MONYWA, Myanmar (AlertNet) - Padamyar FM, a radio station covering the Sagaing region of Myanmar’s Dry Zone, has been broadcasting local market prices of crops, from sesame and maize to peas and groundnuts, twice a day since March.
The innovative project, run by the Myanmar Business Coalition on AIDS (MBCA), a non-government group set up initially to support people living with HIV/AIDS, brings much-needed information direct into the homes of village farmers via the airwaves.
Han Nyunt, a veteran farmer with 13 acres of pigeon peas and sesame in the semi-arid village of Kyar Pin Hla (Beautiful Lotus Plant), said getting hold of market prices for his crops used to be a real chore.
“We used to only find out at about eight or nine at night when people got back from town. By then it was too late to decide whether or not to sell our produce,” he told AlertNet, sitting on a wooden bench inside the village headman’s sparse hut.
The small settlement, atop a hillock at the end of a long, bumpy earth road, is covered in a fine layer of saffron-coloured dust. There is little shade from the blazing sun and it’s at least a half-hour walk to the nearest water point.
“Now by four in the afternoon we can know the prices,” said Han Nyunt, adding that he doesn’t have to spend a cent. “We’re all really pleased with this.”
Each afternoon, MBCA staff collect market prices from three main commodity centres in central Myanmar – Monywa, Mandalay and Pakkoku – and relay them to the radio station. The 4pm announcement informs listeners of that day’s prices, while the 9am one gives the previous day’s prices.
Another way of getting this valuable information is to use a mobile phone - but these are far and few between in poor villages that don’t even have a landline. Or a farmer can travel to another village with phones and call a trader in Monywa, a bustling market town in Sagaing, an hour’s drive away from Kyar Pin Hla.
But all this costs money and sometimes the lines don’t work. Besides, farmers can never be sure whether the trader is quoting them a lower price to make more profit.
Myanmar’s Dry Zone, home to about 14.5 million people, is also one of the hungriest parts of the country. According to the World Food Programme, 41 percent of households there are food insecure – meaning that they regularly cut down on what they eat because they don’t have enough food.
Irregular and scarce rainfall, prolonged dry spells, rocky soil, and a lack of basic infrastructure – roads, electricity and phone lines – make conditions extremely tough both for farming and living.
Rice is a staple food, but many Dry Zone villages, including Kyar Pin Hla, can only grow pulses and beans because of infertile soil and water scarcity. Yields are low, and many farmers and landless labourers live hand-to-mouth, heavily in debt.
When they do get the chance to sell surplus harvests and make a little money, it has always been marred by a lack of information and the urgent need to repay loans.
Droughts in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and a collapse in some crop prices this year have wiped out many of the gains from a lifetime toiling in the fields, with villagers around Monywa telling AlertNet they expect their hardship to continue.
RADIO TO THE RESCUE
One bright spot is the new radio broadcasts funded by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT). They are a big help, farmers said, giving them timely and accurate market news.
Studies have shown that inadequate access to information was undermining incomes in rural communities, according to the LIFT, a donor fund managed by the United Nations.
A Harvard Kennedy School report released in January said Myanmar’s low penetration of cell phones, exacerbating farmers’ inability to find out market prices, “is not just a sign of poverty. It is a cause of poverty.”
But the one thing most households do own is a radio.
They are much cheaper than televisions and useful even when out in the fields - one reason why the MBCA project opted to communicate through radio broadcasts, said Tint Lwin Myo, its Monywa representative.
The aim now is to train farmers to analyse the information they hear so they can make better decisions.
It is a challenging goal, as many farmers are semi-literate, unused to strategic planning and unable or unwilling to change lifelong habits of planting a certain crop or blaming traders for their losses.
But there are signs of hope. On a recent visit to Kyar Pin Hla, Tint Lwin Myo asked villagers about the price of pigeon peas.
“Last year, we could get 27,000 kyats (about $28) a basket. Now it’s only 13,500,” lamented farmer Han Nyunt.
After further probing, he said that India – the main buyer of pigeon peas from Myanmar – may have increased its production, forcing down prices.
That’s got him mulling over a new plan for his 13 acres.
“We’re thinking of two rows of cotton for a row of pigeon peas,” he said, expressing the hope it could provide better financial security.