Communication is essential for inclusive development. In Uganda, the flow of information and exchange of ideas is dependent on an infinite range of dynamic internal and external social, economic and political factors. These include everything from culture and language to governance, infrastructure and levels of development. Over 60 percent of Ugandans have access to mobile telephones and approximately 26 percent of the population use the internet. The majority of these people live in urban areas. Although Uganda has among the highest rates of urbanization in the world, the rural population will not drop below 50% before 2050.

Uganda has a well-established media sector with over 290 licensed FM radio stations and 30 television stations, but the majority cater to urban areas. FM Radio (long described as the sharpest tool in the development box) remains a dominant form of public communication, but also faces challenges in remote areas. Broadcasts rarely extend 30km beyond line of sight depending on the power and position of the transmitter, weather and terrain.

Many Ugandans still have no access to telecommunications and media, especially in rural areas. It is no coincidence that many poor and marginalized populations live in these remote areas. Some are still recovering from protracted civil conflict, especially refugee and IDPs. Rural regions do not have sufficient population densities or spending power to support the infrastructure necessary for regular delivery of newspapers and operation of television and radios.

Nonetheless, they have surprisingly robust communication systems. One of them is oral communication or oramedia. With careful planning oramedia and existing networks can be harnessed to effectively carry information to the most poor and vulnerable beyond the last mile.

A significant body of literature focuses on traditional forms of verbal and non-verbal communication in Africa. Non-verbal communication comprise everything from metal items or drums that can be struck to produce warnings or calls for meetings and work. Music and dance performances regularly satirize, mock wrong-doing, celebrate events or mourn the dead. NGOs and community based organizations often engage local dance troupes to communicate messages on everything from public health to governance.

Other resilient community networks comprise cultural or traditional leaders, youth groups, water points such as bore holes and shallow wells, markets, bars and drinking groups, listening groups and community based institutions (CBOs). These structures and systems are easily identified and can readily be engaged to disseminate information and messages to their members and the surrounding community beyond the last mile.

Connecting with leaders of these networks and institutions provides opportunities to insert communications into their agenda. They can be briefed to help distribute materials, brochures or given relevant speaking points. At the very least, these stakeholders groups are useful to collect information on other relevant networks, provide contact details and introductions. The leadership and thought influencers in many of these stakeholder groups are often informed and influenced by digital, print, FM radio or TV. Representatives of stakeholder groups can usually be found who they will be very happy at least initially, to cooperate and speak or provide quotations for public dissemination in return for 15 minutes of fame.

Timing is essential for the sequential dissemination of complementary content through different stakeholders in the appropriate format. Campaigns of this nature require detailed planning and flexibility to respond to changing conditions. However, a ‘Big Idea’ that can catch the attention and effectively engage the target audience is still central to the strategy.

A lot can be packed into a single message with information targeting multiple audiences simultaneously as with both parents and teenagers. Messaging from UN agencies and NGOs commonly targets multiple targets simultaneously informing beneficiaries, governance structures, development partners and donors of the context, intervention and impact of an initiative.

Media and communications in Uganda are incredibly dynamic and changing rapidly. Comprehensive coverage faces challenges, but a great deal can be done to leverage available resources and stakeholders to effectively engage the most poor and vulnerable beyond the reach of popular media and telecommunications. The stakes are extremely high. A situation where the rural populace continue to be disenfranchised compromises balanced and sustainable development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the government’s Uganda Vision 2040.

About the Author: Christopher Burke

Christopher has 30 years’ experience working with media and managing communications, advocacy and advisory in Africa and East Asia. He has a deep understanding of marketing, brand positioning and strategic communication and has worked with a diverse range of companies, governments and multilateral institutions in public affairs and policy development.

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