Engineer and Feba Partner Relationship Manager Paul Vernon recently visited community radio station, Umoja FM in eastern DR of Congo.  In a part of the country better known for violent conflict - just 30km from the station armed rebels are still fighting - Paul found community spirit, hope and resilience as Umoja "Unity" FM starts to broadcast.  

Paul looks back on the trip and reflects on what happened when he faced unexpected transmitter issues.

Everyone loves chocolate don't they?  

This fact makes me love it more:  

Radio station Umoja FM's transmitter is powered by, and housed in, a cocoa processing plant in the DRC.  With electricity provided by the plant generator.

Cocoa processing plant with Umoja FM

So now I think we can definitively say "Umoja FM runs on Cocoa powder power!"  

The DRC is an area known for it’s huge mineral wealth, and the country’s abundant resources has fuelled fighting, violence and corruption leaving over 6 million people dead.

Even though the Civil war lasted between 1997 – 2003 mineral exploitation and conflict is still ongoing, especially in eastern Congo. Armed groups continue to terrorise the population and people are left in a constant state of insecurity. The brutality of the conflict - sexual violence, human slavery, millions killed - means whole communities have been left traumatised and torn apart.

Despite this bleak backdrop, DRC Member of Parliament Albert Baliesima Kadukima thinks there is more to his home country:

The side of the Congo so often seen in western media – of conflict, minerals and poverty is a limited picture, we are actually a very peace loving and resilient people and community is our strength

Community strength and resilience is embodied by radio station Umoja FM; a new project bringing emotional, physical and spiritual changes to the listeners it serves.

I was interested to meet the team again and see the role it was playing in community development.  

Umoja FM was launched earlier this year and I had the privilege to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help our local partner set up.  This exciting community radio station resides in the village of Nobili, North Kivu province in eastern DRC.

It was great to meet the community, religious leaders, government officials and local businesses. Christian businessman and cocoa producer, Philip Betts was particularly supportive of the project. Owner of Esco Uganda Ltd, a cocoa processing plant, Philip offered to supply electricity for the station’s transmitter and also house it on site.

 The decision was made to house the transmitter high up in the warehouse:

  • for security
  • so it wouldn’t be in the way of plant workers
  • for close proximity to the antenna on the roof – (short cables mean less attenuation!)
  • so the transmitter could be powered by the cocoa plant generator

We were thrilled.

On my recent return, looking up at the transmitter box suspended about 8m/26ft up the inside wall of warehouse, I was quite glad I didn’t need to get back up there to sort anything out…last time the warehouse was just being built and there was wooden scaffolding and various machinery around to give us access to fit both the transmitter and the UPS (the battery backup system).

This time there was nothing.

Umoja FM

Working alongside the community

There was much we wanted to do with the Umoja FM team. Nine days in Nobili sounded like a long time when planning, but time is quickly eaten up. We spent time with the volunteers, staff, community members and the oversight committee.  

Much of the good a community radio station can do centres around the connection it offers between the community and service providers within it.

One day was particularly memorable. We had a day with local service providers – other NGO's, religious leaders, traders, police, hospital staff, and UNESCO. Much of the good a community radio station can do centres around the connection it offers between the community and service providers within it. Those present spent the day working out how they could help each other for the benefit of the community. It was an invaluable and inspiring experience; enabling the radio team to forge stronger local links.

Audio levels

As an engineer I can’t overemphasise the importance of good audio levels. I’ve delivered training on where levels should appear for both speech and music, how to balance a music “bed” underneath speech, audio transitions, level consistency and how having high levels can cause distortion. Low levels are also an issue, especially as we’d set the transmitter to turn off when noand low – levels were present (in order to save power when not in use).    

Umoja FM studio DRC

I’d started listening to UmojaFM as soon as we had arrived at our hotel in Nobili and was pleased that the transmitter appeared to be working well. It was a good strong signal when levels were good, so no problems to sort out with the transmitter - or so I thought.

The first warning sign was one of the volunteers, listening with the radio on his mobile phone, told us that the transmitter had turned off. The second was another volunteer confirming that there had been issues since a repair had been made to the transmitter in our absence. It was looking like I needed to take another look at the transmitter…but how?

Working together to reach great heights

Unlike our original visit when the warehouse was being built, access to the transmitter – safely housed in a box elevated high off the ground - was much more difficult. Back at ESCO, the cocoa plant was digging out to improve the dirt floor, so no even ground to put scaffolding on, and no access for machinery. I had to ask for help. Although already busy with other building works, Chanel the plant technician said he could assist and asked us to return in 24 hours. To be honest, I wasn’t optimistic about what could be done.

I started by saying the station was 'cocoa powered' as it gets its electricity from the local cocoa processing plant, but really Umoja FM is a great example of a station being 'community powered'.

The next day my initial pessimism had been replaced with joy; Chanel had delivered more than we could have hoped for. We were amazed to see that a permanent steel ladder had been build up to the box - so access would never be a problem again.

And so it was that I found myself once again 8m up in the air working on the transmitter box. In the end it was an easy fix, just a badly terminated N-connector on the antenna feed cable.

Re-terminating a slightly fiddly connector on the ground is a lot easier than up the top of a long vertical ladder, strapped on with a harness. Admittedly I did drop one of the bits and had to retrieve it from the ground. But the problem was fixed.

I wouldn't have been able to fix it with out the ingenuity of the local technician Chanel, and if we hadn't been there to walk alongside UmojaFM as they begin their exciting radio journey, a simple technical issue could have caused them to go off air.  This reminded me of 1 Corinthians 18 where Paul talks about the body of Christ being of many parts, all with different jobs to do, working together as one.

But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

So in working with the community in Nobili, we have played our role in being part of the Kingdom that God is building, as have the cocoa plant technicians who spent their evening welding up a ladder, the station volunteers who get up to present UmojaFM’s first broadcast of the day at 4am, and the numerous other community groups and organisations involved with the station.  

I started by saying the station was "cocoa powered" as it gets its electricity from the local cocoa processing plant, but really Umoja FM is a great example of a station being "community powered".  

This is all the more fitting as umoja” is a Swahili word meaning“unity” - with the station slogan being "together we can" - how apt! 

Thank goodness for teamwork, local talent and the different gifts of the community working together to get Umoja FM (or at least the transmitter) quite literally “off the ground”!

Feba partner Health Communication Resources has a video about Umoja FM's beginnings featuring DRC Member of Parliament Albert Baliesima Kadukima, one of the main architects behind the community radio station.