Community Radio in Tominian and Segou, Mali.

Foroba Blon is the name of the newest project by the W4RA team from VU University Amsterdam, Web Foundation and Sahel Eco. This is a project on development of voice technologies for innovation in support of free press in developing countries.

The name chosen for this new project, which will support and benefit community radio in Mali is very special, in two words: FOROBA BLON, in Bambara, a Malian language.

FOROBA literally means “big field” or “collective field” but  the signification is “for everyone” BLON = the vestibule where the chief holds his audience. Together they signify the large room or space where everyone has the right to speak in front of the chief; the truth can be  told; but only if you do it respectfully, without insulting anyone.

If you are wondering how to say it its three short equal syllabi. Fo-ro-ba then the accent on Blon (di-di-di-daaaaa).
We think it conveys very well the idea of citizen journalism.

Many thanks to Diarra Fousseyni, from ORTM Ségou, who suggested this meaningful name for our project.

The Foroba Blon project has been selected by the International Press Institute (IPI), with two other projects, out of 376 submissions! To organize this contest, IPI received a grant from Google.

FOROBA BLON started in January 2012 and is funded by the International Press Institute.


Foroba Blon, voice-based technologies to support citizen journalism

W4RA, an international networked community set up by the Network Institute of VU University Amsterdam, the World Wide Web Foundation and Sahel Eco is about to start a new project: Foroba Blon. In Foroba Blon the W4RA team will develop innovative voice – web based services that support community radio stations in Mali by providing better ways to exchange and access news and information.

The project is funded by the International Press Institute (IPI), an European organization aimed at helping developing countries establishing and strengthening independent media organisations to support freedom of expression and freedom of access to information.

Foroba Blon will provide a voice-based information platform for people from rural communities in Mali – who currently have community radio as their only source of information. The platform will enable information exchange using voice  and will be accessible through simple, old-fashioned mobile phones.The platform will also have a web interface.

Foroba Blon may give a voice to people who were always underrepresented in the voices heard on the radio: e.g. women, disabled people, mobile pastoralists.

The Web of Speech

The World Wide Web is for us all, but do we all benefit from it?

Currently, 4.5 billion people in the world do not have access to the Web and all its advantages for publishing, sharing and searching information. Local conditions in developing countries still pose enormous challenges in terms of access and availability of relevant and usable web content. If we take a look at rural communities in West-Africa, communication is mainly voice-based – many people don’t read or write. People may have mobile phones, but these are simply used for talking. Even the SMS function is hardly used.

Great benefits are being attributed to indigenous knowledge sharing. In remote rural areas of the Sahel, subsistence farmers learn from each other how to “regreen” their fields and improve their crops and livelihood. Unsurprisingly, for these farmers the current Web of text and images, and most prominently, the Web for internet-users, is still not their most appropriate platform for knowledge sharing. Unless people are able to create their own content and publish it and share it with each other, the Web does not bring them an added value. Therefore, we must try to add voice functionality to the Web, and make it accessible using simple mobile phones. We must address the fact that there are many different languages spoken in this part of Africa. Languages that have never been written down on paper…

Fortunately, very recently, new research projects have started in support of rural communities in Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso. This will enable people here to create their own “voice Web content”. This will soon result in the creation of voice web-content, such as community radio programs and voice messages from farmers.

As we all know, spoken text is actually a very different medium than written text. The new challenge will be to make spoken information searchable and retrievable, and enable it to be filtered and presented through voice. If we really want to create a multimodal web with voice content in local African languages,if we want to invent the “Web of Speech”, we will need ways to index and retrieve speech content in user-friendly, reusable and scalable ways. Can we make use of local knowledge and develop methods for social tagging and self-tagging usable e.g. for the rural communities we are working with in the Sahel countries? Are there other ways to annotate voice content, without having to translate this content into written text…?

To be continued…..Mobile telephony in Africa "Zain"