Milk plays a dramatic role

Originally published on December 21, 2016.


It’s 7:30am. Already hours into her day, Agnes crouches down with a baby swaddled at her back to milk the family dairy cow. She grins and nods as another woman’s voice emits from a radio hanging nearby. It’s Murebwayire, her favorite radio soap opera character on Urunana. On today’s episode, Murebwayire is pregnant and secretly saving some of the family cow’s morning milk for her own consumption. If her husband finds out, he will be upset. He doesn’t understand that milk has health benefits for her and their future child. Agnes, also a farmer, can relate.

Urunana, which aired its first episode in 1998, is a popular radio program with an estimated 70 percent listenership in Rwanda. With one national language, varied literacy rates and a strong storytelling culture, radio is the preferred form of receiving information here. With each episode taking place in the fictional Rwandese village of Nyarurembo, public health messages are weaved into the everyday drama and comical moments of a typical Rwandese household.

“Health doesn’t exist in isolation,” says Sylvia Muteteli, Program Coordinator of Urunana Development Communications Limited (UDC). “It’s built into our social behaviors, the day-to-day of how we live. By meeting people where they are, we have the ability to positively influence behavior, attitudes and misconceptions.”

In 2015, with a $110,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rwanda Dairy Competitiveness Program II (RDCP II) collaborated with Uranana to educate people about the health benefits of quality milk consumption. Implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, this activity complements RDCP II’s overall goal of strengthening the dairy value chain while supporting the Government of Rwanda’s priority of improving food and nutritional security.

As UDC does with every campaign, the research started in the village. “We send a writer to live with a host family. They eat, sleep, cook and milk cows alongside a host family. This is how we make each character relatable, and realistic. And this is where we noted opportunities for messaging around four main themes: milk  consumption and  nutritional benefits, milk hygiene, handling during transportation  to the collection center and responsibility sharing between wife and husband  about cow management and  family nutrition,” says Sylvia.

Using each of these themes across six episodes, people like Agnes not only learn how to transform seemingly small moments of their every day, but also talk about it with friends and family. “I don’t miss an episode!” exclaims Agnes. “I love talking about the latest episodes with the ladies at the market. We love to chat about the drama, but the real life transformations too. Like how drinking milk can make our children healthy.”

​RDCP II also took Urunana to its fans by organizing 8 public performances (community outreach events). In one community, nearly 80% of population (4,500 people) attended. Here, listeners received t-shirts with milk consumption messages, watched their characters live, got nutrition illustration brochures and shared how the show has impacted their lives. One man commented, “Before, I would sell all of my milk. Now I spare some for my family; health comes first.”

In the last year, it is estimated that Urunana reached nearly 8.5 million people across Rwanda. Though the milk consumption campaign ends September 2016, Sylvia believes it will have a lasting impact. “Along with efforts on behalf of the Government of Rwanda, activities like these are contributing to reduced malnutrition rates in Rwanda. We are at 38% down from 44% just three years go (Rwanda Demographic Health Survey, 2015).” According to Sylvia, we have a long way to go, and many more public health messages to share through storytelling

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