliament and councilors,” says Tobias Saratiel, Chairperson of Nkabazwe CRS. The absence of a license, which may never be granted due to the lack of independence of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) and the politicisation of the whole community media sector in Zimbabwe, has not dampened the enthusiasm of Nkabazwe CRS, which is run by volunteers and citizen journalists all determined to tell their story.

“We managed to get the council to stop the abuse of Irvin clinic, which had been turned into a bar and now has been reopened as a clinic,” says a Nkabazwe volunteer, demonstrating the change the CRS is making. The non-licensed yet effective CRS says that its focus on the whole value chain of public service delivery, from council decisions and deliberations to budgets, implementation and accountability, makes this an effective model on sharing and usage of information for accountability.

Nkabazwes platforms include a Facebook page, SMS and WhatsApp groups and community meetings that are agenda- and solution-focused. “We don’t meet to complain, but to act,” said Saratiel.

The use of information for action also includes demanding that council and public officials fall in line on public service issues. A recalcitrant and corrupt senior council official who was dismissed but refused to hand over council property, including a vehicle, became the talk of town in a “Bring Back Our Car” campaign by Nkabazwe that yielded results when the embarrassed official finally surrendered the vehicle.

Nkabazwe is pioneering an innovative approach to community information platforms that combines all available information platforms but, critically, ensures that the community decides on content. Community radio models of the past had emphasis on capacity building of the stations, with provision of equipment and skills being top priorities. Nkabazwe, however, starts from a capacity building of the communities, helping them appreciate their civic duty, rights to access to information, media and information uses and the obligations of elected and public officials among others. As such, the content has to speak to be felt needs of such communities. The success of this model is not only in pushing back against corruption and inefficient public service delivery but in building community leadership.

The current Gweru Central MP, Brian Dube, is a product of this civic capacity building, having been the deputy chairperson of Nkabazwe and actively involved in the CRS programmes. Nothing describes agency better than a community aware of its needs and self-representing at the highest legislative bodies of the country as parliament.

Noting its weakness in skills, Nkabazwe has reached out to human rights defenders, lawyers, accountants and academics based at the local University, the Midlands State University (MSU). One such academic now actively involved in the CRS activities holds a PhD in Human Development. He says one of the challenges for national and local development is intellectual elitism, in which the educated see themselves as distant from the knowledge base of the poor and marginalised and hence don’t use their academic positions to articulate and co-create solutions to challenges facing communities.

“There is a need for public discourse that is scientifically informed, valid and dependable and nothing provides this platform as Nkabazwe which is grounded on themes and issues affecting communities,” says the MSU lecturer and Nkabazwe volunteer. This co-creation is enabled by an increase in access to technology, which allows various groups to share and discuss without physically meeting. Zimbabwe’s growth in internet access is now above 60 percent, according to the state telecoms regulator, providing an opportunity for CRSs like Nkabazwe to broadcast to a larger online audience, including hosting live online dialogues with public officials. Events such as council meetings are also livestreamed, and others recorded for wider sharing. The challenge, though, is the prohibitive cost of internet service which limits the amount of content audiences can access. While media policy is abused to control licensed media, be it community or commercial, community media platforms like Nkabazwe are speaking more directly to their audiences’ needs and issues, and one cannot separate the platform from its audiences. It may be time to rethink how such models as Nkabazwe CRS set the pace on cost effective, community-focused and impactful media voices.