Fighting COVID-19 fake news in Nigeria

Group of people congregating

Whoever and wherever you are, it’s unlikely you were expecting 2020 unfold as it did. But imagine for a moment that you’re a Nigerian smallholder. Your living conditions are basic. Your home has no electricity, you get water from the river and the nearest hospital is several hours drive away. One minute you’re thinking about seeds, fertiliser, whether you’ll break even this season. The next, you’re staring down the barrel of a global pandemic. For cocoa farmers in Africa’s most populous nation, reactions to the crisis veer from shock to complete disbelief.


When COVID-19 hit, many public health experts feared the worst for sub-Saharan Africa. Certainly implementing testing and control measures across Nigeria’s vast 36 states posed a tall order. Last April the New York Times, drawing on International Rescue Committee and other data, estimated Nigeria had a total of 169 ventilatorsi (used to help seriously ill patients breathe). That’s one per 1.27 million people. Compare that to one ventilator for roughly every 11,500 people in the UKii and 3,300 in Germanyiii and you can see the challenge faced by Nigerian health authorities.


I’ve been working with Nigerian farmers for the past nine years. Even before the first case of COVID-19 was reported here, I realised accurate information would be a vital tool for fighting the virus in rural communities. Awareness-raising campaigns have been focused in big cities. In the countryside misinformation has spread far and fast, catalysed by social media. The rumours range from the concerning (“it’s called colonial virus”) to the potentially deadly (“it’s no worse than malaria and it only affects old people”).


I spoke to one farmer who felt confident he would be safe from the virus because of the amount of gin he drinks. Another placed his faith in herbal concoctions created from recipes passed down by his grandfather. Farmers need to know what they’re actually dealing with and how to stay safe while working. Because they cannot afford to stop working.


Olam operates in over 60 countries around the world but Nigeria holds a particular significance for the organisation. It’s here in 1989 that CEO Sunny Verghese started the business, exporting cashews. Now we import and manufacture food too, and employ more than 3,000 people. There are around 25,000 Nigerian cocoa farmers in Olam sustainability programmes. What we learn about improving yields and livelihoods here is shared with Olam teams in nine other cocoa-producing countries.


Airborne transmission


Every farming household in Nigeria has a radio. Wired up to car batteries or wound up at the beginning of each day and taken into the fields, they’re the primary source of news in remote rural communities, given the absence of electricity or internet. My goal was to share reliable health messages with the smallholders we work with directly and also a wider group of around 60,000 farmers. For maximum reach and speed, radio was the obvious choice.


Radio is a secondary medium; people listen while doing other things. So the first challenge was to get listeners’ attention. The farmer groups we support—including two that are part of AtSource, Olam’s sustainability insights platform—have very distinctive names: Better Lives, High Yield, Prosperity, Born to Win. By including these names in the announcement I knew I would have their ears.


The bulk of the announcement is a Q&A with a doctor. He’s worked with Olam before, on breast cancer screening, so he’s known to the farmers. The interview covers simple but important questions: What is coronavirus? How can you get it? How can people stay safe? Can they still farm? We recorded two versions, one in Yoruba and one in Nigerian Pidgin - the major native and common languages respectively.


Recording the interview and editing it together with backing music all happened in just a few days. Then I got approval from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control. The announcement is four minutes long and was run on six stations. The most expensive station charged around 50,000 Nigerian Naira ($130) per day to run the announcement.


I’m in touch with farmers and they tell me they’re proud of being mentioned on the radio. The announcement has changed attitudes and behaviours, dispelling doubt about the authenticity of the crisis and helping farmers to observe social distancing and stricter hygiene policies. I've also had feedback from the Cocoa Farmers Association of Nigeria and they like it too. The format has now been rolled out across our sesame, rice and animal feed businesses with announcements recorded in Hausa and Tiv (other native languages widely spoken in Nigeria) as well.



Mobile screening


Having made the radio announcement, we decided to go further, reinforcing the message and tackling persistent rumours head on with a public-service film. Most farmers don’t have smartphones so that ruled out sharing the film via YouTube or the Olam website. Instead we planned to take the film directly to farmers using a mobile LED screen This meant we could make a longer film that was as entertaining as it was informative, turning the screenings into important community events.


Neither l nor my team had made a film before so we got stuck in and learned fast. We wrote a script that addressed commonly held misconceptions. Not only with scientific facts but also with humour and local flavour that would appeal to our target audience. I really wanted to film on a cocoa farm with the farmers but lockdown and movement restrictions made that impossible. I contacted a friend, a Nollywood producer, who helped me recruit some actors, get props and identify suitable locations. She also put me in touch with Alibaba Akpobome, a well-known Nigerian comedian, who agreed to present the film. We arranged to shoot on a friend’s pepper farm on the outskirts of Lagos. I notified the police and arranged security for the actors and crew so they didn’t get arrested for flouting lockdown rules.


The opening scenes feature farmers encountering or unwittingly spreading inaccurate information, in a bar for instance. These skits address mistaken beliefs about the virus, including its severity and who it targets. There’s also a scene dealing with the issue of traditional herbalists; hawkers with no medical training who are regularly found selling supposed cures.


In the next section Alibaba talks to a doctor from the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital; establishing the facts and dispelling the rumours acted out in the previous scenes. The doctor gives a detailed explanation of the virus and does a full, two-minute hand-washing demonstration.


COVID-19 is bad enough, but the situation is worsened by the stigma attached it. People are hiding the fact they have the virus and giving false reasons for the deaths of relatives. To shine a light on this problem and encourage openness, in the final part of the film Alibaba discusses discrimination within a group of farmers (played by actors).


Now the film is finished and on the road. The customised Nissan truck, fitted with an LED screen which has been dubbed the ‘television motor’ by villagers, is driven by members of the cocoa sustainability team. It’s currently touring through about 122 communities in Ogun and Osun states. There’s a 40-minute version and a shorter one of 25 minutes. It took about 5-6 weeks to make, with funding support from our customer partner.


The response has been fantastic, creating a lot of excitement in the villages we visit. Where the van has had trouble fording rivers, local people have turned up en-masse to help. Because farmers can relate to the scenarios in the film, they’ve been very engaged. It’s generated a lot of lively debate and changed people’s attitudes. Both the gin-drinking farmer and the herb-taking one have realised they need a different approach if they want to stay safe.



This is just the beginning (unfortunately)


One of the recurring lessons from this crisis is the importance of avoiding red tape and devolving responsibility. When that happens, people can make decisions quickly and respond effectively. That has certainly been my experience with Olam here in Nigeria, not least because of our good relationships with public health bodies and state governments.


Probably the most important part of the process is liaising with the relevant state or government department to make sure health messages are accurate and approved. Getting the tone right is essential too. You don’t want to scare people, so keep it practical and upbeat. Bear in mind the audience’s literacy and education levels but be respectful and don’t dumb things down. It’s a tricky balance to get right.


Since broadcasting the films to these farmers, we know the information has been spread to other village members, in local schools, offices and even hospitals - helping to replace fear with facts so smallholders can work safely. I’ve learnt so much during this process.




iii Ventilator numbers taken from here: