Sim card swapping & radio phone-ins: how Girl Effect navigates Ethiopia's unique media scene

The not-for-profit Girl Effect has plans to expand its Ethiopian girl band Yegna into a truly national multi-product youth brand. But while a TV show is on the cards, its success will continue to lie in a strategy that understands the capabilities and pitfalls of Ethiopia’s curious, developing media landscape.

The not-for-profit Girl Effect has plans to expand its Ethiopian girl band Yegna into a truly national multi-product youth brand. But while a TV show is on the cards, its success will continue to lie in a strategy that understands the capabilities and pitfalls of Ethiopia’s curious, developing media landscape.

Yegna is an anomaly in that it inhabits both the worlds of branded entertainment and development. Founded in 2013, the all-female Ethiopian group performs music and acts in radio shows – a bit like The Monkees, if The Monkees had the remit of empowering girls in a country where 59% of women experience sexual violence and only 30% enter secondary school. With its five relatable characters, Yegna’s soft interventionism speaks directly to girls through media, encouraging them to think critically about subjects such as child marriage, domestic violence and the importance of education.

Its parent charity Girl Effect, which also operates similar schemes in Rwanda and Malawi, cites the band as a success: 9 million Ethiopians are aware of the brand and two thirds of girls surveyed said its work has helped them become more confident. Yet this non-traditional method of aid distribution – which, shadow development secretary Kata Osamor noted, is “not just about food parcels" – drew the attention of the Daily Mail. In January 2017 the Conservative government withdrew its funding to Girl Effect months after the paper campaigned for the cash to be spent on home soil, rather than on what it called the ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’.

“It was unexpected, and threw us into slight disarray at the time,” says Gayathri Butler, country director for Girl Effect Ethiopia, explaining that the Department for International Development's (Dfid) retreat led Girl Effect to regroup and set up as an independent business. “But our content just continued as planned … and [Dfid’s decision] actually accelerated our plans, and made us think about how we can broaden our partnerships and diversify our funding base.”

The accelerated plans pivot on expanding Yegna’s reach.

“We’ve proven ourselves in Addis and Amhara, which are the only two regions we’ve been operating in so far," explains Girl Effect’s brand director for Ethiopia, Bemnet Yemesgen. “Now we’re going national. We’ve got a really strong following and awareness, which now starts making us attractive to commercial partners who have similar audiences to us."

Clearly, these potential partners will be carefully voted against Girl Effect’s global guidelines; their worth will be judged more against their brand values than the size of their cheques. Yemesgen explains Yegna will begin to offer “several layers of engagement”, starting with advertising alongside its debut TV drama, which it hopes will enable more than 90% of the population to access the brand.

TV is a new frontier for brand Yegna – a fact that may seem anachronistic given that the medium is apparently on its last legs for both advertisers and producers in the west. Yet Ethiopia’s media scene is rudimentary and evolving down non-linear roads incongruous with the developed world’s legacy.

Sure, mobile use may be booming as Ethiopia industrialises (its economy grew 10.5% a year on average from 2006 to 2016), yet it is girls that generally have the lowest access to phones and the internet. It’s also not uncommon to find groups of Ethiopians sharing one handset and swapping out sim cards to capitalise on fluctuating internet data offers.

Grasping insights such as these is the job of Girl Effect’s media portfolio director Matt Godfrey, who in a former life was a planner at AMV BBDO. Among other things, he’s learned that when it comes to media planning in the African region, “it’s not just about what people have access to, it’s how they’re using it”.

“For instance, radio is a very powerful medium – not just because most people have access to it but because it’s something you can consume without sitting still,” he says. “So if you have a huge amount of chores to do in the home, radio can reach you in a way that print or digital or TV couldn’t.”

The communal nature of the average Ethiopian household (which is statistically rural – only 16% of the population live in urban areas) plays a part in content formation too. “It’s unlikely that a girl will be listening to a programme without her family in ear shot,” says Butler. For that reason, everything written for Yegna goes through a sign-off process comprising parents and community leaders; traditional melodies and fabric patterns are woven through the songs and music videos respectively as a further sign of elder respect.

Girl Effect has also made sure to expand Yegna’s radio shows beyond the passive nature of the medium. Directly after the main drama ends there’s a phone- and text-in chat show, whereby anyone can join in the conversation free of charge.

Additionally, Yegna’s colourful music videos are more likely to be watched at Girl Effect's rural pop-up cinemas than on YouTube or music channels, while in Nigeria, the company has developed an audio content product called Girls Connect, which Godfrey describes as “the sort of experience that you get on BBC iPlayer – but accessed through IVR [interactive voice response] numerical menus on a basic handset phone”. And in Malawi – regularly cited as one of the poorest countries in the world – Girl Effect circumvents its acute lack of internet access by tapping into the trend for sharing content on SD cards.

Does working in this media landscape – where essentially nothing can be assumed from a western experience – make Godfrey a better planner?

“The principles of planning are the same,” he says, "but the tools that you’ve got are so different. So you have to be very innovative. And because it’s so locally led, you can’t get the level of understanding that you need of your audience just from reading research. It has to be driven by the people who live there and know the culture intimately.”

Girl Effect has made a conscious effort to put local Ethiopians in Yegna’s driving seat – not just for research purposes but for creative too. The organisation works with Omnicom via the UN’s Common Ground initiative and FCB Inferno on a pro bono basis, however endeavours to team with local agencies when possible.

“The industry is very, very young,” says Butler. "That brings a lot of challenges but also opens up a lot of opportunities for us. And there are great creatives here on the ground, so we’ve been really lucky to support them and give them opportunities that they haven’t had previously. Combining our international experience and the local talent that we’ve had has been really special."

She adds: “The audience we’re focusing on doesn’t get a lot of original content produced here. A lot of content is dubbed or imported. So they eat Yegna’s content up – they can’t get enough of it.”